The Hunger Games, White Privilege, and the Kingdom of God

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve enjoyed a fiction kick to make the most of the limitations of the times. Most recently, I re-watched the Hunger Games. Books are always better, but it’s a long series. This particular series seemed important in light of the tensions around racial injustice and the conversations taking place on social media.

On social media and in personal dialogues, I observe a significant disconnect in perspectives. Two people observe the same event and have entirely different narratives. In some cases, the story heard by the two people include different facts and different versions of what happened, but often the facts are the same, however, the explanation for why it happened and the reaction to the facts differ wildly. Why?

When I read or watch the Hunger Games, I’m struck by what a profound story Suzanne Collins tells*. A couple specific aspects of the story jump out at me:

  • The perception of the Hunger Games as experienced by the citizens of the Capitol
  • The way the story ends (I will not spoil what happens, it is such an epic moment. If you’ve experienced the books or movies, you know what I’m talking about. If not, go read or watch, I refuse to spoil the epic moment!)

The Citizens of the Capitol

Once you get past the shock and disgust of the Hunger Games themselves, there is an immediate, obvious, and almost laughable idiosyncrasy that jumps out. While it’s clear that most of the citizens of the districts share the reader’s view of the injustice and horrific nature of the Hunger Games, the citizens of the Capitol seem to exist in a different universe. They rather enjoy and celebrate these games. Several questions about the citizens of the Capitol:

  • What is wrong with them??!
  • How can they willingly and joyfully watch the horrific events of the Hunger Games, children fighting to the death with one lone “Victor” surviving?
  • Why does no one push back on what’s taking place?
  • There is one moment when they do protest the games. Why the change in reaction?
  • The heaviest question of all- Are they responsible for the deaths of the children and the evil at play here?

To answer these questions, it is interesting to consider the power dynamics at play. President Snow is the man in control. (It sounds like we’re soon getting more of a peek into his life with a fourth book coming out soon — yay!!) He is the leader and president. He is portrayed from the beginning as clearly evil. He requires the districts to send two children each year to a fight to the death for the entertainment of the citizens of Panem. He is rumored to have murdered enemies and allies alike who threaten his total control. He is ruthless in maintaining his power.

There are 13 districts which each supply one resource to the capitol. District 13 was apparently completely wiped out in the revolution which preceded the events of the book by 74 years. The rest of the districts all are held in bondage to the Capitol and are required to produce their allotted resource — military supplies, wood, electricity, coal, etc. Some districts live comfortable lives, some live in poverty. Some support the system in place, some loathe the capitol but see no avenue to change their circumstances.

The Hunger Games have been taking place for 74 years since the revolution ended. Apparently, there was some battle between the districts and the Capitol and the Capitol won. I don’t know the details of the revolution, but maybe we’ll get some insight in the next book. What we do know, is that the Hunger Games serve as a reminder to the conquered of their weakness, of their place in society, and of the capitol’s strength. The districts that support the Capitol, are proud to send children off to these Games and consider it an honor to battle for the pride of their district. Most of the districts tremble to lose their babies to this horrific blood bath but annually are reminded of their bondage at the power of the Capitol.

Over 74 years, the people of the districts have either succumbed to the narrative the Capitol tells and have bought into the lies of honor in sacrificing their children or have despaired of any hope or ability for life to be different. The lack of resources available and annual reminder of Capitol power were successful in silencing hope. They see the reality of their circumstances but lifelessly go through the motions of producing the resource and participating in the horrors of the Hunger Games. The latter group alone sees the Truth of the horrific events taking place.

The citizens of the capitol have absorbed a different narrative over the course of 75 years. I don’t know how they felt when the revolution first ended. I don’t know if they were equals in seeking power along with President Snow and enjoyed participating in the act of control and forced suffering, if they were horrified but the shock wore off over time, or if they were angry at the districts for whatever had happened and felt the games brought justice. But for whatever reason, the original citizens of the capitol allowed the annual tradition of the hunger games to begin.

Now it’s 75 years later. 75 years isn’t that long, but it’s long enough for the adults who watched the first game to have died and for the children of the first games to be reaching old age. The children’s children are now adults and raising one to two other generations of Capitol citizens. At this point, most people watching the games grew up with this annual rhythm. They grew up with a narrative of “why we do this” and “why the world is this way”. What narrative did they hear?

“The districts are proud to offer their children to this honorable purpose.” “They are different than us.” “It is a treat for them to get to come to the Capitol and enjoy the luxuries we have to offer.”

Back to my questions…

Question 1: What is wrong with them?

We often don’t question the realities in which we’re raised. We observe things as children that take place and there is an explanation provided as to why. We often don’t tell children hard truths unless it is forced into their understanding. As a result, we all grow up with some true and some false narratives about how things are, unless we live in a situation in which the harsh truth slaps us in the face. We typically don’t talk to small children about war unless our hometown is under attack and we’re forced to flee to safety. We typically don’t talk to them about violence unless they witness or experience a violent event. We typically don’t talk to them about the complexities of poverty since it will be too much for them to understand, but rather provide neat explanations that often pin the responsibility onto the person in poverty.

The citizens of the Capitol likely grew up with an unquestioned narrative about the Hunger Games and may have even believed that they loved the tributes and victors who were forced to participate. Katniss (the main character) saw their ignorance and refused to lump Capitol citizens into enemy status, fighting to protect them even as she was fighting the Capitol itself.

So what is wrong with them? They are unknowing participants in a system of oppression and evil. They are unquestioning and complicitly allow and support enduring evil practices. They fail to truly “see” what is taking place right before their eyes. “Good” people who are part of an evil system.

The next three questions

With the background context, the next three questions are much easier to answer.

“How can they willingly and joyfully watch the horrific events of the Hunger Games, children fighting to the death with one lone “Victor” surviving?”

Easy, their narrative tells them that the children are proud to participate. This is a willing sacrifice. This is comparable with someone proudly fighting for their country. Further, they don’t see the children as the same as their children. They have never been to the districts. They have never met the children’s mothers. They have not cried as their sweet sister was ripped from grasping hands. They have known nothing to disrupt a happy, ignorant narrative.

Why does no one push back on what’s taking place?

Again, easy. Why would you push back? From this vantage point, there is no reason to protest. They would be depriving the tributes, victors, and districts by intervening. No one in the districts was allowed to disagree with the Hunger Games, but if they had, it would have been a shock to the citizens of the Capitol. They likely would have been confused and had a litany of rationales flood their minds as to why this person was wrong to speak out. They would have pointed to all the other tributes and victors who were proud. They would have labeled that person as lazy, dishonorable, or weak. It would be difficult, even in the face of a cry for help, to turn a narrative of 74 years in a moment.

There is one moment when the citizens of the capitol do protest the games. Why?

I won’t give away what happens, but at the beginning of the second movie, there is a moment when there is a universal cry to stop the games immediately. In the first book, Peta introduces a romance into the 74th Hunger Games, a story that captivates the audience’s attention and continues through the whole series. A story develops that is personal and that the people of the capitol can relate to. They are suddenly more than tributes fighting in the Hunger Games. They are human. When a further deeply intimate and personal experience is shared, the people of the capitol start to see the humanity of the tributes and the victors. A rift in their narrative is created.

Question 3: Are they responsible for the deaths of the children and the evil at play here?

This question is difficult to answer. The citizens of the capitol joyfully witnessed children murder each other. It is difficult not to hate them for that. Sweet innocent children who were dying at the hands of an evil tyrant while the Capitol citizens held parties, cheered, and celebrated their deaths.

Morally, how can you justify this? Once you understand the narrative from the districts’ perspectives, once you know the truth, how can you not hold them accountable for these heinous acts which they supported?

But Katniss said no. Katniss did not want to hold them accountable for the deaths, tragedy, and trauma she experienced and shared with her district people. Katniss was unafraid to cast judgement and justice on anyone evil or threatening that crossed her path. She was bold in the face of fear and called truth as she saw it. Yet, she called for mercy on the citizens of the Capitol. Why?

Katniss got to know Effie Trinket in her miserable times preparing for the Games. She saw the superficiality of her lifestyle and seems to find her ridiculous. But she also saw her as a human and cared for her.

She saw the children of the capitol playing fake Hunger Games and pretending to kill each other. But she also saw her sister, Prim, in them.

Katniss saw through the deception they were living and experiencing.

Rather than hold them accountable and responsible for the death and oppression, she pinned the full responsibility on the man behind it all. She wanted to set the Capitol citizens free, too.

In the end, the resounding cry and affirmation of truth that was spoken amongst the victors turned rebels to each other, was “Remember who the true enemy is”.

“Remember who the true enemy is.”

The Kingdom of God

As Christians, we are people who accept God’s invitation through Jesus to love him, to live under his rule and reign, according to the good ways He intended for life to be on this planet he has given us to live and work in. As Christians in the US, we live in a political environment that has many parallels to Panem and the evil control of the Capitol.

I would argue that as white citizens of the US, we are born into a parallel of “the capitol” described in the Hunger Games. This puts us into a situation with the following parallels:

  • We are a part of a narrative where there are power dynamics at play which we may or may not be directly connected to and may or may not have visibility to
  • We are recipients of an explanation of the way things currently are that seeks to reinforce the current power dynamics
  • There are people who experience the same reality differently and have a clearer visibility to the true narrative, similar to the districts who suffer and see the Hunger Games for what they really are (the perspective from which we read the story)
  • We may have never had reason to question the narrative and therefore feel like we have reason to doubt those who speak against it

I see strong parallels between the current/recent protests and the rebellion in the Hunger Games.

  • As a series of events in the Hunger Games lead to a breaking point where the people of the districts rallied together to say “enough is enough”, the people in our current system who have been targets of control are saying “enough is enough”
  • Many people are responding to the protests as I would expect the citizens of the Capitol to have responded to someone questioning the Hunger Games (as explained above). They are responding with disbelief and turning to comfortable narratives to rationalize why the people protesting are wrong
  • Most of the people who feel uncomfortable about the protests or who discount that there is a race problem at play in the US would, I believe, fully support the calls for change if they understood the lived narrative of the people crying out, just as we all support the rebellion of the districts since we clearly see the evil of the Hunger Games and the Capitol oppression

I have a ton of compassion for US “Capitol Citizens” who don’t understand what’s going on and do not believe there is a race problem. I understand that they haven’t “seen it” and have an alternative explanation which has never let them down and makes sense in their current context.

But imagine the lived experience of the people of the capitol compared to the lived experience of the people of the district. Watch the movies and contemplate that this is America. People don’t rise up and cry out in pain for no reason. Listen. Understand the alternative narrative.

Might people be seeking control? Might people be looking to “take over”? Possibly. Evil can take many forms. This brings us back to the Hunger Games analogy… (Don’t read on if you haven’t read the third book or seen the third and fourth movies!)

Evil is Opportunistic

I hate spoilers. Authors put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into crafting the story the way it is. If you read this section and haven’t already experienced preferably the books but alternatively the movies, you will be robbed of the epic-ness of the final moments of the Hunger Games story! You have been warned!!

At the end of the second book, we learn that District 13 survived the revolution and has been living underground for the last 75 years biding their time to allegedly set the rest of the districts free from the oppression of the Capitol. They were the military district so they have resources both to survive and to fight back against the Capitol. They did not have the human power to fight alone, they needed the support of all the districts. But even in hiding, the Capitol’s control limits their ability to carry out this plan so they wait.

As they wait, General Coin comes to power to lead the district in preparing for the day they can move forward in rebellion against the Capitol.

When Katniss arrives in District 13, she immediately observes that she and Coin both share an instinct for survival and a hatred of President Snow. But she also distrusts Coin.

As the story evolves, her distrust of Coin grows and culminates in several revelations at the very end of the story.

The rebellion (to make a long story tragically short) has ended successfully with the disruption of power of President Snow. Katniss learns that to gain victory, President Coin ordered bombs to be dropped on capitol children using capitol planes. The people think the Capitol turned on it’s own people so they turn on the Capitol and the battel is won. Further, Coin recommends that they continue the Hunger Games but using Capitol children in order to quell the need for justice from the people of the districts for all the pain they’ve suffered and lost over the last 75 years.

Justice has come to Snow, but evil power is sneaking in once again. The tables are turning and there will soon be a new oppressor and new oppressed.

I often think that this is what people fear when they hear a call for racial justice, for police reform, for black lives to matter. People think that Black people are trying to rob the White way of life and want control over “us”. And that may be for some people. There may be some General Coins out there whose bitterness at long suffered oppression has won in their hearts and who long for power in order to impose judgement on any who have aligned with their oppressors. It’s hard for me to blame them for this when I haven’t walked in their shoes.

But that’s not what I want to fight for. And I believe that’s not what most people who cry “Black Lives Matter” want either.

Katniss sees right through General Coin. The most epic and thrilling moment of the story comes when Katniss is allowed to execute President Snow. She gets to send the arrow that ends his oppression and brings justice to his oppressed. As the new President Coin waits to claim the new throne of power and oppression, Katniss steps up to the execution stand and in the final moment, lifts her arrow to the heart of Coin instead. President Snow is killed by the mob and two tyrants are eliminated at once.

In the vacancy of tyrants of evil, the districts turn to a quiet but strong voice of peace and wisdom in the leader of District 11, Paylor. She steps in as the new leader and leads the people of the districts and capitol together into an era of peace.

Back to Reality

While we should be skeptical of any person seeking power, we need to distinguish politics from the daily reality people are living which they want to change. Jesus calls me to stop and listen. Jesus calls me to examine my heart and discern if comfort, control, or power are taking precedence over love and sacrifice. Jesus calls me to seek Truth, to sit in His presence and continuously be transformed.

As we participate in our political system, I see President Snow and General Coin battling for our support. I observe the media on both sides overstating facts and ignoring convenient details. But I also hear thousands of people crying out that the current reality isn’t working for them. I hear thousands of mothers wailing at the loss of another son. I hear people speaking of a narrative that doesn’t line up with mine.

I am tempted to discount their cries because this isn’t my experience of America as I grew up. But am I a citizen of the Capitol while people of the districts are crying out? Could they be living a reality that I have never seen? What if I look around and realize I’m one of the ones standing in the crowd cheering on the Hunger Games?

Within political systems, there is often a constant vying for power and there is often corruption in the process. But beneath the politics are human beings that are crying out. If we hear a cry and don’t understand, we should stop long enough to question if they are experiencing a narrative which we don’t have visibility to. If thousands of people are marching in the streets… why are they doing that? If your narrative leaves you shaking your head about how ridiculous it all seems, there is likely another explanation. We can’t change the past, but we can turn from it and start a new path. We can destroy the power of hate, lies, and oppression when we fight with love, truth, and sitting together.

Imagine the citizens of the Capitol coming together with the people of the Districts. I can only imagine the tears shed over shared stories of loss and trauma. I could imagine the citizens of the Capitol at first bristling with disbelief, justifying, defending. But over time, I can also see them beginning to see glimmers of shared experience, wondering if the alternative narrative could be the real one. The more stories heard, compassion grows, and suddenly sorrow and grief overtake the barriers and flood through their soul. They must feel guilty. They must feel like they can’t live with themselves once they realize what they’ve done. But rather than sending their children to the Hunger Games as punishment, the new President of the District leads the people in a process of forgiveness (even though they would have been justified not to extend mercy). Forgiveness is healing and unifying. The people of the Capitol, overcome with gratitude that their lives are spared, and their sins are forgiven, let their wealth and possessions which were accumulated on the backs of the people of the Districts, overflow. Like Zacchaeus, once they’ve seen the error of their ways, they are overjoyed to give back four times what they’ve taken and build a new life together. The beauty of repentance and new life where love and truth reign.

Lord, I pray that you’d release the captives, open the eyes of the blind, open ears of the deaf, and bring justice to the oppressed. May your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Sources:

Collins, Suzanne. Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008

Collins, Suzanne. Catching Fire. New York :Scholastic Press, 2009

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York :Scholastic Press, 2010

The Hunger Games. United States: Alliance Film, 2012

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire. Santa Monica, CA :Lionsgate, 2014

Sister, Auntie, friend, HR enthusiast by day, using writing to make sense of this journey called life.