“Why is there no religion in "The Hunger Games"?” asks a reader in an online forum about the young adult bestseller that has just been made into a film. The much-anticipated teen movie has been garnering rave reviews, despite criticism regarding the level of violence it depicts.
For the uninitiated, "The Hunger Games" is an American equivalent of Harry Potter, a story of a teen searching for meaning in a chaotic and threatening society. It takes place in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem comprising a capital city and 12 districts. The capital is a city of wealth and pleasure supported by resources, food, and material goods from the districts. The district people are essentially slaves, oppressed by hunger, poverty, and military control. Each year, to demonstrate their superiority, the capital demands each district send two tributes-one girl and one boy chosen by lottery-to participate in "The Hunger Games," a high-tech reality show-meets-gladiator contest. The teens must kill each other until only one survives. The victor earns wealth and fame, and food for his or her home district. But he or she must bear the memory of having murdered to win. The final tribute becomes a scapegoat for the sins of the entire society, bearing the shame of oppression for the survival of the whole nation.
The hero of this grim tale is a teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to be the District 12 tribute when her younger sister’s name is picked in the lottery. She is agile and tough-and she wants to win.
"The Hunger Games" draws upon two sources: one, ancient Roman history and mythology; and two, contemporary American economics and culture. On the surface, Panem appears void of religion. There are no prayers, no churches, no temples, no priests, no shamans, no God or gods, no sense of hope. In this future world, all vestiges of institutional religion are gone. As one person in the online forum wondered of this absence, “Perhaps they’ve outgrown religion.”
Despite the lack of conventional religious trappings, however, the major theme of the novel is a deeply theological question, one that has haunted the religious imagination for millennia: Can violence--even sacrificial violence--save?
When Katniss volunteers for the games, she saves her sister’s life by offering to die in place of another. This echoes the Christian teaching of Jesus’s death as a sacrificial substitution for another. But Katniss’ actions undermine the traditional understanding of self-sacrifice. Katniss is not Jesus. To save herself, she must kill others. In "The Hunger Games," salvation cannot be accomplished only by death but by murder. The game arena is a profane altar-where the teens slaughter each other to placate the emotional and political “gods” of the capital and reinforce belief in the system that binds the society.
Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, understands that violence never saves. Even seemingly noble or sacrificial death breeds more violence. Violence always serves oppressors, never the oppressed. “I don’t want them to change me in there,” he tells Katniss of the arena, “Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
To survive means to be twisted into one who murders other for food and entertainment. These games are not about fame and victory. They are about one’s fundamental sense of identity, about the impossibility of human dignity under the Capitol’s rule. “I keep wishing I could think of a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me,” Peeta says, “That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” Peeta wants to subvert this ritual violence for the sake of his humanity.
Thus, Katniss and Peeta begin a journey-to find a way out from under the Capitol’s thrall. They do not want only to survive. They want to be free.
Ultimately, "The Hunger Games" argues for a human future of love and non-violence by immersing us into the voyeuristic orgy of violence brought about by inequality and injustice. Readers--and viewers of the movie--must take stock of the limits of violence as a way of freedom and redemption. Katniss is a powerful figure, athletic and smart. But she is saved--and saves others--by reason and love, not hatred and fear. "The Hunger Games" points out that the world envisioned by spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King is infinitely preferable to a world of “bread and circuses,” where the many are controlled by the very few. The future hangs between these two visions: Will we be Panem or some other sort of world?
No religion in "The Hunger Games"? The story eschews religions that glory in crusades, jihads, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. In Panem, there is no place for religion that supports injustice. The enslaved neither want nor need such a religion. Banished are religions that celebrate bloodlust. There is too much of that already.
Yet "The Hunger Games" celebrates faith--faith in family, faith in friendship, faith in song, faith in justice. "The Hunger Games" proclaims that beyond the fences of fear built to enslave, control, and guard, there is joy, beauty, and wonder. In the end, there is true freedom, and the hard-earned hope that human beings can create a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (HarperOne, 2012). She is a fellow of the SeaburyNEXT project of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an independent scholar, educator, and blogger.