Indicting Violence: A Pacifist Review of The Hunger Games

Kurt’s Note: Below is a guest article by Mennonite Pastor and writer, Marty Troyer.  I know him on twitter as @thePeacePastor.  Also, I want to add that my friend Julie Clawson just came out with a book called The Hunger Games and the Gospel with Patheos Press.  I highly recommend you download that book as soon as it becomes available (assuming you either read the Hunger Games or watch the forthcoming movie).

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The Hunger Games Movie Poster

 

75 years after the end of the world, reluctant teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen brings it to an end yet again.

Welcome to The Hunger Games, a trilogy dripping with the weight of oppression and the dread of liberation! Suzanne Collins has woven a fascinating tale for young and old alike that unpacks the complexity and devastation of war. She’s also given us a story for our times: the liberation of a people brutally oppressed by a privelaged minority. Ultraviolent throughout, Collins books are not on the surface paficist. But this peace advocate absolutely loved the books and recommends you read them. Why? Because it’s an honest look at the roots and limits of violence. Her  indictment of violence is an enormous gift.

The Genesis of Violence

Let’s start where Collins does, by passing judgement on violence’s protectionist function. Like all good fiction, she doesn’t tell you she’s indicting violence, she invites you to feel the indictment through outrage, hate, betrayal, fear, despair, and manipulation. Your blood will boil along with every young adult reader as she unmasks Dominant Violence. Set in the future of a post-American country called Panem, the capitol city wields absolute control over twelve outlying Districts they violently subdue. In the name of Security, Panem demands the annual sacrifice from each district of two “tributes” who fight to the death in a survivor-like game called “The Hunger Games.” These teenage scapegoats pacify the districts (through fear) and leave the capital population feeling righteous, superior, and safe. Violence – whether in daily life or the artificial setting of the Games – is justified because it offers protection.

She has absolutely nothing positive to say about this form or function of Dominant Violence. The disconnect between the lavishness of life in the capital and the grotesqueness of death in the arena underscores how far we’re willing to go to ignore the consequences of injustice in our world. Shirley Jackson, the author of a similar 1948 story called The Lottery, said she wrote to “shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.” Collins does the same. Reminding us security must not trump justice, and that no amount of distance protects us from complicity.

When the security function morphs into oppression a new form of violence is born: Resistant or Revolutionary Violence. This secondary violence is always, as theologian John Dear says, a response to Dominant Culture. Exploring liberation theology he says, “It starts with the inhuman experience of poverty, the institutionalized violence of misery which kills millions of people around the planet. It declares that the violence of poverty is not the will of God, that God wants every human being to have life to the full, not to die in misery. Liberation theology declares that God is actively involved in the struggles of the poor, to end the violence of poverty around the world.”

It’s possible to read the trilogy as a full-on support of Resistant Violence, given how well she differentiates between Dominant and Reistant Violence. She clearly flips the script on which of the two is morally suspect. In our context (Instigators of Dominant Violence and sometime victims of Resistance Violence) and as a pacifist, this was terribly meaningful. When dominant cultures manipulate and disenfranchise minority communities, liberation movements have erupted throughout history. As one white woman learned after intentionally moving into the margins of Oakland,

It is at least slightly easier, now, for me to identify with people who are disenfranchised [in multiple ways]—by race, poverty, social class, lack of access to education, constant threat of violence and humiliation, and more—and who suffer the worst effects of a violent and exploitative network of social and economic systems. I see the police brutality. I see the impossibility of navigating through even those social safety net programs that exist. I see the near futility of trying to thrive under these circumstances.

Collins helps you feel the conundrum of Resistant Violence as the grinding toll of injustice on self-hood and community. In the face of overwhelming might, horrifying genetic manipulation, and lack of a future, violence finds a foothold. She humanizes minority, gang, and Third World violence by allowing us to feel the hope of equality in the districts. Writing from the margins, she mirrors the Biblical story without conjuring its religion. Dear says, “From Exodus to Isaiah, from the Gospel of Matthew to the Book of Revelation, we read about a God who takes sides with the poor in their struggle for liberation.”

The Limits of Violence

Over and again The Hunger Games conjures hope through one of the core tools of resistance movements: Symbol. Indeed, not just for plot turns, but in power, Collins’ use of symbol overshadows the usefulness of violence. We see it everywhere:  subverting imperial manipulation by eating berries a la Romeo and Juliet, decorating Rue’s dead body and giving her the District 12 salute (along with District 7′s response in kind), bread from District 7, Katniss’ firey dresses, the effigy of Senaca Crane, and of course the Mockingjay.

The power of symbol stands in contrast to the limits of violence in the story. A  key scene from Catching Fire is Katniss’ and Peeta’s visit to District 7 where minority symbol and dominant violence are in tension, sparking revolution. Notice how symbol creates and spreads energy, whereas violence subdues it. Of course, the presence of revolution in the face of overwhelming force signals the limits of violence.

The Effects of Violence

But no where does The Hunger Games indict violence more thoroughly than in unmasking the effects it has on both victim and perpetrator. Collins addresses this at both the corporate and individual level. Corporately, you have poverty and a welfare mentality on one hand, and extreme excess and disconnection on the other. Personally, the effect on perpetrators is to leave us soul-less and businesslike, such as “The Careers” and President Coin.

The portrayal of the main characters dissent into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is nothing short of brilliant. Peeta clinging to the back of a chair to will himself to leave violence on the battlefield and not at home. Katniss, hiding in closets and ‘loosing’ entire days. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a work of popular fiction with a protaganist as thick as Katniss. Capable hero, confused lover, disloyal friend, vulnerable as both victim and perpetrator. Her pain becomes unbearable at the point she becomes unable to differentiate between violence done to and by her. Hers is a psyche manipulated as much or more than Peeta’s, though no tracker jacker venom was needed. And fittingly her -and the trilogy’s – story comes to a sad and lifeless end.

The End of Violence

But not until she deals one last blow to violence. At some point in Mockingjay Katniss realized two essential things: she was manipulated as much by District 13 as she had been by the capital; and that violence is cyclical and will continue unless someone stops it. Thus her final act of aggression is not to condemn one person among many, but the system of violence itself. In shooting the wrong President at close range, she unmasks the truth that violence only begets violence. As Gene Sharp has taught, “Sharp is not a moralist but a pragmatist, who bases his claims on an empirical analysis of history. He asserts that violence, even in the service of a just cause, often results in more problems than it solves, leading in turn to greater injustice and suffering; hence, the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action.” Indeed, Bishop Oscar Romero said, “There is an unshakable moral principle that says one cannot do evil in order to achieve good.” Revolutionary Violence only serves to replace one despot for another. One only needs to look to Africa and Soviet Russia for several stunning examples of how easily Resistant Violence can be transformed into Dominant Violence.

In the final analysis, Collins offers us little beyond a sturdy “No!” to violence, leaving us hungering for something to say “Yes” to. What’s missing is the path forward among people’s who have been mutually destructive, such as The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of Africa. She offers little hope beyond perseverance, no spirituality outside public ritual, and little insight into the world as it should be. Instead, what we get is a masterful look at the end of violence: the world as it is.

Giving us The Hunger Games, alongside Harry Potter, as two extraordinary examples of modern day non-violent young adult literature.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount. You can join us anytime in Spring Branch or visit us online

  • Scott Gay

    Anabaptists really should be familiar with the Catholic Rene Girard. His insight into literature and the subject of violence deserves consideration.  These books are not an honest look at the roots and limits of violence, although its premises are in vogue.

    • Martytroyer

      Great to bring in Girard. I’m quite familiar with Girardian theory and find it immensely helpful. I actually feel that Collins and Girard are not as disconnected as you seem to feel.

      Here’s how I attempted to utilize Girard in P1 under “Genesis of Violence (I’d love for you to flesh out your thoughts more here, maybe I’m missing something): The idea of tribute/scapegoats which is at the center of THG is also at the center of Girardian theory. Viewed from the perspective of the District citizens, allowing these deaths to continue functions to ensure stability. 

      Likewise, Collins seems to me to jive with Girard’s memetic theory later in the trilogy through the character of Gale, who with increasing ferocity mirrors the practices of the empire he deplores. Indeed, as Julie Clawson suggests in her comment above, “the fire of revenge that Gale offers is not life-sustaining.” When his tactics begin to remind katniss too deeply of her own father’s death, or of how Gale/Kat perceived empire to entrap them, etc… When she can no longer distinguish between Gale and empire (indeed! Who really did drop those fire bombs on the kids at the Presidential Palace?), the entire story is flipped upside down and the story comes to its ultimage climax.

      That’s only several examples of how I see THG as being Girardian in an essential, not accidental way.

      I’d really like to hear more from you Scott. Give me some specifics, flesh it out more. Show me what you see in connection to the examples i gave.

      Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/JoJoTheModern JoJoTheModern

    Totally. The main characters find themselves up to their necks in violence when clearly they are not violent people. When Katniss discovers in Catching Fire that she has to go BACK into the arena all she can do scream. Peeta is a baker and a painter and shedding blood is such a foreign thing to him it’s painful to watch him deal with a world like that.

    I think Collins wanted to pull fiction into reality- the vast majority of us would not be hardcases if we wound up in Panem. Violence is cool in a movie but realistically even a harsh word can make most of us cringe inside.

    • Martytroyer

      JoJo,
      I’ve thought a lot about Peeta’s character and why violence is such a “foreign thing” to him. I’ve wondered to what degree his class played a role for him. Clearly one of the largest blocks in Katniss and Peeta’s relationship was and is differences related to their class. While Katniss really isn’t interested in killing, she is extremely well versed and competent in survival. Death, for her, is part of life. Peeta, being “middle class” or business class does not have that gift. Thus love is a luxury for Katniss she can barely begin to connect to, while Peeta’s quite able to find a place for romance in his worldview. You’re right, it’s painful (and terribly meaningful) to watch. And why he relies on others so much.

      The artificiality of the arena makes it impossible to judge how we as individuals would respond. Would we be hardcases, break down, fight, survive? No one knows. As a pacifist, it was this artificiality that gives me the hardest time. Because in the arena, Ghandi, King, and even Jesus make no sense. Nonviolence, suffering, nonretaliation: these things don’t ‘fit’ the artificial context of an arena like they do in the wider story she tells.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • http://twitter.com/qotbpaul Paul Charles

    Some great thoughts. Would never have viewed it this way before…and can’t wait to see the same story on the big screen. Our society is in dire need of stories that redefine the way we think, and that includes stories that show the futility of violence.

  • Julie Clawson

    Thanks for the shout out and for the great thoughts here!  

    So much has been made of the love story in the Hunger Games (Team Peeta vs Team Gale), but I find it fascinating that what Collins did was construct a love story not just about eros love, but agape love.  In the end it is only by affirming love that Katniss can survive.  She realizes that the fire of revenge that Gale offers is not life-sustaining.  She needs that which gives life, the sustenance of the boy with the bread, the “dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow flower that means rebirth instead of destruction.”  The entire superficial love story is the tale of why peace and not violence is our only option. 

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

       @1c810679e971a5dfca1adc6306cdae70:disqus , you are welcome!

  • Martytroyer

    If you’re interested, here’s a second article on my own blog called: “Peeta’s Bread is Not Enough: The Hunger Games, Colonialism, Poverty, and Uganda”
    http://bit.ly/xXzM8T

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VD5PXQTVNYVWDF3UZQYBRANYLE MarkJ

    You bring an adult’s analysis to a CHILDREN’S BOOK. Perhaps not appropriate when this book is sold in elementary schools and almost every 10-13 year-old considers it the successor to Harry Potter novels.

    I do consider it vile and depraved, you cannot dwell on an evil for 300 pages, or watch a movie of it for 2 hours, without possibly becoming ensnared in what I call “The Pornography of Violence”.  In my opinion we should look to Europe for a suggested standard of decency: more easy going about sex, but more willing to condemn acts of fiction violence. I do think Americans have a blind spot about accepting hideous acts in their works of fiction.

    Yes I know this will sound curmudgeonly, but I think if an author creates a crime in their imagination of something more hideous than has ever actually been done in history… they are guilty of something, on some level. We should not push our imagination toward accepting ever more evil scenes in our minds.

  • Anonymous

    We are so immune to violence in film, which is a shame.  Great commentary at: http://www.culturalweekly.com/america-loves-a-bully.html

    Read and comment.

  • Shelley A.

    As a middle school English teacher with a Mennonite background, I am curious about the reactions of other pacifist readers to this series, particularly Book 1. I have to admit, I am very uncomfortable with the premise of the books and had put off reading The Hunger Games for quite some time. But, given how beloved this book is to my middle school students, I thought it was important that I read it. After finishing the first book (which is, admittedly, very suspenseful and engaging) I continue to be troubled by the premise, the book’s prominent violence, and the protagonist’s disconnectedness from the murders she commits. But, most of all, I am concerned about how the book seduces readers into adopting an uncritical stance on these issues.

    In The Hunger Games, psychological and physical violence permeate the text. The book portrays psychological violence as tributes are pulled away from their families and forced to kill and/or be killed by other children. Then comes the lengthy descriptions of their combat training (including killing with spears, arrows, mallets, and knives) and finally their experience of combat and various tortures at the hands of their co-tributes and the Gamemakers. Any critique of violence or the abuse of power is buried far beneath the entertaining spectacle of The Games. That is, violence and combat, rather than its critique is what is most frequently offered to the reader over the book’s374 pages. Throughout The Hunger Games, the reader is also eased into the inevitability of violence. No one can blame Katniss for doing “what she has to do” to survive in the arena. (Good time to ask WWJD!) The prose doesn’t encourage or compel the reader to recognize the humanity of the “enemy” (i.e., other children forced to participate in the Hunger Games). Instead, the reader is made to feel relief at each eliminated contestant. Let me say that again: the prose works to create feelings of inevitability and relief each time another child is murdered. The protagonist herself, with whom the reader most closely identifies, kills at least three other children, and spends little to no time grappling with her own capacity for violence. 

    In our world where children are coerced into perpetrating violence or are victims of violence (every 6 hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect) I wonder what our uncritical consumption of this book means. I am surprised that all of the Christian or pacifist perspectives I could find online were so whole-heartedly enthusiastic and untroubled by the basic elements of this novel.  I wonder if these acrobatic interpretations of The Hunger Games attempt to soothe a conscience that, under different circumstances, might actually find itself entertained by Hunger Games.   

    • Martytroyer

      Shelley,
      Thanks for your comments and pushback. I write as a form of dialogue, so I’m appreciative to hear you had a different experience than did I with the book. As I said in the post, my experience is that “she doesn’t tell you she’s indicting violence, she invites you to feel the indictment through outrage, hate, betrayal, fear, despair, and manipulation.” My experience in speaking with and to youth on these books is that overwelmingly they’ve grasped the idea that there aren’t any killings in the book we’re not supposed to be outraged by. Yes, being in the arena (a very artificial setting!) is a hell of a conundrum. Challenging deeply the ease of answering a question like WWJD. It is not, however, so hard to ask the WWJD question from outside the arena. If you look at the larger social context she is inviting you into, it’s easy to say “No” to that. There’s good discussion in the gap between those two.

      Uncritical consumption of any media/technology is inappropriate. My experience in dialoguing with youth on THG is that they are incredibly adept at engaging the deeper issues presented in the books if given the opportunity. Yes, some may come to the story for its romance, or its violence, or because everyone else is reading it. But there is so much more than all that to hold their attention and to teach a more complex worldview.

      Again, thanks!


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