Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Hunger Games – What Would Perpetua Do?

I just finished Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. The books are an interesting read. The story is sort of a mash-up of the Legend of Theseus, Gladiator/Spartacus, George Orwell's 1984, and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

Set in a post-apocalyptic North America, the story offers a dystopian vision (a popular sub-genre of young adult fiction) of the country of Panem where a despotic “Capitol” controls 12 outlying districts. The districts, which used to number 13 revolted some years ago against that rule, but the revolt was crushed and one of the districts utterly destroyed. Now, to remind the remaining districts of their abject subservience, the Capitol holds an annual lottery selecting one girl and one boy aged 12 to 18 from each of the districts. These “tributes” are then taken to the Capitol and placed into an elaborate arena where they are expected to fight to the death in the “Hunger Games”. Only one tribute can come out alive. The winner is rewarded with celebrity status and a life of unimaginable luxury. The killing and death in the arena is televised for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol. The citizens of the districts are forced to watch as ongoing punishment for the rebellion. The heroine of the story, Katniss Everdeen, ends up in the Hunger Games as one of the tributes.

I’m not actually writing a review of the books. And nothing I say below gives anything away if you haven't read the books. I will say they are well-written and engaging. And as the father of three remarkable grown daughters, I always appreciate a strong, complex female character like the author has created in Katniss. And it does contain an element of substitution and sacrifice that a Christian can appreciate. I will read the third book and likely see the movie later this month. The point of this post is something else.

As I’ve read the story, I have wondered how Katniss or the other tributes should respond if they were Christians. Or, on this feast day of Perpetua and Her Companions, I am wondering, “What would Perpetua do?” Perpetua and her companions were martyred in AD 202/203 in the arena of Carthage as “entertainment” for the crowd during one of the early persecutions of the church. You can read her story here and here.

What would Perpetua do? What would be the Christian thing to do? Perhaps the faithful thing would be for Christians to always be prepared to volunteer or substitute themselves at the time of the drawing thus sacrificing themselves for the sake of others following the example of their Lord (like Maximilian Kolbe). If a follower of Jesus found herself in the Hunger Games, what should she do once in the arena? Killing would be out. All of the youngsters are innocent. Even the “careers” (tributes from districts where children are trained to compete in the games) are innocent pawns of an unholy system.

The Christians of the early centuries were keenly aware of Jesus’ words: "If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29); do not resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39); blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matthew 5:10); if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20)."

Paul and the other New Testament authors sustained and developed the theme that followers of Christ were to suffer, not fight, for their Lord. A believer's weapons were not composed of iron or bronze but were made of sterner stuff. (Ephesians 6:13ff.).

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died a Christlike death, praying earnestly for his tormentors. Eusebius, the church historian, called Stephen "the perfect martyr"; thus he became a prototype for all martyrs to follow.

As an early Christian apologist wrote a hundred years after Perpetua’s martyrdom:
For since we in such numbers have learned from the precepts and laws of Christ not to repay evil with evil, to endure injury rather than to inflict it, to shed our own blood rather than stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another . . .
- Arnobius, Adversus Nationes, I, 6

That rules out suicide as well.

Even if one was to grant the legitimacy of self-defense (an idea hard to defend on New Testament grounds), fighting in the Games at all would be colluding with the Capitol. It would be “following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”
(Ephesians 2:2). And, after all, “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.” (Ephesians 6:12).

What would be the better Christian witness? It seems to me that there are a couple of options. In either, to begin with, you would want to find a way to mark yourself with a clearly visible cross as you are being elevated into the arena so that it is clear for all to see that you are a Christian bearing witness.

One option, since no one has to seek martyrdom, would be to run and try to avoid being killed as long as possible. This would keep the others from incurring the guilt of your murder. Then your main opponent would be the Gamemaker who would be trying to kill you. This might be entertaining for you and the audience. Perhaps you could find ways to bear Christian witness that would be hard to edit out of the viewing. You would still end up a martyr.

But, even running might have its limits. What should you do if one of the other tributes is in danger? Even if they are pursuing you with lethal intent? A later martyr, Dirk Willems, gives an example of what loving your enemy might look like in such a situation (see here).

But I suspect Perpetua would probably find running unseemly and not a very complete witness (martyr means witness) to the hope of resurrection. After all, she and her companions entered the amphitheatre "joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces" singing Psalms. In the end, demonstrating true Christian courage and fortitude, she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided his sword to her throat so he could kill her. Thus, like the ideal martyr, she demonstrated her scorn for death and bore witness to her hope in a Life that transcends Death’s power and the power of all those who would use the threat of death to control others.

What would that look like in the Hunger Games? Again, marked clearly with the cross, I think Perpetua would have simply stood where she found herself as the beginning of the Games was signaled and begin singing a Psalm or hymn, continuing until someone killed her. Unless they edited her out completely, the whole of Panem would see that there are some who refuse to play this world’s game of oppression, violence, and death. And all would see the power of the cross, however weak and foolish it might seem to some. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). She would have thus considered herself a victor of the the only game that matters.

Perpetua likely would have understood her martyrdom along the lines of Origen who wrote later in the same century as her death,
A great theater is filled with spectators to watch your contests and your summons to martyrdom, just as if we were to speak of a great crowd gathered to watch the contests of athletes supposed to be champions. And no less than Paul you will say when you enter the contest, “We have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.” (1 Corinthians 4:9). Thus, the whole world and all the angels of the right and the left, and all men, from God’s portion (cf. Deuteronomy 32:9; Colossians 1:12) and those from the other portions, will attend to us as we contend for Christianity.
- An Exhortation to Martyrdom, p. 53

The example of the monk, Telemachus, offers a third possibility:
Two gladiators were fighting, and Telemachus tried to get between them to stop them, shouting three times, "In the name of Christ, forbear!" Telemachus was killed by being run through with the sword of one of the gladiators. When the crowd saw the little monk lying dead in a pool of blood, they fell silent, leaving the stadium, one by one. Because of Telemachus' death, three days later, the Emperor by decree ended the Games. (see here).

So, as a Christian in the Hunger Games, you might avoid being killed for as long as possible, stand and wait to be killed, or try to intervene in the killing in the name of Christ. In any event, the only option would be one or another form of martyrdom in the hope that one way or another you would be able to bear witness to the way of Jesus Christ in an "adulterous and sinful generation." (Mark 8:31-38).

What do you think?

A related post: No More Sacrifices - The God of Easter and the Death of Death


Jonathan said...

I'm moved by the way the post itself is held up by the witness of martyrs. I'm also reminded of Hauerwas' contention that the deepest enemy to Christianity is sentimentality, which is seen most clearly in Christians' unwillingness to see their children suffer for their convictions, especially the convictions (to your post) that put Christians at odds with war.

Matt Gunter said...

Indeed, Jonathan.

The collect, itself, for Perpetua and Her Companions challneges sentimentality (the claims of human affection):

O God the King of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Lee Wyatt said...

I too am just finishing Catching Fire. I like the way you set out the options, Matt. Obviously, Katniss is not portrayed as a Christian. It seems that option one, avoid being killed as long as possible, was her basic and original strategy. Her version of option two, stand and wait to be killed, was joint suicide with Peeta at the end as a way to foil the Capitol and leave it without a winner. She did not attempt the third option as far as I can remember.

It’s interesting to try to place Bonhoeffer in that typology. In my view he rejected option two, embraced option three in an ironic way (by his willingness to assassinate Hitler to stop the war), and used option one as a tactic to serve the ends of option two. I need to finish the series to see how the story unfolds though to see if this holds. Had Bonhoeffer and the resistance been successful, I wonder if he might have been caught up in some of the dynamics Katniss struggle with in Catching Fire?

Anyway, great post, Matt. Thanks.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Lee.

Yes, the example of Bonhoeffer is an interesting one, messing as it does with both absolute nonviolence and easy recourse to justifiable violence.

What would he do to resist the dominion of the the Capitol and President Snow (Hitler)? It looks like the third book is actually going to raise more of the kinds of questions Bonhoeffer faced in resisting the Nazis. Maybe that will deserve a post of its own.

But, if Bonhoeffer was actually substituted for, say Peeta, in the Hunger Games as presented in the books, what would he do? I expect he would not have killed anyone. What he most certainly would not do is join up with the careers and participate in tracking down and kiling other tributes.

The thing that is disturbing about the books is that while Katniss and Peeta express qualms about participating in the Games and killing others, in the end the assumption is that of course they will kill to protect themselves and/or each other.

That said, I do appreciate that Collins does describe the toll the violence takes on those who participate.

Robert F said...

I'm not sure what I think, but I do know that I find the account of Perpetua's martyrdom less than edifying because of her willingness to make it easy on her Roman executioner, who after all was about to commit a grievous sin. I know that the account has the hallmarks of the kind of exaggeration one finds in much hagiography, but the fact that her martyrdom along with its legendary exaggeration has been held up as a model I can't help but consider to be a bit spiritually pathological. Martyrdom should not include helping to facilitate sin. I understand this is a foundational story for the meaning of martyrdom, and that's why I find it especially problematic. Just because something was viewed as an exemplary model by Christians in the first centuries of the church doesn't mean it was an exemplary model. Those early Christians were mistaken about some things, and this is one of them.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Jonathan. I take your point. It does seem over the top for Perpetua to guide the gladiator's sword to hher throat for the final blow. But, I do not find it a problematic as you do.

1. Her condemnation was sure and inescapable. She had already been knocked about by the heafer and received a blow to the collor bone from the gladiato's sword. What else might she have done?

In guiding the galdator's sword to ther throat she accomplished two things: 1. getting it overwith. 2. Demomstrating her contempt for death.

One mught ask wht else she might have done given the circumstance.

I wonder as well if she wasn't showing compassion to the young gladiator. He appears to have had qualms about executuing her. But, what would happen to him if he refused? Perpetua seems to be sayig to him, "It's OK, do what you must do." I wonder what became of the gladiator? Was he moved to repent and believe?

Matt Gunter said...

Oops. That last comment was in response to Robert. My apologies.

Matt Gunter said...

As for the gladiator's sin, here is an interesting report of a conversation between Christian and Buddhist monastics in July of 1996 - shortly after the murder of monks in Algeria that inspired the movie "Of Gods and Men":

"The question of how to respond to violence took a poignant turn when Armand Veilleux, O.C.S.O., a French Trappist monk, shared his account of the recent kidnaping and martyrdom of the French Trappist monks in Algeria. He
had flown into Algeria after the kidnaping as a representative of the Trappist order. After the military takeover and the beginning of Muslim fundamentalist violence against foreigners, the monks knew that their lives were in danger and discussed what to do. In their first vote, two monks
favored staying in Algeria and the rest thought it wiser to return to
safety in France. They did not, however, wish to make the decision by a majority vote. Seeking consensus, they decided not to debate or discuss but to pray silently for 24 hours and then take an anonymous vote. The second
vote was unanimous: to stay.

"While Christians saw this as an act of courage and witness, a Buddhist participant stated that from a Buddhist perspective it might be more compassionate to leave such a situation to prevent one's potential killers from the bad karma (or effects) of murder. In reply, Dom Bernardo Olivera,
O.C.S.O., the abbot general of the Trappist community worldwide, affirmed that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and compassion: 'I fully expect to see the faces of the killers with me in Paradise.'"