The Hunger Game

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

Allow me to set the scene: An omnipotent, virtually omniscient power is in charge; long ago the inhabitants of the ruler’s land rebelled against the ruler’s authority and asserted their own will, only to be punished, condemned to a lifetime of hard labor.  What’s more, the omnipotent ruler now demands payment in return for the original offence: a ransom to satisfy the ruler’s own sense of justice, and which requires the spilling of blood.  These details are the basic exposition of the fantastically popular young-readers’ novel, The Hunger Games.  And if you’ve read the book or seen the movie you know what ensues.  The ransom is to be paid in the form of tributes: a boy and a girl from every district in the land, chosen by lottery to travel to the Capital for a sort of gladiatorial contest to the death in which only one of the 24 young combatants will be left standing.  It is a perverse and cruel arrangement designed to keep the people of the districts in their place by dint of fear, and by the constant reinforcement of the idea that the rulers hold the lives of the people in their hands, and those lives can be taken from them at almost any time.

The ‘Hunger Games’ refers to the actual contest in which the 24 young boys and girls are pitted against each other to fight to the death.  The lone survivor will be rewarded with enough wealth to banish the hunger that would normally be his or her lot in life, living in poverty in a district outside the Capital, working to produce whatever the privileged members of the ruling class require for their comfort.

One of the most perverse aspects of the Hunger Games is the way the contestants – the tributes, who have been torn from the bosom of their families and the safety of their communities to face a nearly certain death – they way they are encouraged to become willing participants in their own demise; coached to play along on the off-chance it might help them win; tutored to embrace their momentary celebrity; molded into at least apparently eager players of a game designed to kill them.

What you may not realize is that the expository outline of The Hunger Games also follows the basic contours of one of the classic and most enduring articulations of Christian theology:  An omnipotent and omniscient God holds all creation in his hand.  Long ago, the first inhabitants of creation rebelled against God’s authority and asserted their own wills, only to be punished, exiled from Paradise, and condemned to a lifetime of hard labor.  What’s more, God decides that he requires payment in return for the original offence, the original sin: a ransom to satisfy his own sense of justice, which will require the spilling of blood.

This is the short-handed version of a much longer answer often provided to the ancient question: Why did God become Man?  It’s a question that was led by a star to Bethlehem, settled for a while in a stable there, grew up in Nazareth, taught throughout the Galilee, and eventually ended up in Jerusalem, or more precisely on a green hill, outside the city wall, where a man hung on a cross between two thieves… which is where the story has brought us today.  What are we to make of this story with all its strange twists and turns, like the frenzy of palm-waving procession that only days later is transposed into shouts demanding that the man all those palms were waved for should now be crucified?

We sometimes look at the Cross and assume its message is self-evident.  But is the message of the cross any more self-evident that the wisdom of the Hunger Games, the demand for tribute in order to right ancient wrongs, and to do so with the spilling of blood?

That story opens when a young 12-year old girl is chosen to be a tribute from her district: to be sent the to the Hunger Games where she will surely die.  But her older sister, in a Christ-like act of self-sacrifice volunteers to go instead, not because she believes she can win, but because she will do anything to save her little sister.  Her act of selflessness is Christ-like not only because of the generosity of self-offering, but because it will almost surely cost the girl her life.  She is choosing death out of love so that another may live.  But seeing this parallel doesn’t make the story of the Hunger Games less perverse, and it may suggest to us that the story of the Crucifixion is more so.

As fate would have it, the girl’s counterpart – the boy who is chosen as tribute from the same district – is as guileless as she is.  He, too, believes he is doomed, sure that he will be slaughtered by those more cunning and powerful than he is.  He says that his only hope is to “die as myself….  I don’t want them to change me in there.  Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”  But he knows that the Hunger Games are designed to do just that.

It transpires that the boy and the girl  - only one of whom is allowed to live and win the Hunger Games – fall in love with each other, more or less.  As the Games begin and then unfold, not only are they unable to murder each other, they find ways to help each other survive.  This turn of events is not much appreciated by the organizers of the games, the People in Charge.  And in the film, a telling bit of dialogue is added between the President of the Capital, and the chief organizer of the Games.

“Why do you think we have a winner?” the president asks, and then provides his own answer.  “Hope.  It is the only thing stronger than fear.  A little hope is effective.  A lot of hope is dangerous.  A spark is fine, as long as it is contained.  So, contain it.”

In the Christian version of this story, we, too, have become willing participants of our own demise, who must grovel before a devious God and play his games if we hope to be rewarded, if we hope to even survive.  And many’s the person who has seen the Christian story this way.  In this telling of it, we humans have been messing around in God’s games and spoiled the fun for him, and so he introduces a new character: his Son, as a sort of trump card in the game of life to ensure that his will prevails, that God wins in the end.

This version of salvation reminds me of the ironic slogan of the Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor,” which is ironic because the odds never could be in your favor, and in fact the game is rigged so that the rulers can always get what they want: the sacrifice of the tributes.  So, too, in the perverse telling of the story of salvation in which God demands a tribute for the ancient memory of original sin.  The game is rigged.  Jesus can only ever go to the Cross, and you and I can only ever be guilty for it, more or less the same way we bear the stain of guilt for Adam’s sin.  This is a desolate arena in which to live our lives, and a picture of a God I don’t much want to worship.

It would be better if we could imagine ourselves as 12 year old children this morning.  And it might be helpful if we could acknowledge that the games we play – much to our own detriment – are games of our own making.

It’s us who allow our neighbors to starve, or to sleep in the cold, not God, who has given us everything we need to clothe and feed and shelter the world. 

It’s us who have so perfected the art of war that we simply can’t resist doing a better job of it, looking for places to practice it, and people to practice it on.

It’s us who remember we once heard the phrase “an eye for an eye,” but forget that we heard it when the Teacher was telling us what a stupid way to live that is, so we cling to vengeance all the same.

It’s us who pretend that the poor are poor because of their own fault, and that we are rich because of our virtues, even though we know this is not true.

It’s us who would rather go to brunch on Sunday than to spend an hour in the worship of the Almighty.

It’s us who have exchanged a golden calf for the cash that it would cost to buy one, and who kneel before the altar of our money day in and day out, obsessing about it, dreaming about it, hoarding it if we can, like nothing else.

These are our games, not God’s.  We made up these rules, and we have perfected the ways we live by them – and we have been doing it for thousands of years.  God hasn’t placed us in a cruel arena to fight to the death – we have chosen to live this way.  Even when Paradise was no longer an option, God sent us out into this amazing, beautiful, and sacred globe, where everything we need can be found, and then some, even if we do have to work for it.

We have devised the games that upset our lives.  Cain raised his arm against Abel without any prompting whatsoever from God, and the games began.  If the odds were not in our favor, it’s because we devised games with very bad odds – people still play roulette every day in Las Vegas, after all.  And so as we live our lives, it remains to be seen what these games we play will do to us.  Will we be changed into some kind of monsters that we were not made to be?  Or will we be the people God made us to be?  Will we play along in the Hunger Games, or will we search for a different way?

When we are tempted to see God as the perverse and awful power that demands the sacrifice of blood in exchange for our sins, then we are projecting an ugly image of ourselves onto God.  And the truth is that he sent his Son into the world to show us a different way.  Even at his most triumphal, at the height of his popularity – on Palm Sunday – Jesus could do no better than to ride into town on the back of a donkey, to be greeted by a meager crowd that had only palm branches to wave, and their own clothes to spread on the path before his way.  This is not the entrance of a majestic lord of the universe; it is the humble beginning of a sad procession to the Cross.  Jesus bears no sword and wields no power.  His crown is not yet woven, but when it is, its thorns will be the first instruments to draw blood from him.  The entry into Jerusalem had been a sign of hope – a spark.  But that spark has been contained.  Victory seems unlikely for him now.

How many ways has your hope been contained in this life?  How many times have the odds been stacked against you?  How often does it seem that you have been sent to an arena to fight for the death – but for what?  For what reason or purpose or cause?  Just because the Powers That Be require it of you?

The powers of this world prefer fear to hope.  Hope is only useful insofar as it can be contained.  Life is like the Mega-Millions jackpot: you have to be in it to win it.  But the odds are profoundly not in your favor, you are virtually certain to lose.  But were you a willing participant anyway?

Into these Hunger Games of life – which you and I cannot ever win, we are sure to die – steps One who can only ever die as himself, who cannot be turned into some kind of monster that he is not, because he is love incarnate.  He is our brother, our sister, our friend.  He heard your name called, and mine, at the hour that a ransom of death was being called for, and he stepped in to volunteer: to take our place in the Games that death would like to play with us: games whose rules he knows better than we do, even though we made them up as we went along.

For reasons too mysterious for me to understand, the Hunger Games have not ended, even though he has come into the world and offered himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.  Perhaps the Games have not ended because he still has a lesson to teach us while we live: he still calls us to learn to love one another, to see how futile is the fight to the death, and how holy is the life of love.

Why do you think we tell this story of a man who dies on a Cross, bearing pain the way we do, every bit as human as you and me, but who we know to be the Son of God?  Why do we tell it year after year, and remember the details, and sing about it the way we do?  Why do you think we have carved the image of this scene in every conceivable way: hoisting it high above our heads like some gruesome symbol of some awful, bloody games?

Hope.  Hope is the reason.  Because hope is the only thing stronger than fear.

A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.

And this hope, that hangs from a Cross, that proclaims with every drop of blood that spills from it, “I love you;” this hope is dangerous because it casts out fear and makes room for love.

And do you know that though many have tried to suppress it, this hope cannot be contained; it cannot be stopped, it cannot be killed, it cannot be turned into some kind of monster that it is not.

This hope volunteers to save your life and mine.  This hope promises that the Games we seem to play, in which the odds are stacked against us, will not end the way it seems they must.

This hope knows our hunger, and fills us with love.

Posted on April 1, 2012 .