More on Violence and Holy Week: Breaking Bad, Hunger Games

Rue from the Hunger Games In response to yesterday's post:

This was going to be a comment but it's too long. I want to share a quote from a recent episode of On Being. The ep was The Great Cauldron of Story: Why Fairy Tales Are for Adults Again with a folklorist, Maria Tatar:

Ms. Tippett: I'm just following on some of the things we've been talking about also in terms of popular culture. I also do see some very gritty ways right now specific to our time I think. You know, television like The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad or The Hunger Games, you've talked about. There's also this genre where there's a really intense existential fear. And one of the themes in a lot of these is everything that we think has civilized us is taken away. Right. And that we are brutalized.

Ms. Tatar: Right, right, yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And, but I've read you feeling concerned also about some of that going to new extremes that might not be good for us.

Ms. Tatar: You know, it's hard, I don't like to be the one preaching a sermon. Because I told you about my childhood experience. So I'm always reluctant to sort of be judgmental. But I must admit that Breaking Bad was my breaking point. That is, that there's some — I remember just seeing — I won't even describe it. But I thought, OK, that's just too much for me.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I feel that way too.

Ms. Tatar: I have to turn that off, yeah. And Hunger Games I was startled by, because to me, the idea of a book about children killing children was just going to an extreme. It was violating a cultural taboo in a way that was difficult for me. But then there, I read the book and I watched the movie and I thought they were sensational and really fascinating. You know, and I didn't — even though it had crossed a line, Suzanne Collins somehow seemed to have done it in a way that made sense for me. That you know, there seemed to be a real point to that. And you know, I'm not the one who is looking for a lesson. But you know, we do have a new culture.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Ms. Tatar: You know, where there's a lot more is permitted. We don't protect our children as much as we once did. And I guess, you know, I do worry that children today they can see anything.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and they know they're not protected. Right. That's…

Ms. Tatar: Right, right, right. And…

Ms. Tippett: I mean, here's something you wrote: "This savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was. And the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who struggle to grow up, we have stories about children to struggle to survive." But I think that's a reality people, even children, are aware of.

Ms. Tatar: It is. And I have to say that the minute you go into the protectionist mode and you say, you know, we need to draw a line and it shouldn't be anything goes, you just get a lot blowback from people who say, oh you know, you don't give children enough credit. They're able to navigate this. And also we live in a violent world and therefore children should be, should know that, and all of that. But some of that — I think we haven't been very thoughtful about figuring out, you know, where is that line? Where do we draw it? What responsibilities do we have as adults? But as I say, I always feel uncomfortable and maybe that's why we're not talking about it, because it makes us uncomfortable to be the censors or the editors or the ones who are saying, oh no, oh no, that's too much.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I remember when my son whose now 14 — I think he was probably 12 or 13 when he was reading and really just inhaling it. And I asked him what it was about? I mean I heard other people tell me what it was about. And the first word that came out of his mouth is, it's about poverty. You know, that's not the word other people — I mean it wasn't about children struggling.

Ms. Tatar: Oh, that's fascinating.

Ms. Tippett: I mean it was about children struggling, but if this book has him thinking about poverty, well OK.

Ms. Tatar: Oh yeah, because Katniss is — remember when the book starts out she's skin and bones.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Tatar: And she's, you know, she's living in Panem, the country of bread, where there is no food. And she, you know, she becomes this extraordinary trickster figure, who has to survive in a time of famine and use her wits.


The Holy Week angle, not that there needs to be one, is that Jesus' story has elements of the trickster as well. But more broadly, I resonate with this exchange, even as I notice that Tippett and Tatar are conflating two things. One, the intensity of those stories as they relate to children. And two, the appropriateness of those stories for children.

And we shouldn't confuse those two issues. There are spheres for adults and spheres for children. I've just noticed that extremely dark stuff (violent or not) is not cathartic or entertaining in the way it once might have been before I started relating to children every day, for many hours a day. The fiction leaks into the non-fiction, and the world looks darker than it really is.

But I'm very interested in other perspectives on this.

Armored in Grace: Part 2 of the Gospel and the Hunger Games

MaryAnn McKibben DanaIdylwood Presbyterian Church August 26, 2012 Parables and Pop Culture: The Gospel and The Hunger Games Ephesians 6:10-20

Armored in Grace

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

*                *                *

This week we learned of yet another act of gun violence, this time in New York City near the Empire State Building. This, after other terrible incidents in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, and others. The humor website The Onion captured it well in a headline from Friday:

Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting UPDATE: Never Mind

It’s an example of satire that isn’t necessarily funny, but instead is pointed as it illustrates a deeper truth in our world. It’s been an unusally grisly summer for such acts.

There is a heaviness in the air. The election doesn’t help, with still more heated rhetoric coming our way, along with frenzied reporting over the latest gaffes, and all-around conduct unbecoming of those seeking to hold political office.

Meanwhile Tropical Storm Isaac pounded Haiti yesterday, a country in which thousands of people are still living in tents after the deadly earthquake some three years ago.

And of course, we remain very concerned about little Jacob as he continues to fight his battle with ALD.

It is very easy to lose heart.

Paul comes along in the midst of this and frames the world he lived in, and the world we live in now, as a cosmic battle between good and evil.

How are we to respond?

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

In last week’s sermon I gave a summary of The Hunger Games and talked about how the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to fight in place of her sister Prim. The male tribute from district 12 is a boy Katniss’s age named Peeta Mellark. There is a conversation between Kat and Peeta as they prepare to enter the arena the next day. Peeta says, Whatever happens tomorrow, even if I die, I want to die as myself. I don’t want the Capitol to take that away from me. I won’t let them turn me into something I am not.

Katniss doesn’t understand: What difference does it make if you’re dead either way? It seems foolish to care about such things.

But Peeta knows: in dark times, we may not prevail, but we can remain faithful to the values and principles that we hold dear. We can keep the faith. Who will we be in this world, as we seek to serve God and love as Christ loved? That is the question. As Viktor Frankl realized in the death camps of the Holocaust: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Paul would approve of this impulse of Peeta, and of Viktor Frankl. The battle is on, Paul writes, and so we must clothe ourselves with the things of God:

The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Note that the only offensive weapon is the word of God. You may have heard of “fight or flight.” But the armor of God equips us for a third task, which is to freeze: to stand with integrity and courage, where we are. We are not meant to be on the attack. We are not people of destruction. We are people of the Word, and the Word is love.

Now, Katniss says she doesn’t understand Peeta’s desire to die “as himself.” But her behavior shows that she does understand, very well.

Katniss befriends a fellow tribute named Rue. Rue is young, like Prim. She is not tough or strong—an alliance with her is not a tremendous asset to Katniss. But Rue is clever and her heart is true, and she and Kat are able to gain a couple of advantages over the others… but then, sadly, Rue loses her life.

And something breaks open in Katniss.

Remember that the Hunger Games is a reality show. Everything the tributes do in the arena is broadcast for the entire country to see. Katniss knows that a hovercraft will be along soon to pick up Rue’s body and remove it from the arena. Katniss feels moved to do something to acknowledge her friend but she knows she doesn’t have much time. She must show the Capitol that there is a part of her that they cannot control.

And so she gathers white flowers and places them around Rue’s head, in her arms, around the body. She does this in memory of her friend, in recognition of her dignity, her worth, not just as a pawn in the Capitol’s power games, but as a human being. She does this so everyone will see, and know.

There is a dignity that can never be taken away.

The interesting thing about the book is that it’s told from Katniss’s point of view and hers alone. She does not know what effect her honoring of Rue might have, if any. What the movie makes clear, however, is that her actions inspire the people of Rue’s district to rise up. A revolution is beginning that will unfold over the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. And it begins with an act of goodness and grace, in which Katniss refuses to be a pawn.

Now here’s what’s brilliant about Paul’s words. He gives us these robust images of armor:





And we might picture chain mail, a suit of steel like a medieval knight. Or maybe kevlar. Something bulletproof. But then there’s this reversal: The armor of God is made of…





Which turns out to pretty thin armor. When you’re wearing righteousness, truth, peace, faith, you still feel the pain of the world. You still hurt when others hurt. To clothes ourselves with the things of God does not protect us from grief. But it gives us strength to stand in faith. It gives us hope and courage to fight another day.

I was with a group of clergy women a few weeks ago, leading them in a retreat. We spent some time talking about the anxiety that pervades so much of our culture. As an illustration of this, we created a large collage using newspapers and magazines. The headlines we read, the images we ingest—so many of them convey this anxiety: We’re not thin enough. We’re not young enough. We’re not rich enough. We don’t have enough stuff.

Then we shared the story together of the days following 9/11 in New York. A writer named Sally Schneider describes the experience of wandering the deserted and devastated streets, and finding a restaurant open. It was Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant. Mario himself said, “Yes, we’re open,” and welcomed them in. There was something so comforting in the food people shared in that place—as if life was normal, somehow. It almost felt defiant… like Katniss decorating the body of an “expendable” tribute with flowers.

Sally described the experience later to a friend—what was it about that meal that made it so significant?—and her friend said, “Of course. We fight back with beauty.”

And so this group of clergy women considered how we fight back against the anxiety, against the despair, against the darkness, with beauty and righteousness and truth, all those things Paul wrote about. And we tore pieces of colored paper and wrote acts of beauty on them and pasted them on that board. And the anxiety still poked through but a new picture began to emerge, a crazy quilt of beauty.

That is our task…

to fight back with beauty.

to fight back with righteousness.

to fight back with peace, and grace, and truth.

May we do so, armed only with the Word of God… the Word which is Love. Amen.

The Hunger Games, and Understanding Sacrifice

I'm 2/3 of the way through the Hunger Games trilogy. I'm holding off on Mockingjay because people are counting on me to drive them to piano lessons, and buy groceries, and  actually finish sentences instead of letting them trail off, eyes on the Kindle.

[Minor spoilers for books 1 and 2 ahead]

There's a lot that could be said about HG. I haven't gone looking for commentary, but c'mon, the Internet has got this. I just want to hone in on something in particular.

I was in a conversation about terrorism recently, especially suicide bombers. One person was baffled over why people go the self-destructive route in order to try to effect change. Don't they realize that there are more constructive routes, like education and organizing and economic betterment, that would work so much better? Another person countered that those options seem so remote to people without any power that they may as well be imaginary. If society sees you as worthless---as good as dead---then maybe it's not a huge jump in your mind to being actually dead. And maybe these people figure that a small jump into death can shift the picture. It doesn't end up working that way, but that's the warped logic of terrorism.

Another way to say this: the idea of educating yourself and accumulating power in order to effect change is a very privileged way of looking at things. I say this, obviously, as a person of privilege myself. If you're already middle class, improving your lot in life using the traditional tools is a relatively short hop. For someone near the bottom in society's estimation, it's a huge leap. So some folks get into terrorism or gangs or whatever, because those are the tools that are immediately available.

Now, there are people at the bottom of the power-and-privilege scale who DO organize and mobilize and change things. And I don't want to come off as condoning or promoting terrorism in any way. The evil of suicide bombing is that they take a bunch of other people out with them. But setting that aside, isn't this same self-obliterating dynamic at work in the Hunger Games? Part of what makes the story compelling is that people are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. This theme appears again and again. And yet it's not hard to see why they'd be willing to do so. Between the starvation and the oppression they suffer, conditions are so dire in the Districts that the main characters have very little to lose by being willing to give their lives for their families and fellow countrymen. That short jump from "good as dead" to "dead" is exactly why the HG are such effective tools of social control. The people are conditioned to see themselves as weak. Helpless. Tribute-fodder.

In fact, as deeply as I feel for Katniss and Peeta and the others, the most emotional moment in the book for me was Cinna's act of dressing Katniss as the mockingjay, thus stoking the fires of rebellion. Here is a person who could have lived in comfort and ease for the rest of his days, but he gives it all up for Katniss's sake and for the sake of the greater good. I'm not saying he's the big hero. But as a resident of the Capitol, he had a lot to lose by doing what he did. And he risked it all anyway.

I preached two weeks ago on "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow," and every time I deal with that passage I think about how impossible that seems for anyone, but it's hard for the wealthy and powerful in a very particular way.

I realize this post could be interpreted as extolling the heroism of rich people over poor people. Not so. Indeed, the fact that Katniss and Peeta and others without power and privilege are willing to die makes their sacrifice poignant and resonant in a completely different way than Cinna's. They must face their own deaths knowing that ultimately it may not make a bit of difference. They act as they do, knowing that nothing may change at all. But Katniss knows that standing in for her sister, or teaming up with little Rue, or allying with 80-year-old Mags, or doing everything she can to keep Peeta alive, though she must die, are good things that are worth doing for their own sake. They have a dignity to them. Like Peeta, she wants to live and die on her own terms, because that's the one thing that the Capitol elites cannot take away. That gives their story a power that Cinna's and others of his status will never have.