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4/5/12 at 06:32 PM 0 Comments

The Value of a Life in Panem: The Hunger Games and the Secularization of Western Culture

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"The future shape of the world," Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler has noted, "appears to be a worldview competition between Christianity, Islam, and Western secularism." The Hunger Games film and books present us with a world where the worldview competition is over in North America, and Western secularism has won.

Centuries in the future, the secularist's dream has turned true: Among the citizens of Panem, God is unmentioned, unnecessary, perhaps even unknown. Rich or poor, powerful or powerless, the people of Panem proceed with no apparent consideration of God above or hell below. John Lennon imagined in 1971 that such a world would result in "all the people living life in peace"---but discontent seethes beneath the surface of Panem, and the Hunger Games themselves represent the survival of the fittest at its most brutal.

So what societal values survive in this land that has been denuded of the divine?

I would suggest that the two values that have survived secularization in this fictional future world are self and the state.

:: Self and State in the Hunger Games ::

The purpose of the state in conducting the Hunger Games is to sustain an illusion of hope but to quell this hope by manipulating the outcome of the games. "The only thing stronger than fear is hope," President Snow reminds the Gamemaker when it becomes clear that Katniss is no typical tribute, "Control it!"

What Katniss and Peeta demonstrate in the arena is a triumph of self over state. The Capitol may manipulate people's hopes, but the Capitol cannot ultimately suppress the people's capacity to choose their own path. "If I'm going to die," Peeta muses the night before the games begin, "I want to still be me." In the end, the two protagonists' self-determination rises to subvert the state's power. Katniss and Peeta become partners, and both survive by threatening to end their own lives, thus depriving the Capitol of a champion---a possibility that would steal the state's capacity to manipulate the people's hopes.

Few would disagree that self-determination is preferable to dictatorship. Yet the elevation of self-determination to a supreme value is no less problematic than the elevation of the state to supreme authority. Separated from any sense of the divine, neither the state nor the self is sufficient to establish ethics that can support and sustain human thriving. This insufficiency is most clearly apparent in a question posed in a conversation between Katniss and Gale before the Hunger Games begin---a question that neither book nor film ultimately answers.

"You're the best hunter I know," says Gale.

"It's not just hunting. They're armed. They think," I say.

"So do you. And you've had more practice. Real practice," he says. "You know how to kill."

"Not people," I say.

"How different can it be, really?" says Gale grimly.

The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all.

:: Human Value in a Land That Has Forgotten God ::

"How different can it be, really?" Gale asks and, in the process, reveals one of the most problematic aspects of a society that has exiled God from public discourse.

Is the death of a person truly more tragic than the demise of any other creature? If so, why? A secular worldview cannot provide a consistent and coherent answer to this question---except perhaps to make the utilitarian suggestion that, if people began to kill one another indiscriminately, human society would become unsustainable. Yet, if human beings are merely primates with overdeveloped cerebral cortices, why does the sustainability of human society matter anyway?

This is not to suggest that human death is treated lightly in The Hunger Games. When Katniss kills other humans in this first book and film, she most often does so indirectly or in the process of protecting others. Her nightmares in the aftermath of her father's death and her sacrificial commitment to the survival of certain others suggest that the loss of human life can be tragic. When a twelve-year-old tribute dies, Katniss sings to her and covers her corpse with flowers, suggesting the need even in a secular culture to mark death with some sort of sacred ceremony. Yet what the secularized worldview of The Hunger Games lacks is any clear capacity to articulate why human life matters or which lives should be valued.

Nevertheless, I would contend that Suzanne Collins does imply an answer to this dilemma. Her solution is consistent with the supreme value of self-determination in The Hunger Games---but it is also antithetical to a Judeo-Christian worldview that sees human life as intrinsically valuable.

In the final pages of the book and in the closing moments of the movie, a pack of wolfish mutants mauls the only remaining tribute other than Katniss and Peeta. In response to the tribute's plea for death, Katniss sends an arrow through his skull. What justifies this death, particularly in the book, is that Katniss' intent is "pity, not vengeance" and that the victim requests his own death. The point implied here is that even the value of one's life is self-determined in The Hunger Games. If a person's future is filled with agony instead of hope, death may be chosen over life, and human death is tragic only if the deceased person would have preferred life.

This is a popular version of the perspective that bioethicist John Harris and others have articulated throughout the past decade. According to Harris' self-determined consequentialism, the value of a life is determined by the value that the individual places his or her life. "There is," Harris writes, "only one thing wrong with dying and that is doing it when you don't want to. ... Persons who want to live are wronged by being killed because they are thereby deprived of something they value." Self-determination of the value of one's life becomes fundamental to Harris' argument in favor of abortion, since "non-persons or potential persons cannot be wronged in this way because death does not deprive them of anything they can value."*

Moments after the death of their last competitor, in the climactic triumph of self over state, Katniss and Peeta make it clear that they are willing to commit suicide before killing one another. In a fascinating twist on humanity's fall in the Garden of Eden, the woman urges the man to consume fruit that will be fatal for both of them. Seeing that the Capitol is about to be deprived of any capacity to manipulate people's hopes, the powers of Panem intervene, and the threat of death becomes the last tributes' pathway to life.

Suicide or murder is, of course, a false dilemma, and Katniss clearly expects the Capitol to intervene before she and Peeta consume the fatal poison. Still, the threat serves to underscore the underlying point that each individual decides the value of his or her own life. Such self-determined value stands in stark contrast to the Judeo-Christian perspective that human life is intrinsically valuable because every person is a living likeness of God, created in his very image (Genesis 1:26-28).

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer predicted the possibility that, in Western culture at some point prior to the midpoint of the twenty-first century, "only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct." The Hunger Games presents another possible future---a future in which the thought of taking a human life is still accompanied by a nagging sense that something about this action is wrong, but no one can quite remember why.


Timothy Paul Jones (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as associate professor of leadership at Southern Seminary. Dr. Jones has written more than a dozen books in the areas of church history, apologetics, and family ministry. He blogs here and at http://www.timothypauljones.com.

* The flaw in Harris' argument for abortion lies in the fact that it determines whether a person values his or her life by whether the person communicates a desire not to die; this allows Harris to presume rather too conveniently that, since pre-born children do not clearly articulate a desire to remain alive, they must not value their lives.

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