This was discussed throughout the month of October 2012 with the youth of New Wine Christian Fellowship. It was not delivered as a sermon.
“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” (Frederick Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols, 1888. Maxim #8.).
The Hunger Games is our theme of discussion currently. So I want to talk a little about the world of “The Hunger Games”. It is supposed to be a world created in the aftermath of a collapse of these United States of America. The world is a picture of bleakness. District #12, the home of our main characters, is a mining district under the strict and repressive control of the Capitol. Like any poverty stricken coal mining area, it is grey and unhappy. To add to this, the population is fenced in and unable to leave. Panem is a police state although the propaganda machinery seems relatively mute compared to Communist or other dictatorships of recent history.
Our heroine Katniss has her unique difficulties. The death of her father at an early age, and her mother's subsequent depression, forces Katniss to become the breadwinner for her mother and her sister. As a result Katniss is a good hunter, has learned to barter well and keeps a wary eye on the circumstances. In short, Katniss has learned to make lemonade and do it well.
But one final log is about to be laid on this pyre. As a punishment for rebellion, the memory of which the districts are never allowed to forget, the districts must each supply one girl and one boy aged between fourteen and eighteen to fight to the death in an annual televised event called “The Hunger Games”. The winner is given great honor. District #12 is a poor district whose ill prepared contestants, chosen by lot, almost never return alive. For District #12, the Hunger Games are a death sentence.
The picture couldn't be more grim, grinding poverty, a police state without mercy, cruel circumstances of life. Yet is this circumstance so different from the circumstance of so many inhabitants of this planet right now today. To us it may seem that this is an extreme almost charactured picture of life's unfortunate. But how many today are locked in by poverty, repressive governments, religious fundamentalism, and the only breadwinner is dead or conscripted or hopelessly maimed by violence? How many millions of this world's inhabitants are trapped, without hope?
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reports that 870 million people do not have enough to eat tonight. Of these, 98% live in underdeveloped countries. One out of four children in these countries is malnourished. This contributes to a death toll of five million children under the age of five every year in these same countries. Eleven million children die every year from preventable illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia. 1.4 billion people have incomes under $1.25 a day, the current threshold of extreme poverty. 1.7 billion people are without safe drinking water. The fact is that for many residents of this planet Panem would be an improvement.
I want to dig deeper into the hope that The Hunger Games present us with, but first lets look at another movie. This one, darker and perhaps even more real to some of us, despite the fact that it presents an extreme caricature of reality, that is The Dark Knight, a film that came out at the same time as The Hunger Games.
“Whatever doesn't kill you simply makes you… stranger.”
(The Joker's first line from the film, The Dark Knight. 2008).
Nietzsche says, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”, but is this true? How many of these millions are stronger for their circumstance? And how many are so grievously wounded that they cannot be rescued by the most well endowed and well meaning citizens? For these there are institutions like The Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. This fictional institution houses several of Batman's foes, the most famous of which is The Joker. The Joker, for those who don't know, is a recurring villain in the Batman series whose cackling laughter and bizarre behavior make him a seriously creepy villain.
The Dark Knight drops us into a desperate Gotham City. Despite the cities wealth and culture, competing criminal gangs have turned the city into a war zone. The city government and the police are unable to stop the violence. They turn to Batman for help in cleaning up the streets. But just when police and their vigilante friend are gaining the upper hand, the Joker appears. At first he appears to be a nuisance, but gradually it becomes apparent that his inane behavior is far more menacing than at first blush.
Gotham City is not poor economically, it is poor morally. The wealth of Gotham has become the petri dish breeding lawless of the worst sort. Lawlessness breeds insecurity and fear. The sense of the matter is that this is just not right. There is a desire for justice, but justice eludes the authorities at every turn. The vigilante justice that Batman provides is an uneasy compromise. When the rising star, district attorney Harvey Dent is turned by the Joker all hope seems lost. If the pillars of justice aren't to be trusted, who is. As fortune has it, Dent's death allows his betrayal to be covered up. Batman chooses to take the fall. In the end, it easier to believe that the vigilante is culprit.
Justice has been replaced with putting things back in order. But the order achieved will inevitably have cracks in its foundation. Have you ever had to deal with a pseudo-intellectual? The sort who challenges your beliefs, just for the enjoyment of getting you confused and tongue tied? They have no interest in truth that makes the world a better place, they just want to know enough to torment. The Joker is a bit like that, only by leaving a trail of bodies his challenge is much more intense. He wedges open every fissure and so obscures justice that the protagonists trample all their principals looking for a way out. The police put the vigilante (Batman) in as interrogator with the prisoner (Joker). The interrogator presses, “I have one rule…” The Joker cuts him off, “Ohh, then that's the rule you'll have to break to know the truth.” The Joker prods and pokes, “To them, you're just a freak… like me”. He is the snarky intellectual with a razor edge tipped in poison.
“For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” (Jean DeBuffet)
DeBuffet, a modern artist and a snarky intellectual loves to dismantle our aesthetic ideals, but has no rational replacement. Like Huxley's Doors of Perception, (descriptions of his experiences on LSD), the world looses it shape, without ever coming back together. His perception is nothing but purple haze. The Joker challenges Batman, “I'm just ahead of the curve”
“It is said that the Joker may not be insane, but has some sort of ‘super-sanity’ in which he re-creates himself each day to cope with the chaotic flow of modern urban life.” (wikipedia.org article on The Joker, referencing Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison).
The world we live in so thoroughly questions the order of things, even the nature of things, that reality and unreality, sanity, insanity, and super-sanity pile on. Nietzsche, writing at the end of the 1800's, voiced the century to follow him: “What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions ó they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” He saw that faith was coming to an end. He pronounced God dead, “We have killed him”… “Dead are all gods: now we want the overman to live”.
Nietzsche was influenced by Darwin, whose book Origin of the Species was the sensation of the age. He says, “You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.” Against this he posits the overman (‹bermensch), or the superman. “This superior man would not be a product of long evolution; rather, he would emerge when any man with superior potential completely masters himself and strikes off conventional Christian ‘herd morality’ to create his own values, which are completely rooted in life on this earth. Nietzsche was not forecasting the brutal superman of the German Nazis, for his goal was a ‘Caesar with Christís soul.’ ” (www.britannica.com article on “superman”) He accurately predicted a century of wars beyond all others.
Panem is this world without faith. A world where hope is carefully rationed. And yet, against this dark vision there is hope, not born of the realities of the situation, but a hope born from within. A hope that resists the obvious realities.
2 Corinthians 5:15 and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
Red in Tooth and Claw is the forced gladiatorial combat of the Hunger Games. The subjects are not seasoned fighters. These are representative “tributes” or representative offerings from among the youth of each district. Even the well trained “career tributes” have never actually tested themselves in the arena. Placed in the killing zone, each tribute is forced to find his or her own inner strength. Panem is a Godless and Christless world. There are no appeals to any “higher power”. Apparently, no one in Panem has any idea of appealing to heaven. The tributes know that they will live or they will die, but the odds are not in their favor.
The Roman historian Eusebius recounts the story of a young soldier who is tasked with dragging a young Christian girl into the arena to be tortured to death for the crowd's pleasure. This girl was a disciple of Origen, one of the Apostolic Fathers. She does have one way out, deny that Jesus lives and is the Christ, to sever her allegiance to Jesus. She has chosen a cruel death. Basilides, the young soldier who is leading her into the arena is so impressed with her inner strength and calm demeanor that he does his best to shield her from the abuse of the mob until she reaches the arena and her awaiting death. Three days later he converts to Christianity. His fellow soldiers try to talk him out of it. By claiming to be a Christian Basilides will be beheaded. Christians are summoned who question him. He tells them that “three days after her martyrdom Potamiaena stood before him in the night, put a wreath about his head, and said that she had prayed for him to the Lord, and had obtained her request…” (Eusebius, The History of the Church. Pages 245-246.) The soldier was accepted into fellowship of Christ. For his reward, he was beheaded. But we know his story does not end there.
Here the cruelty and the injustice are overthrown, not by super-sanity, but by reward that transcends all the cruelty this world has to offer. I don't imagine that Peeta has the slightest clue about any of this. But even the Godless have standards. Peeta's one fear is that the games will change him, stripping him of his basic humanity. Katniss hears the nobility in this and is irritated: “I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I've been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self.” (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, 2012. Page 142.) Her self-centered troubled thoughts are exposed. Peeta is reaching higher. I can't help but think that Katniss is drawn like Basilides to that higher standard. His nobility draws her and encourages her. In the end, she is not able to destroy him.
And so the Darwinism of Nietzsche declares the world red in tooth and claw. The gladiatorial combat is an annual reinforcement, the super-men rule, the weak serve or perish. So where does Peeta's resistance come from? Why does Katniss respect it? I went to look for the source of the phrase “red in tooth and claw” and I was in for a surprise:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 1849. From a long poem written in memory to Tennyson's friend Arthur Henry Hallam)
Tho the facts before us, the very nature of the situation wars against it ravine shrieks, our inner being knows there is another law, a higher law, Creation's final law… God is love. Suzanne Collins, who doesn't appear to believe in God or heaven or the Son of God, believes in something within. Something that is higher than Darwin's Law. She can't help but believe in the Law of Love, even if it makes no sense in her world. So the sceptic philosopher and opponent of Christianity, Bertrand Russell speaking before Harvard University states, “I am coming to a startling, simple conclusion which sounds absurd, that love, Christian love, is the only way out of the world's problems.” (quoted in E. Stanley Jones, The Unshakable Kingdom, 1972. Page 182.)
The world that Jesus describes is not the world where super-men rule. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, ESV). Katniss asserts herself against a cruel roll of the dice, strengthening herself against the injustice. But Jesus says those who empty themselves enter the Kingdom. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he continues, “for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:4 & 5:7, ESV).
Jesus, knowing that he would soon face his own cruel and violent end, gave his assurance to his closest disciples. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV). Note that while he promises them peace, he also promises tribulation. In fact of these twelve disciples, it is believed that only one, John the author of this particular gospel account, died of natural causes. All of the rest were martyred, as were many that followed in their way. John's brother was beheaded. John spent most of his life on the run or in exile. He had suffered tortures on more than one occasion, but he recounts the promise of peace without the least bit of irony. His peace is real.
James 2:8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
“The only way out of the world's problems” asserts Bertrand Russell, “is… Christian love”. There are in fact two clauses to the royal law. Russell entirely dismisses the first, while he celebrates the second. Jesus is challenged by a scholar of Jewish Law, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36, ESV). Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, ESV). Without the first clause, love God with everything you have, the second clause, love your neighbor as yourself, becomes sentimental mush.
Russell, a founder of analytic philosophy, while on a bicycle ride one afternoon, decided he no longer loved his wife, and so he walked out of the marriage. Fidelity would not be one of Russell's hallmarks in any of his relations with women. He was awarded the Order of Merit by King George VI, to which a former cell mate of his commented, “You have sometimes behaved in a manner that would not do if generally adopted”. Russell may recognize the virtue of love your neighbor as yourself, but he rarely practiced it.
Nietzsche, like Russell wants the latter part of the Royal Law without the first. As we saw above, the superman he envisioned, ‘Caesar with Christís soul’, was a person without Christianity, without God, who creates his own values. Nietzsche died of a brain disease, originally thought to have been from syphilis contracted at a brothel. Regardless of the cause, we can see that he was living by his own self-styled values.
At the center of our story, Katniss wouldn't appear to have ever considered the principle love your neighbor as yourself. She has entered these killing fields with one thought, “survive if at all possible”. Katniss is no Christian. But her heart begins to move counter to the demands of the arena. Surviving the arena requires Darwinian brutality. But as the games progress and mercy is shown, Katniss feels the tug of honor and nobility. Peeta suggests that it would be better if Cato kills Thresh, so that Thresh's mercy would not have to be repaid. Katniss reels. “I don't want Cato to kill Thresh at all. I don't want anyone else to die. But this is absolutely not the kind of thing that victors go around saying in the arena. Despite my best efforts, I can feel tears starting to pool in my eyes.” (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, 2012. Page 293.)
We can call Katniss's reaction being human, but I think this is too dismissive of the gravity of the predicament. Her life depends on Threshes death. A temporary rule change means that Peeta doesn't need to die for Katniss to survive, but Thresh does. The analytics of the situation call for cold-hearted thinking, but Katniss can't muster it. Katniss cares about the other combatants. Katniss herself has received help from three other rivals in the arena: Rue, Peeta and Thresh. Peeta, though now an allay was her rival for survival at the time that he was severely wounded helping Katniss escape Cato. It seems irrational.
We all know that we don't always do the most rational thing, but this is extreme. Love your neighbor in the arena and you could loose your life to your neighbor. Why is this benevolence so strong in the face of death. Is this Thanatos, Freud's death instinct, driving Katniss to a risky thrill? I really don't think so. None of the characters who exhibit this grace are the thrill seeking type. Every single one of them is avoiding the brute strength and aggressive demeanor of the career combatants. There is no cause to die for. Honor is vaguely hinted at in some of the instances, but only some. There is something else at work. They have all connected into an understanding of right and wrong which has nothing to do with personal survival and it is a strong instinct, if I can use that word. Nietzsche, who says “egoism belongs to the noble soul” is confounded (Beyond Good & Evil. Page 215)
These are young people, none of which has reached their eighteenth birthday, who extend compassion to the those who could be their cause of death within minutes. When Katniss, now a victor, realizes that her actions have upset powerful people she begins to question her altruism. Did I do this out of anger, she asks herself, “Or simply because it was the only decent thing to do.” (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, 2012. Page 359.) Katniss is not under the influence of the Christian herd morality that Nietzsche sneers at. Religion of any sort seems non-existent in this world. But wherever people exist there are standards of morality, some quite fierce. The anti-religious morality of the far left is perhaps more deadly that the pseudo-religious morality of the far right. Stalin's butchery far surpassed Hitler's. And Mao's “Great Leap Forward” left more dead in it's wake than Stalin's “reforms”. Despite Nietzsche's sneer and his eagerness to embrace the ‹bermensch, it is Christianity which shows a new way to morality.
The moral code driving Katniss comes from so deep within her that she herself doesn't understand it. It is a moral law woven into every cell of her being by the one whose breath brought her to life. Katniss hasn't made her decisions based on any imposed code, but the one which erupts out of her naturally. Unfortunately our usual state is trapped in competing thoughts that impose what should or should not be done, sometimes with a great deal of pressure. Such are the Hunger Games. The code of the Hunger Games thoroughly subjects the tributes into submission to the dehumanizing death match. Not only has Katniss managed to avoid becoming a victim of the savagery, literally and figuratively, but she has unwittingly exposed its foul underbelly. This savagery is contrived, artificially created by and for the sport of people who pretend to be civilized.
So why to I say that Christianity is the new way to morality? Many look around and see the Christian churches as leading advocates of imposed moral order, and so they are. But, any Christian who does not understand that imposed morality is not Godly morality has failed to understand the basics. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16, ESV). Christian morality comes from God's touch. It is God breathed. The Spirit of God overcomes all the competing impositions releasing instead a new moral character, born from within. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV). Katniss may not be a Christian, but she is still hanging on to God's gift of character.