Catholics Still Not Catching on With Catching Fire

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In his Day of Peace message on January 1, 1979, Pope Saint John Paul II said: “To everyone, Christians, believers, and men and women of good will, I say: Do not be afraid to take a chance on peace, to teach peace.” I decided to take his words seriously and teach an online course this summer for Catholic high-school students called The Hunger Games and Christian Nonviolence. Let me tell you why.

After the first Hunger Games film came out, I wrote here about the reviews that appeared in the Catholic media. To recap, I noticed a troubling pattern: No Catholic reviewer (that I read anyway) seemed to understand that The Hunger Games is about war, which is very odd considering that our government has been at war for more than ten years. Moreover, critics tended to associate the darkness they perceived in these stories (the government’s control of the people through fear, the use of war as a political tool, the replacement of God with the State) with future societies and ancient civilizations, in other words: other places, other countries, other times, and other kinds of people (non-Christians, non-Americans.). This trend continued after the release of the second film: Catholic reviewers seemed appalled at the maliciousness exhibited by President Snow and the government of Panem, but while they were quick to make connections with American society when it came to things like the insidiousness of reality television or the vanity of the people in the Capitol, when it came to the diabolical nature of war…

I’m sorry. Did you say something?

Here are a few connections Catholic reviewers failed to make, or if they did make, found unworthy of mention.

Hot Jungles

The arena in which the 75th Hunger Games take place is a hot jungle. It might call to mind a certain Asian country where the United States fought an unjust war against a largely peasant population for more than a decade.

Poisonous Gas

The gaseous poison that crawls through the jungle in Catching Fire, burning the skin of the tributes and causing them to writhe and cry out in pain, was similar to the nearly 400,000 tons of Napalm that Americans dropped on Vietnam.

It should be noted that when the tributes jumped in water in Catching Fire, the burning stopped. Not so easy for the Vietnamese, as a U.S. fighter pilot explained in a 1966 issue of Life magazine: “When the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter, WP – white phosphorous, so’s to make it burn better. It’ll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.”

Psychological Torture

The bird scene called to mind stories about the CIA blaring extremely loud music for days at secret “black sites” to torment people. The next films will move from psychological torture to straight up mind control and brainwashing, something our own government learned from the Nazi scientists they imported to America after World War II and has been perfecting ever since.

“Go Back, Slave”

The government of Panem adds a cruel little twist to the games this time around: It is announced that the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games will be reaped from the existing pool of “victors,” who have traditionally been off-limits at the Reaping. Not surprisingly, the past victors are pissed. A parallel could be seen here between this and the Stop Loss policy of the U.S. military which extends a soldier’s term of service involuntarily, resulting in a “backdoor draft,” which results in the soldier being deployed on multiple tours of duty, which results in a higher incidence of PTSD, which means headlines like this have been appearing in the U.S. media since at least 2004:

Troops Adjust to Multiple Tours of Duty, 2004; Post-Traumatic Stress Soars in U.S. Troops, ,  2008; US Soldier Commits Suicide in Indiana Movie Theater, 2009;  Repeated Deployments Weigh Heavily on U.S. Troops, 2010; PTSD: Multiple Tours Taking Its Toll on the US Military, 2012; Suspect in Afghan Killings Knew War’s Tensions From Four Tours, 2012; American Tragedies on the Rise: The War Overseas No Longer Stays Overseas, This month’s Fr. Hood Shooting is a grim reminder of the unseen scars of battle, 2014; Addicted to Adrenaline: Ex-Green Beret Asks for Mercy in Robbery Sentencing 2014.

Involuntary servitude is the very definition of slavery. So next time you hear someone applauding our “all volunteer military,” think twice.

P.T.S.D. and Its Ripple Effects

The past “victors” in Catching Fire, held in such esteem and glorified in their Districts, portrayed as heroes and celebrities on television, are emotional and psychological basket cases in this film: one of them is in an insane asylum, one of them is an alcoholic, one of them randomly strips naked in an elevator. They suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. The film begins with Katniss preparing to shoot a deer in the forest. When the arrow flies, she sees it hit the kid she previously killed in the Games. She is terrified.

Ann Jones gives a great talk here on “The Everlasting Scars of War” and her book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars, pointing out that American soldiers don’t exactly experience the Normal Rockwell version of “coming home” depicted in everyone’s favorite Super Bowl commercial. Contrary to the popular message, it is not for lack of appreciation and gratitude that veterans suffer, and P.T.S.D. cases cannot be attributed to, as the government is starting to claim, “pre-existing conditions.” Veterans suffer from horrible physical, psychological, and spiritual trauma experienced in war: killing other human beings and watching other human beings get killed. No amount of flag-waving, no ride in a horse-drawn carriage, no pretty girl waiting for them at the airport is going to make those memories go away. In fact, those pretty girls don’t always fare so well. As early as 2002, there was a report on a spate of wife-killings involving soldiers coming home from Afghanistan.

While the characters in this film are too young to have families, war obviously wreaks havoc on the family, and thus, society, but this is a point you rarely see raised by pro-family-values Catholics. A 2010 documentary called Absent traces the roots of “the social pandemic of fatherlessness” back, not to the welfare state, but to the warfare state: one million men never returned from combat in World War II. Those who did return came home with so many mental and emotional wounds, that they ended up being abusive or “absent” in other ways. If you have a father who is abusive or absent, the chances of you becoming an abusive or absent father yourself, or of marrying a man who will become abusive or absent, skyrocket. We cannot begin to imagine how war wounds, mental and physical, ripple through society and reverberate through families, through generations. Nobody really knows how to “cure” P.T.S.D. It does not surprise me that people are now starting to see it as a spiritual disease (dis-ease) and turning to exorcism as an attempted solution.

Catching Fire also has a brother and sister team, Cashmere and Gloss, who in my opinion represent the saddest cases: the adrenaline junkies who have embraced their “victor” personas from previous Games and can’t wait for another chance to get back in the arena. Ann Jones talks in her book about the soldiers who actually prefer being at war and, when their contracts are up, choose to go back as private contractors, “for the money and fun.” Many of them, when they eventually come back home, find jobs in the Border Patrol or in local police departments, where they get paid to play war right here at home, terrorizing citizens of this country. Watch this horrifying video of the murder of Kelly Thomas or the videos over at Filmingcops.com. The media fails to inform us when the perpetrators of police brutality incidents are veterans, but we have to assume that these wars have something to do with the increasing frequency with which they are happening.

We as a society will be dealing with the effects of these wars for decades, and this is a theme Suzanne Collins seems to be deeply concerned with, she being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, herself.

Child Soldiers, Remote, Cold Killing, and White Collar War

No Catholic reviewers seemed interested in mentioning that this kind of looks like this, or that this kind of looks like this, or (I’m going to get in trouble for this one) this looks like this.

Smile, kids.  After participating in this “youth development program” sponsored by the Pentagon, you, too, might one day have your chance to go to war.

There were tributes in The Hunger Games that didn’t have to be drafted in the Reaping; they volunteered, because they had been trained from a very young age to see going to the Hunger Games as the most honorable thing they could do with their lives. They want to bring glory to their District, so they had spent their childhoods preparing for it. They are well-fed and arrogant and fierce and tough. In the trilogy, they are called Careers.

The United States used to have a Reaping. It was called the draft. (No mention either that this kind of looks like this.) The military realized that the draft caused a lot of antiwar sentiment, so they switched to an “all-volunteer” military in the seventies, after Vietnam. But how do you get people to volunteer for such a thing? The same way they did it in the Districts in The Hunger Games. First, you have to get people at a very young age when they are still physiologically, intellectually and spiritually unformed. Then you start to form them: their desires, their perceptions, their values. You get in their heads. The military collaborates with high schools around the country to make this happen (and let’s not forget their powerful collaborations with the video games industry, public relations firms, and Hollywood.) From a very young age, American children are absolutely saturated with pro-military propaganda.

It is extremely successful. As Jones reports in America’s Child Soldiers, there are now over half a million kids between the ages of 14 and 18 participating in JROTC. Defense Secretary William Cohen, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, said JROTC is “one of the best recruiting devices that we have.”  JROTC targets “educationally and economically deprived areas,” in other words, kids who don’t have marching bands and theater programs and sports teams and debate clubs; nor do they have college-educated, socially-conscious, helicopter moms who would have the time and energy to show up at PTA meetings and protest the military’s presence in their schools. These kids, poor, uneducated, with very few options for personal growth and development, many of them probably fatherless, are just out there for the reaping, and the military knows it, and takes full advantage.

An organization called the Young Marines take children as young as eight. About 32,000 14- to 21-year-olds participate in a Boy Scouts-affiliated program called the Explorers, that trains children in “confronting terrorism, illegal immigration, and border violence.” Now I have no problem with a father teaching his son how to shoot, but this is on a whole different level. As Ann Jones points out, this isn’t about learning how to handle a weapon responsibly: It’s about teaching military values, which are “teamwork” and “obedience.” But the most important one, of course, is obedience.

General Robert Baden-Powell, who is considered the founder of the Boy Scouts in 1906 and authored the first and most widely read book on scouting in the twentieth century (150 million copies), Scouting for Boys (1908), said: “…the boys should be kept away from the idea that they are being trained so that someday they might fight for their country. It is not war-Scouting that is needed now, but peace-Scouting.” The early editions of the American Boy Scout Handbook emphasized this so strongly that it was accused of being ”propaganda for pacifism.”

Where, oh where, are the peace-Scouts?

Authorial Intent and Christian Interpretation

In determining the moral of the story in the Hunger Games, all we have is the author’s own words: “I write about war for adolescents.” I think Suzanne Collins wanted to show the brutality of war and its effects on the human person. Generally speaking, Catholic reviewers did not seem receptive to this message in the film, or if they did, found it unworthy of mention.

What could account for the failures, or refusals, to draw parallels with our own history, our own wars, our own militarization of children, and our own government, especially among the Catholic community, when talking about The Hunger Games and Catching Fire? Pope Saint John Paul II said: “To reach peace, teach peace.” Well, I believe we have a Catholic Church that prays for peace and teaches justified war, embraces violence as an efficacious means of attaining peace and justice, and accepts, pretty much unquestioningly, every justification for war the government wants to offer.

I am an optimist, so I see this as a problem of education, and literature can be very instructive, because it allows us to imagine a world where certain factors, certain influences, certain people, and certain ideas don’t exist. There are two officially sanctioned attitudes or approaches one can take towards violence in the Catholic Church. On the one hand there is Just War / Just Defense theory, conceived originally by pagans like Cicero and Aristotle and adopted and refined by Christians during the time of the Roman Empire, (never meant to justify Christian participation in war, mind you, meant to limit Christian participation in war). Then, on the other hand, there is the command given by Christ to “love your enemies,” which for lack of a better word in the English language we call “nonviolence.” Now the vast majority of Catholics are never taught a single thing about either one. And the sad truth is that the very existence of a Just War / Just Defense theory is seen by many Catholics as an inherent repudiation of nonviolence, an admission of its limitations, impracticality, even foolishness. Thus, in our understanding of good and evil, nonviolence becomes a non-thought, and when this happens, it results in an extreme impoverishment of the Christian’s moral imagination.

You see this in the Catholic reviews. They betrayed more than just a blind spot for war. They exhibited moral confusion that results when Christians become locked in a Just Defense mentality, which embraces the use of violence more or less unquestioningly. Sr. Helena Burns writes in bafflement over at Lifeteen.com:

The one problem with the series—and it’s a big one—is the underlying dystopian setting of young people killing young people … What are we telling/showing youth and why? That life is war? That this is a future we’re heading to? That we must be vigilant about authority, oppressors, totalitarianism? How to keep one’s humanity in the direst and trickiest of situations? Or is it just a juicy, dark story?”

It’s a good point. Young people killing young people, or people killing people, is generally a “problem.” I appreciate Sr. Burns’ honesty about her failure to see any definitive lesson in the story. So many Catholic reviewers that I read tended to focus on those small glimmers of light in the dystopian darkness and call those glimmers a reflection of Christian values, though those glimmers could have reflected virtues of the “noble pagan” just as well.

Katniss was often described in the Catholic media as being “a Christ-like figure” and a “moral hero.” But Katniss is a killer. Meryl Amland at Catholic World Report lauds Katniss’ “moral compass” because Katniss “will not kill except in self-defense or when defending others.” Sr. Helena Burns herself writes: “Katniss is almost too perfect. Her flaws are negligible, and she always does the highest moral, heroic thing with great courage.”

It does present a bit of a conundrum: In one breath we must condemn killing yet praise our heroine, a killer. How can killing be a “problem” but also be the “highest, moral, heroic” thing? It does seem a bit contradictory.

Katniss is praised by many Christians because she exhibits an impulse towards self-sacrifice when she volunteers to go the Games in her sister’s place, because she cleverly undermines the Capitol through cunning (a quality also much admired by the ancient Greeks), and because she shows a willingness to do anything to protect her family from harm and suffering. She does the best she can and there are plenty of reasons to admire her — for her strength, her courage, her loyalty — and she does have some charitable instincts, but that isn’t enough to prevent her from becoming a pawn of the state, is it? That isn’t enough to prevent her from becoming a murderer.

The Hunger Games are undoubtedly unjust wars. They are objectively, by any standard, very unmistakably evil. Yet Katniss participates. Twice! She may participate reluctantly and unwillingly, unenthusiastically, but she participates nonetheless. She may undermine the Games with a clever trick here and there, but — at least as far as we’ve seen in the first two films – she does not say “No.” She does not refuse to play. She plays, and like everyone else, she aims to win, and as long as President Snow has people in that arena trying to win, trying their best to survive, he’ll always have his Games, he’ll always have his circuses, he’ll always have his power. (One could argue that Katniss goes on “playing” until the very end, just in a different “game” and a different “arena,” that she never actually learns anything, that she never really gets it.)

There really isn’t anything “Christian” about this trilogy. (Does being Christlike really mean simply being a more reluctant killer than the next guy?) I do, however, think that, setting aside all questions of authorial intent, which can’t really be known outside of what I stated above, there are some interesting lessons in The Hunger Games that Christians could greatly benefit from acknowledging, but it seems to me that reviewers are so dead set on squeezing any drop of edification out of these stories, identifying any possible way that good works in the story, that they completely miss the far more interesting lesson about how evil works in the story.

Which brings me back to my class: I have no intention of turning this class into an anti-American lecture every week. The American government is plagued by systematic evil of mass proportions, but any tendency to peg the problem of evil as it is exhibited in The Hunger Games on American capitalism, American fascism, socialism, communism, totalitarianism, tyranny in general or simply “the State” is too easy. Too many Catholics attributed the evil they saw in these films to a faulty political system. We seem to want to politicize every problem in our society, but evil is a great and horrible mystery, not something we can vote away with a ballot or write away with a law or pin conveniently to an “-ism” — or even keep at bay through “vigilance.” Yet, tyranny is a fact of the matter in these books. So the question I propose is: How does tyranny come about? How does a tyrannical government first obtain and then maintain its power?

Most Catholics accept violence as something inevitable and quite natural (which is why Katniss can still be their moral hero). It could be said that this very mindset is the first thing that allows evil to worm its way into the world. This mindset is summed up quite well by Sr. Helena Burns at Lifeteen.com when she extols the virtues of Katniss:

“’Why can’t we all just get along?’ But since we can’t, we must protect our own and forge allegiances, and then be fiercely loyal.”

Really? Must we?

If so, who are “our own”? (Who is my neighbor?)

Who are we are supposed to be fiercely loyal to, as Christians?

Better question: Who are Jesus’ “own”?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, wasn’t Peter trying to protect his own (Jesus), forge alliances, and be fiercely loyal when he drew his sword and cut off the soldier’s ear? And how did Jesus react?

By the time we get into the Games in Catching Fire, an alliance of good guys has formed and they are actively trying not to participate. Well, they are still killing people, but they have moved beyond their interest in individual survival, and they are now willing to kill people to protect Katniss (“their own”), and let her be the victor, because she is the symbol of the resistance. (So that’s sort of progress?) But Katniss doesn’t know about their plot. And guess what? She is still dead set on winning the Games and getting back home to take care of her sister! People are falling on their swords left and right, and Katniss simply doesn’t get it. Someone sacrifices her life right in front of her face and Katniss is perplexed: “Why did she do that?” she says. “It makes no sense.” Katniss is pretty dense. Katniss is somewhat heroic, very cool and very likeable, but in the end, she operates primarily from a place of anger, woundedness, and fear. (This is more obvious in the books.) She is motivated by love, yes, but her love does not extend beyond those who love her: her sister and her mother, then Peeta and Gale, and people she happens to take a liking to. Katniss’ goal is to survive from day one, and it is arguable whether that ever really changes in the books. Her love is not Christlike. It is mere tribalism, and in that she is a very human, not heroic, character.

“But!” you say. “She was forced to participate! In the first film, she couldn’t let her sister go to the Games. Then, when she was there, she had to try to win because she knew her family might starve to death without her! In the second film, she knows that if she resists the State, the State will hurt those that she loves! So she has to! And it’s okay to kill in self-defense! So Katniss is still awesome!”

And therein lies the true moral conundrum, the impossible knot in the Hunger Games.

The terrible truth about evil

The real problem at the heart of the story isn’t the fact that we have a flawed protagonist. I, for one, have no use for superhero movies: I like a character I can relate to. The real problem is that the very things that make Katniss our hero — her love for her family, the loyalty she displays toward them, her willingness to do anything to save them — are the very same things that drive Katniss to participate in the Games: Twice! Her love is ultimately used to manipulate her into participating in outright, abject evil. The unpleasant lesson in this story, one might even say the moral of the story if you want to see it in a certain dark light, is that evil gets its power from love. And that’s one major reason tyranny can take root.

How many people throughout human history have participated in evil because they were afraid of what would happen to themselves or their loved ones if they didn’t? How many cooperated with evil because they were afraid of what would happen to themselves or their loved ones if they didn’t? How many Germans participated in Hitler’s army and killed other people because they needed to bring home a paycheck and secure a future for their kids, and if they said no, something bad would happen to themselves or their family? Tyrannical governments know this, and use it against people.

Coming at it from a Catholic perspective, if you remove the question of Just War from the moral equation (so if the government tells you someone is your enemy, then that person is your enemy and you have to kill them, no matter what, like in The Hunger Games) – (and who can argue that the Christian Just War theory has not been removed from the equation in contemporary American society, if it ever has been a part of the moral equation in this world?) – and then remove the very idea or possibility of nonviolent resistance, and all you have left at your disposal is violence and the rather elastic theory of Just Defense. And The Hunger Games shows us just how difficult it is, when that’s all you have, to untie that moral knot, that Catch 22 of good being used to fuel evil.

The full narrative arc of The Hunger Games shows us (again, whether or not intended by the author) that a world deprived of God, with no understanding of holiness, with no knowledge of Christ’s command, with no sense of a purpose to life beyond ensuring the survival of oneself or one’s own group, a world where “the highest moral, heroic thing” is to “protect our own and forge allegiances, and then be fiercely loyal,” is a world where there will naturally be fewer and fewer peacemakers, and more and more Peace Keepers. It will be a world where violence is embraced, not only to defend our own life, but our own family, our own property, our own group, our own allies, our own ideas, our own “interests,” and our own loyalties and allegiances, no matter what. It will be a world where violence begets violence, where violence becomes an infection, and spirals out of control. In other words, it will be our world. (The documentary Dirty Wars, by the way, does a great job of exploring the phenomenon of how the United States started out with a “kill list” of twenty or so people in 2001, and then it ballooned to thousands over the course of time. The more “defending” we do, the more that seems to pop up out there that we think we have to defend ourselves from. Funny how that works.)

Sister Helena Burns writes: “It’s never just about saving one’s self [in The Hunger Games], but often it’s about self-sacrificing to save others.” But that’s not really true. Katniss is a soldier and, like every soldier, she does not really see it as her job to “lay down her life for another” as much as she sees it as her job to make other people lay down theirs (as the adage goes). As the trilogy continues, you will see that more and more people end up having to be sacrificed on the altar of “Katniss’ own”; it’s just that the circle of “her own” gets a little bit bigger throughout the course of the story. Don’t Americans currently justify the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of other human beings on the altar of “our own”? We don’t call it human sacrifice anymore, though. We call it “collateral damage.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his sermon “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” about his move away from liberalism:

I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil…I came to see that the superficial optimism of liberalism concerning human nature overlooked the fact that reason is darkened by sin. The more I thought about human nature, the more I saw how our tragic inclination for sin encourages us to rationalize our actions. Liberalism failed to show that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from its distortions and rationalizations.

Hope

If evil can get its power from love, if evil can use love to achieve its ends, as a tool, then doesn’t that mean that evil ultimately triumphs over good? Because whatever is being used as a tool must necessarily be inferior to that which is using it.

This would be true, unless there were a kind of love, or one might say a way of loving, that could never be used by evil. Only if that Way of love existed would it be possible to say that good triumphs over evil. Of course, that Way of loving clearly doesn’t exist in the world of The Hunger Games. That Way of loving is very rare in our world, too, but lucky for us, we can at least be aware of it. And who knows what can change once we consider that Way and allow it to be a part of our consciousness?

Just like there is a certain logic to Just Defense, there is a logic to nonviolence. Just as you can use reason to defend war and the use of violence, you can use reason to defend nonparticipation in war and a refusal to use violence. I think it is important that Catholics understand both sides of the picture, especially young Catholics who are living in a world absolutely steeped in violence.

I am not in any way qualified to teach this class, by the way! That’s why we’ll be listening to Father McCarthy’s Behold the Lamb series alongside reading the books. (Lew has published some of his articles in the past.) With his guidance, we will examine this issue of violence in depth: What’s wrong with it, other than the fact that it’s ugly? The violence in these films is so often mentioned as a negative thing, but it is never explained why violence might be considered a negative thing. We will learn why Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae that “At the root of every act of violence against one’s neighbour there is a concession to the ‘thinking’ of the evil one, the one who ‘was a murderer from the beginning’ (Jn 8:44).” We will consider why Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he came to see that “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” We will learn about things like Conscientious Objection and people like Franz Jaggerstatter.

By wrestling with these two extremes — the fictional, god-less world of The Hunger Games where violence is so acceptable it has become a form of entertainment, and our real world in which some Christians have chosen to renounce violence completely in the name of Christ (some might call them “moral heroes”)– students are sure to be awakened and challenged. The class will not offer any easy answers, but it will hopefully introduce a new way of looking at life and will encourage young people to think more deeply about things important, things controversial, things relevant to their own lives. Students will be asked to contemplate and assess the claim made by Fr. McCarthy in Behold the Lamb that “Holiness is the only revolution.” And we will try to figure out, as Haymitch says, “who the real enemy is.”

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