It is an interesting coincidence that when both Jewish and Christian communities were rehearsing our respective salvation narratives, the world outside of synagogues and congregations was consumed with the story of The Hunger Games, a young adult novel turned Hollywood hit. This trilogy chronicles the coming of age and struggle for freedom of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old citizen of the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem.
As we in the Christian tradition journey through the Easter season, the dystopic world of the Hunger Games invites us to re-imagine resurrection in light of a crucified world.
We first meet Katniss as she sets off for the annual Hunger Games, a state sponsored television show, a cross between the pseudo-reality shows of Survivor and Fear Factor and the very real, ancient Roman gladiator battles. Invented by the Capitol as a form of perpetual discipline and punish for a past rebellion of the 12 (once 13) districts, the Games require each district to send two children, or tributes, to star in a live broadcast battle in which the adolescent scapegoats kill one another until only one remains.
There is a reason why our nation has been captivated by this tale and it is not because it is so fantastical that we cannot imagine it. I believe we are riveted by the story for the very reason that we can imagine it. We resonate with the injustice and oppression of Panem because we too experience it in our own world filled with unfathomable injustices…a 17 year old young man shot dead because of his “suspicious” skin color, a 32 year old Iraqi woman bludgeoned to death because of her religious identity. We resonate with the images of an unfair political and economic structure that privileges a few, while the 99% struggle to survive. We recognize the exaggerated disparity of the starving masses of the Districts and the privileged elite of the Capitol whose greatest worry is what shade to dye their skin or which frock to don for the latest feast. Panem is not a distant dystopia, but in fact a rather thinly veiled reflection of our own world. We resonate with Panem because in one way or another we, too, are its citizens.
In the world of The Hunger Games, as in our own, it seems impossible to find life in the midst of so much death. Yet, life and love cannot be extinguished.
At the end of the first book, Katniss and her fellow tribute, Peeta, confront one another as the last two standing. Faced with a very real life or death situation, Katniss and Peeta must choose. Will they kill or be killed? It appears the Capitol will once again have the last laugh and the hegemonic powers of injustice will triumph, leaving only a hollow, humiliating victory for the last child standing.
In that moment between life and death, Katniss realizes that the only real power that can defeat the Capitol is a refusal to submit; an insurrection of love and a willingness to self-sacrifice. And so, handing poisoned berries to Peeta she orchestrates a seeming mutual suicide pact. No one shall survive. The Capitol shall be robbed of their victor.
But the Capitol cannot allow this to happen. The powers and principalities know, perhaps better than even Katniss herself, that this type of rebellious love is the greatest weapon against oppression, injustice, and yes, even death. Love is defiant. In a cruel world of violence and vengeance, love is the ultimate rebellion: the only thing that can beat back the forces of death and destruction.
I can think of no more powerful contemporary image of resurrection than this. Rebellious, reckless, defiant Love, subverting the kyriarchical powers of oppression. The Hunger Games invites us to re-imagine resurrection as a resistance of Love.
This image of resurrection is not new for those who live at the margins. It is the image the world witnessed in the march from Selma to Montgomery, in the solidarity of El Salvadoran martyrs and in the human prayer shields of Egyptian protesters. We witness this image of resurrection every time and every place people rise up in a spirit of love and non-violence to confront injustice.
The quintessential image of a triumphant Jesus vanquishing evil once and for all only works for those whose lives are not scarred by the very real presence of evil in the world. For those who struggle, resurrection cannot be confined to the historical past nor only to the person of Jesus, called the Christ. It must be something very real and very present, alive and active in the world today.
In her text, Risking the Terror: Resurrection in This Life (Pilgrim Press, 2001), Christine M. Smith helps us understand resurrection as the triumph over death that happens when human beings, in the face of oppression and the threat of death choose life. It is the moment in which we resist even at the threat of mortal annihilation. It is the moment in which we say no to the powers of injustice in the world. Under the threat of the cross and the certainty of crucifixion, resurrection arises out of a people’s determination to live, to create, to re-new, and to re-vive themselves and others. In this way, resurrection is not something from the past we remember, nor even something we celebrate. Resurrection is something we are called to practice.
It is just this type of active resurrection we witness in The Hunger Games. In a time in which life and love seem to be losing in our own world, The Hunger Games offers us an alternative to violence, fear and oppression. It is this vision of a rebellious, resistant Love that gives us hope not just to turn the page, but to turn the corner toward resurrection life.
This post is an excerpt from an Easter sermon preached at Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University.
Tiffany L. Steinwert serves as the Dean of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University and is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. As a feminist-liberationist theologian and activist, she has spent her career working at the intersections of faith and social justice. In her many roles as pastor, scholar, and organizer, she strives to empower people of all faiths and no faith to build relationships across difference, craft meaningful communities and create change through collective action.