March 20, 2012

The Hunger Games

The highly anticipated movie The Hunger Games opens this Friday in theaters across the nation. Based on a series of young adult novels by the same name, this movie reflects on scarcity, individualism, and an ethos of distrust. In this blog post from last summer, Miguel Escobar reflects on what he learned from the young adult series and what he believes it can teach the wider Church.

This summer I read Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, a popular and unnervingly dark young adult novel series. In three books, we read how a violent society pits starving teenagers against one another in the ultimate zero-sum game, a reality show where friends must turn on one another if they are to emerge as the sole survivor. The victor of these annual games wins food and wealth for her/his family.

Scarcity, survival, competition for limited resources - part of my interest in this novel series came from the fact that these themes were already on my mind. Last summer offered me multiple opportunities to reflect on how scarcity can lock us into a white-knuckle struggle to survive, oftentimes at the expense of more imaginative solutions and potential partnerships. 

The first of these moments came when I learned that the stove had broken.

As a board member of the New York Intern Program, an Episcopal Service Corps program where five young adults complete a year a service in Harlem, NYC, we had already received bad news. Citing government cutbacks, AmeriCorps had sent us a disappointing letter saying that their funding for NYIP had been cut. Whereas we had previously enjoyed relative financial stability, we suddenly found ourselves on shaky financial ground. A broken stove in the intern apartment only rubbed salt into the wound; we spent a grim meeting coming up with ideas for how we could meet this added expense.

The second moment came when I was asked to offer a 15 minute statistical overview on the state of the Episcopal Church for the Episcopal Church Foundation. This presentation took place in August and was based on reports from the Episcopal Church Center’s Office of Research. “You’re the bad news guy!” a colleague said. And he was right. My presentation covered declining membership, declining worship attendance, declining plate and pledge. I could go on but won’t.

In the face of scarcity and decline, I've struggled to not go into anxiety-filled survivor mode. All of us are prone to feel competitive and resentful toward more well-resourced programs, congregations, denominations, etc. Yet we do so at our own peril. 
Like any good young adult novel, The Hunger Games shows how the hero’s frightening circumstances force her to grow up. The hero of the novel, Katniss Everdeen, comes to terms with how a lifetime of scarcity has pitted her against potential allies and she must learn to trust teammates in even the most frightening circumstances. She realizes how important it is to see abundant resources where others can only see lack, teammates where others only see competitors. And finally, she has to learn how playing into the zero-sum dynamics of the hunger games misses the larger point. 
Katniss goes from being a frightened, reactive survivor to a leader who is capable of shifting how the game is played.

As for the stove, to be perfectly honest I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I don’t believe anyone really knows how to resolve mainline Protestantism’s decline in the U.S. Nevertheless, this novel (as well as our rich tradition of reflection on scarcity, survival and God’s abundance) has made me realize that we won’t get very far unless we’re able to radically rethink how we use our limited resources, establish partnerships rather than engage in bizarre rivalries, and stay focused on the bigger picture - namely, God’s mission - even as we struggle to survive.