The Hunger Games, and Understanding Sacrifice

Cinna and Katniss from The Hunger Games. I'll get all smart and scholarly in a moment but let me say that I am SO stoked for this movie.

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Hunger Games, and Understanding Sacrifice

  1. In the continuum from wisdom to warrior I tend to come out at or near the “be” side rather than the “do” side. As regarding why one would self destruct in the course of mass destruction, that is something I could grasp (however not logical) by sixth grade. If one is going to die immediately, what is the import of a few millions (or billions) more in the process, my sixth-grade brain “reasoned.” After recently reading “Christ and Culture” I am even more inclined, due to unintended consequences, to keep to my stance of relative inaction or at least sufficiently delayed action (after much consideration), a stance for which a national leader endures much criticism but with which I strongly empathize. We over-rate freedom of action, as H Richard Niebuhr points out — our decisions are in the context of decisions already made by others (over which we have no control) and the consequences of our “free” choice / action are also such that we do not have control over, even if we imagine we do. To think otherwise is to take on (wrongly) the power of Godde.

  2. Rachel Heslin says:

    Although I enjoy living and don’t want to die any sooner than necessary, there are things that I believe are more important than simply existing. Whether it’s standing up for marriage equality in a conservative, small-town community or choosing to help others by picking up hitchhikers, I need to do what I feel to be right. Accepting death as a possible consequence of some of my choices frees me to make not just the “potentially dangerous” ones, but the other, lesser choices as well with less fear.

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