Monday, September 22, 2014

The Hunger Games and Us

            Imagine a Canada where 90% of the population went to bed, hungry, every night. Imagine a Canada where the central government made everyone work a 12-hour day, paid them less than minimum wage, and never let them take a walk in the woods, either.

            Let’s also imagine that the other ten-percent of the population in this imaginary Canada, the rich, all live in the capital. And that the food and clothing, cars and radios that the 90% poor grow or manufacture all goes to the rich people in the capital. Nothing is left over for the poor.

            Now imagine one more thing. Suppose that every year, the rich people in the capital chose two teenagers from each of the provinces to fight in an arena. It’s like a Survivor television series type of fight, where only one of the teens can win—as in the Roman Coliseum game, with their gladiators. People in the capital love watching this game. In the lead up to the actual Survival Game—they call it the Hunger Games--contestants are paraded on stage and wear designer clothing to do meet and greets, and are all interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q. Once the contest starts, alliances between the contestants come and go. They try to outsmart each other, take all the food, and win special immunities while everyone in the capital bets on which Hunger Game participant will win. And along the way, a lot of blood and gore is spilled as contestants fight it out—to the death. It’s all very entertaining.

            This is the storyline of a series of novels that have taken the young adult market by storm. The first two movies—staring Jennifer Lawrence—of the Hunger Games franchise have grossed more than 1.5 billion dollars, worldwide, over the past two years. When the third movie, Mockingjay Part 1, debuts in a few weeks, it is expected that the movie will gross over 200 million dollars during its first week.

            The Hunger Games—as you can tell from the trailer—is incredibly violent—not as a celebration of violence, but—and here is where it gets interesting, for me—as a prophetic critique of violence. The Hunger Games movies are, in part, a commentary on our culture’s bloodlust, on how we as a society have learned to embrace, and even enjoy, violence.

            We do, right?

            The highest ratings on TV are for shows like Ultimate Fighting or WWE Smackdown, where blood and gore, real or simulated, are a regular part of the draw. Best selling video games, like Grand Theft Auto or God of War, regularly feature rape, murder, mayhem, and death—all to hateful dialog. I won’t mention hockey or football. As a society we tend to look the other way when the poorest, least educated, youngest people among us are forced to grow up, fight, and often die in a subculture of drugs, gangs, and violent prisons—although the beheadings of Western reporters by ISIS are very popular on the web. South of the border, people somehow have it in their heads that it is a God-given right to carry hidden handguns into schools and shopping malls.

            Much too soon after we sacrificed our young men and women to take trips down the Highway of Heroes, we have boots on the ground, again, in Iraq. While we all deplore ISIS, the West’s track record in the Middle East strongly suggests that our military solutions have simply not been a solution to these sorts of horrific internecine fights going on there. In fact, truth be told, we did more than our fair share in inciting those conflicts. After World War I, we drew the boundaries that would never work. We colonized those countries, rather than let them develop on their own trajectories—taking what we wanted while doing little or nothing develop democratic institutions. We meddled in their politics to give them rulers that they didn’t want—or, when they got the ruler they wanted, we sponsored coups. As much as Israel needed a homeland, we were completely tone-deaf to how our support of anything that Israel did also created millions of refugees and unending war. And so on. Our latest invasion of Iraq, on grounds that turned out to be completely wrong, has dropped that country into endless civil war and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Our military solutions and power politics over the past hundred years have left much of the Middle East a wasteland.

            Not what you would expect from “Christian” nations reaching out to other nations. Even a casual reading of the Old Testament shows that God does not condone violence, whether individual or national. The sixth command states baldly, and rather boldly, “Thou shalt not kill.”

            The Old Testament also warns the Israelites against depending on weapons of war if they hope to be a nation of shalom. In Psalm 20, for example, we read: "Some trust in chariots and some in horses but we trust in the name of the Lord our God." Isaiah wrote, "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, and who trust in chariots but do not look to the Holy one of Israel, or seek help from the Lord." These words are especially ironic this week, given that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, just visited Egypt and when he was done, he happily announced that Egypt would join in the battle against ISIS. Salvation for the latest coalition!

            I understand, of course, that these texts were written for an Israel that was supposed to be a theocracy. I understand that the geopolitical “move,” that God wanted Israel, as his “covenant” nation to make don’t translate well into our secular era. I understand that along with this theme there are others in the Old Testament that seem to glorify war. Still, at the heart of the Old Testament there is a vision of shalom, and a call to wise governance to achieve it, that is far too easily overlooked.

            Moving on to the New Testament. Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." He adds, "Do not resist an evil person.” And, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." And rather than call down several squadrons of angels in F-35 Raptors to save him from at his arrest, in Matthew 26 Jesus actually follows his own advice. He turns the other cheek. He allows Judas and the leaders of the people and the Romans to seize him. He allows himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. To change the cosmos. And he asks us to do likewise.

            I find it surprising that so many of Christians pound the table and insist on taking the Bible literally about matters it hardly discusses, like homosexuality or whether you can use hymns in worship or free enterprise or even democracy; but that when it comes to a theme that is front and center from beginning to end for the whole Bible, that is, God’s desire that his people should wage peace and nonviolence, we say things like, “well, that’s The Sermon on the Mount. All exaggeration. An ideal to dream about. Can’t take that literally.”

            But the early church took the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ warning about not living by the sword unless you want to die by the sword, very literally. Every Roman soldier who converted to Christianity was required to get out of the army as soon as possible. All Christians who joined the army were excommunicated. Origen, a church father, put it this way: "We will not take up the sword against people and we will not learn warfare again, since we have become sons of peace through Jesus, who is our commander."

            Eventually, three hundred years after Jesus’ death, the Church changed its mind about violence. Constantine saw Christians as an untapped resource for winning the empire the old fashioned way—at the end of a sword. Christian leaders from Augustine to Calvin taught that Christians could fight in wars. They called it the Just War Theory. That is (far too briefly) war may be okay where a nation’s home territory is attacked and the war can be fought so that civilians and innocents will not suffer catastrophic deaths. We mostly thought that Just War Theory was okay, until it came to Dresden or Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

            Still, even my own sense of justice and outrage at what the Nazis did makes it impossible for me to argue with the fact that Hitler had to be stopped. My grandparents harbored fugitives from the Nazis, and participated in the violent underground. These are told as heroic tales, not as deviations from one of the Bible’s core themes. But even so, the Bible’s overarching message about how Christians must avoid violence makes me nervous when it comes to most arguments that this or that war can be just—especially since it has become a knee-jerk reaction for us in the West to suppose that any war our nation fights in, so long as we can somehow figure out how to call the enemy “terrorists,” must be just. It is usually only ten years after—after Vietnam or Iraq—that we finally admit we were wrong.

            So now, preparing for war has become a way of life for us. As of about two years ago, Canada has officially decided to shape its armed forces for NATO-led combat rather than primarily for peacekeeping. And the American citizen in me is ashamed to admit that the US has fought something like 100 wars in the past 150 years, many of them to protect the interests of its banana companies, Wall Street investors and petty dictator-friends. When I lived in The Philippines, people knew that they had fought a bloody war for independence from the USA for fifty years, after the USA took the Philippines from Spain and promised, but did not deliver, on independence. You don’t learn that in American schools.

            We just don’t see the world politics through Biblical spectacles. Instead, we tend to put on our nationalist, we’re-always-right spectacles on instead. And in the meantime we have been made dead to the costs of violence through our entertainments and government speechifying. We especially love pretend violence. But that pretend violence may just be an emotional fifth column that also erodes our moral revulsion for real violence. We watch “shock and awe,” or read about drone attacks that kill scores of civilians as if from a Roman Coliseum portico, scorecards in hand. If the Hunger Games franchise of films teaches us anything, it is that a little media and a little government support go a long way to making even the most unthinkable horrors okay, just fun and games and patriotism.

            What do we make of this? I am actually not as certain as I have sounded so far. ISIS is revolting. But Jesus’ warning that those who live by the sword will die by the sword unnerves me. I feel very uncomfortable explaining the West’s reliance on armed conflict away. I can’t ultimately do it, in fact. This prophetic word from Jesus does not bode well for the United States or its Canadian allies, given our habitual fighting of wars in far away places that we cannot win, wars that seem to do more to radicalize another generation against the West than they do to bring on the peace. Jesus’ warning that those who live by the sword will die by the sword is a perfect word for those of us in the West who are numbed against taking violence on the computer console seriously. When will the other shoe drop? Will we too, finally, die by the sword? Will it be a thousand small cuts in the alley ways and homes and reservations and prisons and police actions that finally get us, or some one else’s shock and awe?

            The Apostle Paul said that Christians were chosen to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Did Paul mean only that we’d be able to make up when we disagreed with near neighbors? Or did he have a more cosmic vision? Is the Sermon on the Mount a radical call to really choose another path, as the early Christians certainly thought it was, or is it hyperbole?

            I am just as stuck with the rhetoric of winning the world for democracy and as the next person. When I visited the 9/11 memorial a few weeks ago, I was deeply saddened—here, then, were North Americans who died by the sword because (I know this is only part of the story—but an important part) we had used the sword overseas in a never-ending circle of violence. Sill, I think that ultimately, as Christians and as civilizations formed in part by the Judeo-Christian tradition, we ought to be betting our marbles on the counter-intuitive wisdom of Jesus. Those—including whole nations—who live by the sword, certainly will die by the sword. Does it follow, instead, that if we live by the hand outstretched to help, we will be helping ourselves?

            There is a poem by Harry Kemp that I first read in a sermon by Harry Fosdick, the famous Liberal preacher, that gets it right and goes like this:

I saw the conquerors riding by,
With cruel lips and faces wan,
Musing on kingdoms sacked and burned,
 There rode the Mongol, Genghis Khan.
And Alexander, like a god,
Who sought to weld the world in one;

And Caesar with his laurel wreath,
And like a thing from Hell, the Hun.
And leading like a star, the van,
Heedless of outstretched arm and groan,
Inscrutable Napoleon went,
Dreaming of Empire, and alone.

Then all they perished from the scene,
As fleeting shadows on a glass,
And conquering down the centuries came
Christ, the sword less, on an ass.

        So what do you think? Do we believe that? Trust that? And shall we try to figure out what that means, personally and for our nations, now, before we find ourselves looking back on another hundred years of war?

        Or, is something more like the Hunger Games our future?

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