Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sermon: "The Hunger Games: Scarcity & Abundance" (Delivered 2-24-13)

All through the month of February, as a lead up to the Academy Awards, I’ve been giving sermons inspired by notable movies of 2012.  Three weeks ago I preached on the best-picture nominee Life of Pi and last week I talked about a pair of controversial best-picture nominated films Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained.  This morning I’m going to conclude this series by talking about a film that actually wasn’t nominated for any Oscars but was one of the most commercially successful films of the past year, raking in more than $400 million at the box office.

I suppose you could ask me why I’ve chosen to talk about The Hunger Games and not one of the other six best picture nominees.  Why not Lincoln?  Why not Beasts of the Southern Wild?  Why not preach on Amour, as former UUA President John Buehrens challenged me on Facebook to do?  The answer, to be perfectly honest, is that with a new baby I don’t exactly have a lot of time to go to the movies, and I’ve only seen the films that I have through Anne’s extraordinary grace and generosity.  And, the excuse of saying, “But, Anne, this is a work obligation,” doesn’t exactly cut it.

Despite not getting any recognition from the Academy, The Hunger Games movie and the young adult novel it is based on are still worthy of attention.  The Hunger Games is the most popular book for younger readers since the Harry Potter series.  There was even an article in the UU World magazine about The Hunger Games.  (Let me dispel any rumors.  Despite the success of the Harry Potter-based Hogwarts summer religious education program that ran successfully over at All Souls for a couple years, we have no plans to offer a Hunger Games-themed summer camp to your children.)

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in which North America is ruled by a cruel dictator named President Snow.  Under totalitarian rule, the nation is divided into twelve districts with each district slaving in poverty to produce goods for the excessive appetites of the Capital, whose residents exhibit the worst stereotypes of superficial celebrity culture.  There had once been a populist uprising against the Capital, but it was squashed and resulted in the creation of an annual tradition known as the Hunger Games, designed to punish the districts and remind them of the price of rebellion.  Each year a lottery is held and one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each district are selected to participate in the games, a cross between the obnoxiousness of reality television and the sadism of the Roman Coliseum.  I don’t watch reality TV, but I imagine The Hunger Games could be described as a combination of Survivor and Extreme Makeover, only the contestants compete to the death.  The winner of the hunger games wins a lifetime of individual, personal comfort and a year’s worth of slightly-better-than-starvation rations for his or her district.

At the beginning of The Hunger Games we meet Katniss Everdeen, a 15 year-old girl who lives with her mother and younger sister, Primrose, in District Twelve.  District Twelve’s industry is coal mining; we learn that Katniss’ father was killed in a mining accident.  Early in the movie we see that Katniss has snuck out of her sooty town in order to hunt and gather provisions for her malnourished family in a pristine wooded forest.  Such trespassing is a crime punishable by death.  One of the earliest images in the film is of scarcity in the midst of abundance.  The narrative of the film is set into motion when a lottery is held to select the tributes from each district.  Katniss’ vulnerable young sister is selected and Katniss volunteers to go in her place.  The boy selected from District Twelve is Peeta Mellark, a doughy boy who is also the son of a baker.

We find out that Peeta and Katniss have a shared past.  A few years earlier Katniss had been wandering the streets of town at night desperately searching for food for her famished family.  Seeing her, Peeta had taken pity on her and slipped his classmate an armful of bread from the bakery.  For this act of charity, Peeta had been reprimanded by his mother.  Times were tough and they had to take care of themselves first, his mother had reasoned.

The success of The Hunger Games trilogy of books as well as the movie is probably due to several factors.  The story contains the thrills of heart-pounding action.  Katniss is a compelling heroine.  At a somewhat deeper level, the story is powerfully resonant with the social pressures and identity questions of middle school and high school youth.  A member of our church’s Worship Team is also a librarian specializing in young adult literature.  She sent me an article about dystopian young adult novels in which it is argued that The Hunger Games “are a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience… The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails…  Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re… getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.”  That The Hunger Games should be so popular with adult readers may be due to the fact that for much of our adult lives we’re surrounded by people who act like they’re still in high school.   Or it is we ourselves who act like we’re still in high school.

There is a point that I want to make about The Hunger Games book and film that I think works equally well regardless of whether we take the story at face value or treat it as an allegory for young adult experience.  I want to make a point about the worldview of the dystopian future where the story is set.  It is a worldview that makes possible the very existence of the games.  It is a worldview of scarcity.  One child out of twenty four to enter the arena shall survive.  One district out of twelve will receive extra food rations.  Scarcity is the fundamental element of this worldview.  Of course the people in this dystopian future live under totalitarian rule.  Of course none of them chose this life.  But it is also true that no one really wins by playing this game.  The game is rigged.  The districts continue to sacrifice their children.  They continue to barely survive under a brutal regime.

The Hunger Games movie presents a foreshadowing of the rebellion that takes place later in the trilogy.  This uprising is sparked at the precise moment that Katniss shows compassion and concern for one of her competitors, a young girl named Rue.  Under the logic of the hunger games, under the logic of scarcity, Rue’s death means that Katniss is one step closer to winning the prize of being the one who gets to stay alive.  However, Katniss reaches beyond this scarcity worldview and honors Rue’s human worth and dignity.  This act of abundance transcends the winner-take-all nature of the hunger games and inspires the residents of Rue’s district to a larger imagination of the possibility of freedom.

This sense of scarcity exists not only between districts, but also within them.  Witness Peeta’s mother chastising him for sharing bread with Katniss.  The world in which they live is very small indeed.  Don’t give away bread to a starving child because if you do it is coming out of your mouth.  It is no surprise that it turns out that Peeta has the largest heart of any character in the book.  This incident of Peeta sharing bread with Katniss actually reminds me of one of the stories from the Gospels.

All four of the canonical Gospels contain the story of the multiplication of the fishes and the loaves.  The story goes that Jesus is preaching to a large crowd, a crowd that may have traveled quite a distance, may have had to wait longer than they had thought.  Anyways, the day wears on and the crowd begins to grumble that they are hungry.  Jesus calls for food to be brought forward and his disciples bring forth a couple of loafs of bread and a single fish.  A miracle happens.  Five thousand are fed.  There is a liberal religious interpretation of this miracle.  The interpretation goes that as the day wears on, people begin to worry about whether there will be enough to eat so they start to conceal whatever food they may have carried along with them, worried that others will see what they have and ask them to share.  Jesus’ miracle, according to this interpretation, is getting people to share freely, to partake of the abundance that exists rather than closing themselves off from one another because of a sense of scarcity.

We’re told that good dystopian literature exaggerates realities we see within our own society.  So, let’s take the mythical hunger games and compare it to a contest that is a part of our culture, the TV show Survivor.  Now, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Survivor.  But, I gather that it involves a group of people forced to live somewhere challenging and having to compete to be the last one on the island, or wherever it is they are, for which they win a lucrative cash prize.  “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” is the motto of the TV program, and from what I gather the competitiveness is fierce and the competitors can be downright mean to each other.  There is deception.  There is back-stabbing.  Alliances are temporary and self-serving.  The contestants on Survivor are competing within a scarcity scenario; there can be only one million dollar winner.  (Following the service, a person in the audience approached me and told me that her good friend had been a finalist to participate on Survivor and had been flown to Los Angeles for a final round of interviews to try to make it on the program.  Her experience had been one of suspicion.  She constantly wondered who might be already plotting against her and tried to figure out who around her would be a useful ally.)

I would just point out how different this is from an actual situation in which a dozen people found themselves having to survive in the wild.  In such a case, I would imagine, their actual survival would depend on them being able to get along, work together towards a common cause, share, cooperate, and generally work as a team.  The irony here is that the skills and attitudes that you need to win the reality TV show – selfishness, self-centeredness, and deception – are the exact opposite of the strengths and attitudes that would lead a group to survive and thrive in an actual survivor scenario.

There is an abundance approach to life and a scarcity approach to life.  There is also an abundance approach to faith and a scarcity approach to faith.  Scarcity religion tells us that heaven is only available to those who hold the correct theological beliefs or practice their faith in the correctly prescribed ways.  There are even some fundamentalist Christians who read an obscure passage in the Book of Revelation as saying that heaven has a maximum capacity of one hundred and forty four thousand.  So, heaven’s maximum occupancy is about twice as large as Arrowhead Stadium.  That’s scarcity faith.

A contrasting description of abundance faith is found in Forest Church’s book, God and Other Famous Liberals, in which he writes,

“Every word I can conjure for God is a synonym for liberal.  God is munificent and openhanded.  The creation is exuberant, lavish, even prodigal.  As the ground of our being, God is ample and plenteous.  As healer and comforter, God is charitable and benevolent.  As our redeemer, God is generous and forgiving.  And, as I said, God has a bleeding heart that simply never stops.  Liberal images such as these spring from every page of creation’s text.”

We’ve traveled far afield of the world of The Hunger Games.  However, I would say that one of lessons that we can take away from this film is that a world shaped by an idea of scarcity is dysfunctional.  In such a world, people are suspicious of one another, always seeking our own advantage.  It is a world where otherness is a threat to our survival.  It is a world where many are harmed by the failure to find common cause.  It is a world where our humanity is diminished.

Contrast this world with the idea of a world shaped by an idea of abundance, where the betterment of others results in our own betterment.  In this world, our ability to see past our own smallness and find common cause with others is what saves us.  This abundance is what sustains our humanity.

Liberal religion – whether it proclaims the idea of a heaven without a maximum capacity, or a God whose nature is munificent and lavish, or a sense of expansive sisterhood and brotherhood here on earth – always sides with the side of abundance.  We need to do this if we are to survive.