The Hunger Games, Holy Week, and Re-imaging Ritual by Xochitl Alvizo

Being passive spectators of violence and injustice, even if mournfully so, is not just a thing of Panem, it is our everyday reality.

In The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins takes the reality of an unjust society and gives it an imaginative makeover. In Panem, most people are kept at such extreme levels of hunger that even when they do eat they cannot fill the hollowness that has settled in their stomachs, while others are deciding on the next cosmetic alteration they will undertake – whiskers, jewel implants, or green-tone skin color? The disparate conditions between the rich and the poor, the few and the many are absurdly and starkly portrayed but done so in a way that we can still recognize our world in theirs. And at the center of this world is the state imposed ritual of punishment and control, the yearly Hunger Games – a nationally televised competition that all the people of Panem are required to watch. The 12 districts watch mournfully as two kids from each of their districts compete to the death, and the wealthy watch gleefully, for the games are the height of their excesses and entertainment. The yearly Games conclude when one kid, the lone ‘victor’, is left standing. All while the nation watches.

In her article for CNN, Danielle Tumminio posits that the Hunger Games asks us not to watch – it asks us to not be entertained by violence, to not be spectators of death, to not be passive bystanders. That instead the movie is a call to protest violence and injustice, actually inviting us to walk out. However, Tumminio reflects, “As I watched Katniss Everdeen fight to the death, I became aware that I could just as well have been a citizen of Panem, watching the Hunger Games on a giant screen, rooting for favorites, desensitized from the…incredibly disturbing violence.” She admits, “I did not heed [the] call to protest the Games’ viciousness. I did not walk out.”  Her reflection made me wonder –> would it really have made any difference if she had walked out of the theatre? Would this action actually have a shaping effect to who she is in this world?

On Thursday, thousands of churches across the U.S., and around the world, will begin commemorating the last few days of Jesus’ life. They will celebrate Maundy Thursday with a shared meal and maybe a foot washing ritual. They will hold vigil as they remember Jesus praying alone in the garden asking that the bitter cup of his imminent death be removed from him. Christians will then strip the altar of any decorations as they mark Jesus’ betrayal and his arrest; silently, and often in the light of only one candle, they will solemnly leave the church. On Friday many will return to hear the violent and torturous story of Jesus’ execution and last hours, culminating in his anguished words, “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me.” Some communities will reenact the story. And here is where I want to return to Danielle Tumminio’s reflection and one of her musings about this holy week ritual; she asks, What would Good Friday be like if once, just once, Christians stopped their church services in protest or stopped a re-enactment of Jesus’ death and took him down from the cross just in time?

When I first read that sentence, I almost cheered out loud – Yes! That’s what we should be doing!

And so I ask you again, Would this action actually make a shaping difference to the kind of people Christians might be in this world? What difference does it effectively make to have the yearly ritual be one in which Christians were interrupting the violence instead of simply remembering it and watching it all over again? What if Christian communities refuse to participate in remembering the event as it occurred and instead practice a ritual that actually acknowledges and physically moves them toward the potential of new life – of a new divine way of life? The ritual re-imagined, a ritual in which Christians stopped their church services in protest and took [Jesus] down from the cross just in time may more accurately reflect and enact the call to end this kind of violence, injustice, and torture and not allow it to happen to anyone else again. The ritual re-imagined, instead of being the practice of passively watching endless circles of death, can be the catalyst that empowers and shapes us into people who protest injustice, interrupt violence, and actively participate in life – our own and one another’s.

I do think rituals have a shaping effect on us, even the seemingly small ones like walking out of a movie theatre. All our actions, but especially repeated ones, can either shape us toward life or toward death (or survival too actually). My wish for us all is that we  may always and in every moment choose that which may bring forth life, especially on our holy days – which really is every day.

Thank you Danielle for inspiring my reflection.

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and theologian currently completing her PhD at Boston University School of Theology in practical theology with a focus on ecclesiology. Finding herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, she works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably interconnected and the good one can do in any one area inevitably and positively impacts all others. 

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Categories: Christianity, Feminist Theology, General, Identity Construction, Jesus

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27 replies

  1. Brava! I have never understood why Christians worship torture. Yes, take the teacher down from the cross. Yes, don’t participate in torture. Yes, walk out of the movie, literally and metaphorically. His greatest teaching was the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s follow that lesson in our lives and remember that peacemakers are blessed.

  2. Wow! I loved this! Wondering what I should do at church on Friday, now…

  3. I think I couldn’t disagree more with the central image of stopping a Good Friday service.

    I thought the point was that Jesus accepted death in order to break the power of violence? If we “take him down from the cross just in time,” aren’t we saying that we’re better than those who tortured him; that we wouldn’t do so ourselves? According to one story about Jesus, his friend Peter said to him, “Lord, you will never die!” To which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Adversary! You don’t have God’s thoughts at heart.” God is the one, by the resurrection of Jesus, who gifts us with the possibility of a new way of life, God’s final “no!” to evil. If we “intervene” in Good Friday, we jump from Palm Sunday with our messianic projections to Easter (and have them allegedly confirmed). Only by remembering that we *are* people of violence will we ever cry out for the wholeness that Easter offers.

    I offer this reflection as a disabled, gay, feminist-identified man studying for ordained ministry in Canada.

    • Hi Robert, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Yes, I do think you bring up a common interpretation of Jesus’ death – and the liberative factor being that Jesus’ way of facing his death discloses violence and injustice for the evil that it is. He refuses to participate in more of the same and in that breaks the power of violence – confirmed of course by his resurrection. So I hear you. My challenge is more about the actual shaping effect the communal reenactment of the ritual has on people and a community’s collective consciousness. If indeed the power of violence is broken, if new life is now made possible, then how may Christian rituals actually enact that new reality? We know the world is full of violence and crucifixions, and humans participate and actualize these, so why not practice rituals that embody the new way of life made possible? Or as a friend summarized on facebook; Do we sacralize violence by valorizing (ritualizing) Jesus’s unjust death?

      • I don’t think we do, in most cases. I think I’m about to say something that could be easily misunderstood, but I’ll risk it anyway: Evil is never able to be quite as perverse as it intends. I think most Christians in my current circles would like to perceive themselves as morally good political liberals who would rather celebrate life than “go through this barbaric ritual again” (referring to the Eucharist). We have feasts of the Resurrection every week (or at least, we’re supposed to). In the Resurrection, God has shifted the axis of reality, so that the ugliness of the cross has become the tree of life or any number of other images throughout our tradition. (Whether or not we teach/impart this consciousness, or facilitate liberative imagination in institutional Christianity is anyone’s guess!)

        For me, it’s a little like how I re-framed God the Father as a gay man who suffered a terrible relationship with my step-father. Once it sunk into my heart that perhaps the first instance of God as Father in Scripture is, “Israel is my son; therefore, let my people go!” WOW did that start to warp my heart in a good direction! In like manner, I really doubt that we should stop remembering Good Friday, but we should be teaching imaginative ways of the event that foster freedom and gratitude rather than allow us to think, for example (from another lay person) that God is a cosmic child abuser or has some sort of bloodlust.

  4. I liked this post because it certainly asks some hard questions. I’m not so certain however that our rituals during Holy Week should be interrupted. I suppose the time for interruption was during the actual arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus 2 millennia past. As Christians we don’t recrucify Jesus every year when we remember and make present the original event.

    We also believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus has brought about the already but not yet complete end days of salvation, the escathon, which only Jesus Christ as God the Son, could have achieved. Only God can save.

    I agree that there is a morbidity and violence that we would like to believe we would have interrupted but interrupting a remembering of the event would also interrupt the remembering of the resurrection and the Good News that all of creation is recapitulated in Christ.

    Great post. Plenty to think about especially in terms of our free will, sacrifice, God’s will and salvation and whether or not I’ll be going to see The Hunger Games :)

    • I have to agree with you, I will not be going to see Hunger Games, nor will I allow my 13yro, who is easily drawn in by a seemingly good cause and grieves the pain of others greatly, be seeing it or reading the books. Until a couple of days ago I had not even heard of this movie. I thank you all for this insight into the movie’s plot and purpose…a political agneda if ever there was one…no matter how noble the intention.

  5. A great post. Thank you. You swept up the cobwebs in my brain :-)

  6. Reblogged this on Rabbit Hole Review and commented:
    Xochitl Alvizo reflects on ritual and the Hunger Games at Feminism and Religion (again…a GREAT BLOG). Touching on Danielle Tumminio’s CNN article, Xochitl reflects on the question of whether or not something is missed by a Hunger Games reader by actually watching the movie. I keep wondering about this as well. If you think the series was about political action and inaction, do yo end up being just as bad as a Capitol Citizen?? Is this what John at Hogwarts Professor was touching on? Read the blog and let me know what you think. Paint the Roses! Reviews coming soon! Sorry it has been a week: papers this week have been draining!!

  7. Robert, for centuries “the wholeness that Easter offered” was absolute terror to the Jews of Europe, as tragically, there is no other time in the Christian calendar more associated with anti-Jewish attacks and pogroms than Easter.

    For the most well-known, recent ones, read: “Easter in Kishniev: Anatomy of a Pogrom” (1903) “In the Easter season pogrom in Warsaw in 1940 teenagers preyed on women, especially to rob them. In Lviv women were shoved, kicked, beaten in the face and elsewhere with sticks and tools, pulled by the hair, and tossed from one pogromist to another. Many of the women were stripped naked and exposed to the mob. Some were chased through the street. Rose Moskowitz had a school friend who had become an active communist. A gang caught her, cut off her hair, and ran her down the street, naked, screaming. The girl went home and killed herself. A Polish rescuer saw “a boy like Hercules” beating a twelve-year old Jewish girl with a chain. Not surprisingly, rapes were also reported. Pregnant women were hit or kicked in the stomach…”

    Thank you Xochitl for this post

    • Andre,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I acknowledge without reservation that Christian people (sometimes I wish I could put that in scare-quotes, but that’s a different conversations) have used Good Friday as an excuse to batter, maim and murder Jews and other minorities. But nothing in our texts associates the “wholeness of Easter” with any of that shit. Where is the call to violence toward Jews in our texts? My point in offering my reflection is that, after ancient voices have their say (and Christians tend to assume those voices intended the stories as somehow in the overall shape of good news), it takes being taught in a certain way to bring out violence. Christians who kill Jews, or queers, or even slap their children around when they get home are utterly missing the point.

      Good Friday, to me, means that I need to recognize very seriously that I am the sort of person who would rather be violent to others–including Godself–than risk the upheaval and austerity of walking in truth. Just this morning I shared in chapel that part of Judas’ problem was his expectation that Jesus was going to save the world a certain way, but he ended up being in agreement with the Satan. For me, *I* need to recognize how easy it is for me to expect God to act in a certain way, approve of my power and privilege, and so on. I end up agreeing with or being complicit in evil far more often than I would like.

      Xochitl,

      Thanks for your comments too–and your post. Anything that starts a conversation like this one is obviously doing something well! :)

  8. great blog, xochitl…..i just saw the movie today…and tonight at home my wife was watching *the view*…i can’t help but think of all the money and time and attention that reality shows receive and how much that money could be better spent to help many many people and not the token few (like the homeless man who is currently the star of *the view*)…i;m still thinking about *the hunger games*…and i think i will be for quite a while

  9. Love. Love, love. I’m so inspired I might go to a Good Friday service just so I can walk out in protest. I think this “ritual re-imagining” is really powerful.

    • SO mislead…read your word. John 10:18; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Matthew 26:26-28. Protest if you feel you must, but know that we are just doing what Jesus himself told us to do until He returns. I feel sad for those who are so easily turned from the very word of God because a political agenda was likened to the word and commandments of God in such a way that is seems to make sense. It is why we are instructed to hide the word of God in our hearts that we might not sin against God. He also said that if we love him, we would keep his commandments…that means the observance and celebration of the crucifiction and ressuresction of Jesus. He died to redeem us from sin and save our souls from eternal damnation, this person in hunger games was fighitng a political and social injustice. Jesus’ death cannot be compared! Please, be more inspired to know the truth before you jump on anyone’s band wagon. 2 Timothy 2:15 Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

  10. Thank you all for such great comments.

    Jamhenry, you say that “interrupting a remembering of the event would also interrupt the remembering of the resurrection and the Good News that all of creation is recapitulated in Christ.” And I guess what I am probing here is the possibility that interrupting .the remembering ‘as it occurred’ may actually enact participation in the resurrection and the good news – that to interrupt the violence is an affirmation of a new creation.

    Robert, in light of Andre’s comment (to which you have responded well), I am all the more compelled to say that re-imaging good friday rituals in a way the interrupts the violence and enacts a new way *is* actually to “risk the upheaval and austerity of walking in truth” – both the truth that Jesus offers a new way and that Christians do have a terrible history (and in some cases present reality) of violently using the tradition as a weapon against others,

    I’m grateful to you all for this conversation. And Claire46, I love the image of sweeping up the cobwebs in our brains!

  11. Interesting post but I still don’t understand how Good Friday and the death of Christ can be linked to the Hunger Games. While some elements are undeniably similar, e.g., both Christ and Katniss making the ultimate sacrifice for the one(s) they love and the presentation of an alternative way (Jesus came to save souls and bring a spiritual revolution, not start a political, physical revolution; Katniss refused to kill Peeta the way the Gamemakers wanted), the whole background and messages being sent out are much too different.

    The death of Jesus is all about the substitutionary atonement and sacrifice for the eternal redemption of our souls, whereas the deaths of the tributes in the arena represent the oppressive totalitarian government, the desensitisation of people to violence, etc. The message of Good Friday and Easter Sunday is about how Jesus had be the sacrificial lamb and die for the sins of the world in order for all of us to gain eternal life, while the message of the Hunger Games is anti-war, anti-totalitarianism and the call for moral courage in the face of injustice. (This does not means Christ was not against people standing against injustice; He was, but His death was necessary, divinely ordained, and not to be prevented by human hands).

    I don’t think people glorify the violence in the death of Christ, but rather feel anguish that His, as an innocent person, bore the sentence in our place. In the Hunger Games, the violence is not glorified either; Suzanne Collins writes about the horrors of war and the arena without tying things up in a neat, clean bundle. She deals with the heavy psychological damage and makes no apologies in her portrayal of the aftermath.

    In my opinion, this ‘ritual re-imagining’ is not the correct way to respond to both events (the movie and the church service). I think both have much to offer in the message contained within the stories and it would be doing oneself a great injustice to walk out without seeing the ending of both events where the truth about prior actions is revealed. If one walks out of the service or movie (or in the OP’s case, not read Catching Fire and Mockingjay!) one will miss the greater, larger message. One will be intentionally cutting off one’s knowledge by not waiting for the whole story to be told. Even though one may think it is a way of protesting against violence, it will really only be a demonstration of willful blindness and impatience.

    Just my two cents. (As a Christian, chinese feminist from Southeast Asia)

  12. In light of recent discussions about sexual abuse in the church, I revisited an essay I read a few years ago in which British liberation theologian David Tombs explores the interconnections between torture violence,, execution, state terror, and sexual abuse in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s and brings this analysis to his reading of the Passion of Jesus (“Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 53, Nos. 1-2 [1999]: 89-109).

    Tombs describes how torture and violence is a technology of state terror and dehumanization meant not only to punish an individual but as a means of terrorizing a whole population into submission. Tombs also examines more strongly the role of sexual humiliation (such as forced nudity and mocking) and sexual abuse (physical sexual violation) in the process of torture and state terror.

    Tombs brings these analyses to the Gospels, bringing with them questions and insights that usually escape our view. Crucifixion, like contemporary violence and violence in the film, was an imperial Roman practice of torture and execution, designed not only to punish but to terrorize entire groups of occupied peoples. Perhaps the connections between Christ’s crucifixion and violence in the film are difficult for us to make. Tombs’ research can perhaps give us an insight we need in this case.

    • Andre, yes, thank you for sharing that source. It’s important to understand and remember that torture and terror serve a function, most often for the preservation of the systems of government and control. Along the same lines as the essay you mention, William Cavanaugh in “Torture and Eucharist” documents how the night time disappearances and torture of people in Chile during the Pinoche regime serve to fragment community and actually create individuals – people who distrust one another and lose the ability to commune with each another because of state terror.

      Likewise, crucifixions were Rome’s most humiliating form of punishment (Rita Nakashima Brock shared a sermon about this here http://99brattle.blogspot.com/2011/03/requiem.html) She points out that the “passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. They created a literature of disclosure and wove the killing of Jesus into the fabric of a long history of violence against those who spoke for justice.”

      All this to say that there is a lot of food for thought around this subject. And that it’s so important to always critically reflect on our religious practices and rituals; what they communicate, how they function, who they impact, how they shape us – etc. Thank you.

  13. Hi Xochitl,
    Thank you for your post– I found your reflections on walking out or not participating very interesting.
    I actually wanted to comment about Danielle Tumminio’s understanding of the Hunger Games— I have seen the movie and read all three of the books… and actually, after finishing the first book, I was upset by what seemed the push to read more, to watch, the emphasis on the fashion, the emphasis on the food, the emphasis on her positive relationship to her stylist…. The fashion and its power is emphazised in all three books– even if it is also critiqued. I’m not sure if we weren’t supposed to watch– I think we were– and that Katniss uses the watching to create something that she couldn’t have otherwise (at least in the society as it was).
    Also, talking about these books and the movie with a friend of mine who is a teacher (who is reading this book with a group of students), she observed that her students (who have only finished the first part of the book) saw the Capitol City as Utopia– whereas my friend, immediately recognized that we were ‘supposed to’ see it as distopic…. I wonder how this film and the books relate to changing generational ideas…. and I wonder how changing generational ideas relate to the way we read the crucifixtion as well….
    Have you seen the Japanese film, “Battle Royal.” “Battle Royal” has a similar theme to the hunger games, but really plays out the human drama of what this kind of forced murder games would do to adolescent human beings in a different way– its actually a much more gruesome film, but to me, a much more powerful one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! ;)
    Thank you agian for your post!
    -Sara

  14. Hi Sara, thanks for sharing your different take on the movie/books – and I see what you mean. I have read all the books too and i can totally see how watching is central to the whole thing and how Katniss even uses that to her advantage (the kisses and the berries for example)..I think Danielle’s reflection was built around that one moment when Gale does say “What if nobody watched” and the way that statement impacted her in a very powerful way. He is a voice that brings in critique and a different take to the whole society than how Katniss sees things (at least in the first and second book).

    Your friend’s experience with her students is fascinating! I think it is so clear that the whole series is about a dystopian society, the Capitol included, but thinking about it from different generational perspectives is interesting for sure. I’ll have to watch Battle Royal – though I’m concerned if it’s a more gruesome film(!) Maybe you should write a post about these different movies and their take on the topic! :-)

    One other thing I thought about as I read the books is about the power of stories. When i first heard about the Hunger Games story line I was horrified and couldn’t imagine how this was young adult (or older adult) entertainment or how I could ever want to read it. But my friends were all reading them and were sucked into the whole series, so I gave it a shot. Within a few pages I realized how quickly the author normalized the situation for the reader – the power of fiction and story is to create this mini world for you where even the strangest reality fits and make sense(!). It blew me away. It really impressed upon me the power of story/narrative – which of course makes me more critically reflect on the Jesus narratives as well and how these shape us and what they might be normalizing for us…

    • I totally remember Gale saying that in the book now; though after finishing all the books, its interesting that Gale in particular makes that statement. ;)
      I think actually, I am going to post on a Hunger Games related theme in my next entry– but on a “midrash” I think came out of the movie via part of its soundtrack :)
      If you are sensitive to gruesome movies, you may not want to see Battle Royal– it really is much worse as far as grafic violence. Actually, I love that (above) you comment on the power of story to normalize horrifying situations– because something I liked about Battle Royal was that it wasn’t “normalized,” despite human attempts to ignore, resist or participate in the violence… at least, I don’t think it was– so part of what was so unsettling about the movie were the sometimes rediculous efforts to be normal in an unbearable situation. Of course, having finished the Hunger Games books, I also think that the eventual externalizing in society of the violence normally relegated to the arena also pushed past “normal” to unbearable as well. Interesting. And I apprecaite you brining this back to your dialogue about what the Jesus narrative normalizes for us… also interesting.
      Thank you again for your post!

  15. Sara, your remark about Capitol City being perceived as utopia reminded me of Ursula le Guib’s “short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. She tells of a society tht is utopian for almost all of its citizens. But in which this is predicated on the misery (and torture) of one person. I won’t say more about it, but urge people to look at it.

  16. It’s not about worshiping torture, or reveling in the violence of that day. It is about remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made for all mankind that we might be reunited with the Father. It’s about recognizing and teaching our children what He went through because of our sin. The joy in this is that, while Jesus’ body was on the cross, and then in the tomb, Jesus himself went to Hell, and DEFEATED Death, Hell and the grave when he rose on Sunday with all the power and glory, mocking death “where is your sting” and the grave “Where is your victory”. To say that we are just reinacting the violence for the sake of entertainment is both wrong, and hurtful. To question whether we should continue to observe the day, is to question the very word or God, which commands us to keep the Sabbath, and Passover and to tell our children. We all know the entertainment industry is corrupt. Innudating our children with soft pornography, political agendas, and plain propoganda, and yes they seek to desensitize them to sex, the use of alcohol/tobacco/and narcatics. They make partying look fun. Definitely, bravo to those who are trying to get a message out that watching violence for the sake of entertainment is just…wrong; but to liken it as being the same as observing the crucifiction and ressurection of or Lord Jesus is equally wrong. It is not the same thing. It is not done for entertainment. How can our children know of what Jesus did for them, if we, out of fear of desensitizing them, stop remembering, observing, and even celebrating the death and ressurection of Jesus. It is the same with Passover. It is in rememberance, and celebration that God allowed the spirit of death to go through Egypt and kill every first born being…except those marked by the blood of the Lamb, that Isreal might be free. Should we know not honor the Passover because of this. I think not. Before making these kinds of references, perhaps all the facts should be taken into account; and if you are going to let someone who made a movie with an agenda, however noble it may be, make you question whether or not you should honor the very Word of God, then I would think that you should also question, and re-evaluate your faith.

  17. Love this post, Xochitl! You are brilliant. :)

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  1. Reflections on Good Friday by Kathryn House | Feminism and Religion

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