The Hunger Games: A mockingjay, an arrow and flames

There are several recurring images in The Hunger Games – a mockingjay, an arrow and flames. Each element on its own is powerful – together they stirred the residents of Panem to rebellion.

birdarrowflame.jpgThe mockingjay

We begin to see just how potent the mockingjay symbol is when, in Catching Fire, Katniss returns once more to the woods. Instead of finding peace and quiet she finds two starving women struggling to find their way to District 13 and safety. The only thing that keeps Katniss from shooting them is a biscuit. There is a mockingjay pressed into the top of it, copied from the pin Katniss wore into the arena. In the book series, the mockingjay pin was a gift to Katniss from her only friend, the mayor’s daughter Madge Undersee. It was a potent symbol for several reasons.

  • The mockingjay bird existed in spite of the Capitol’s intentions. The Capitol had created a “muttation” called the jabberjay to eavesdrop on conversations and parrot them to its handlers. When district residents caught on they filled the jabberjay’s ears with nonsense. In frustration, the Capitol released the muttations into the wild, assuming they would die off. Instead the jabberjays bred with the indiginous mockingbirds creating a new species. The mockingjay became a favorite of district residents as a symbol of a thwarted Capitol plan, and because its songs were so beautiful.
  • Katniss’ pin had been worn to the games before, by Madge’s aunt, who was killed by muttations in her games – the same games Haymitch won. The mockingjay is returning to the fight, as if to represent the indomitable spirit of the district residents.
  • The mockingjay is, in the end, a symbol of Katniss. She is a creation of both her home district and the Capitol that drove her to the woods to hunt and gather. It is this combination that makes her a survivor, a contender in the Games, and ultimately a symbol to others.

An arrow

On the book cover and movie poster for The Hunger Games (and the pin I wear on my jacket) the mockingjay holds an arrow in its beak. The arrow is a weapon, a symbol of war. Katniss, and the districts under the Capitol’s thumb have two choices: accept subjugation or join the resistance.

Official seal of the Church of the Nazarene

Official seal of the Church of the Nazarene


Katniss is associated with fire the first time she enters the Capitol. Her costume is not the expected variation of a coal miner’s suite. Instead she and Peeta are the coal. They are the source and spark and energy. They are the flame. Katniss is introduced as “the girl on fire.” But fire, like hope, can be a dangerous thing. President Snow warns that hope might lead to rebellion, just as a small spark can cause a great forrest fire. Katniss comes to understand how dry the forrest is when her tiny flame is all it needs to ignite an inferno of rebellion.

A bird, a weapon, a flame

So, I was thinking about these symbols: a bird, a deadly weapon and fire, when it suddenly occured to me how very similar they are to core symbols of Christianity. The dove that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The flame represents holiness. And of course the cross, used to kill criminals and horrify the rest of the population into submission.

Culturally we recognize the dove as a symbol of peace, and it’s true that it was a dove that brought an olive branch to Noah after the flood to show that there would be peace between God and Man. In the New Testament, though, the dove comes to represent the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as a friend and active helper in the life of believers.

John Wesley created this symbol for the chapel he build in London in 1777. The dove and snake are from Matthew 10:13 when Jesus says, "be as innocent as doves and cunning as serpents."

John Wesley created this symbol for the chapel he build in London in 1777. The dove and snake are from Matthew 10:16 when Jesus says, “be as innocent as doves and cunning as serpents.”

The cross takes us back to the militant Roman imagery that Suzanne Collins used so effectively in her novels. According to Wikipedia, “crucifixion was often performed to terrorize and dissuade its witnesses from perpetrating particularly heinous crimes. Victims were left on display after death as warnings to others who might attempt dissent. Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), gruesome, humiliating, and public.” Even more than death in the arena, crucifixion was a horrible way to die. Especially when you consider that although it was the fulfillment of prophesy, a sacrifice to atone humanity’s sin and make a bridge between us and God, Jesus was set up for political reasons not executed for a genuine crime.

Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, fire is a purifying event. Jesus said it is the Holy Spirit who leads believers into truth and enables us to live holy lives. In the book of Acts, tongues of flames appeared to settle on the early church, fulfilling Jesus’ promise of that he would send the Comforter, another name for the Holy Spirit. The best part is that guiding friend, that Comforter, that purifying force is still available today.

Symbols are important. Where Katniss’ mockingjay, arrow and flame represented freedom to be fought for, Christianity’s dove, cross and flame offer freedom freely given.

Mockingjay: Gale Hawthorne and Active Resistance

I’m Team Peeta. So sue me. But this does not mean I don’t appreciate Gale.

It isn’t until the third book of the Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, that Gale Hawthorne really comes into his own. In Catching Fire, however, there is one key scene – when Gale is whipped by the new Head Peacekeeper, Romulus Thread, for possessing a poached turkey. The beating is so severe Gale is unable to work for two weeks, but it doesn’t matter anyway because the mines have been shut down in a form of reverse strike. The Capitol is flexing its muscles to show the already starving district just who holds all the power.GaleDavid.jpg

Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back.

~ Katniss Everdeen, Catching Fire

The most famous of Israel’s kings, David, started with similarly humble circumstances. He was the youngest of seven sons working at the least respected job on the family farm – shepherd. As the youngest he was extremely unlikely to inherit anything. But there’s a problem for this ambitious and talented young man. Israel was being overrun by a neighboring nation – Philistia. The Philistines were fearsome warriors, better armed, better trained and the soldiers are quite literally giants.

Like Gale, David is a skilled hunter, he is handsome and respected by those who know him. And he has every card in the deck stacked against him.

The most famous of the Philistine soldiers was Goliath.  Like a modern day dance-off, the best soldier of each army duked it out one-on-one to determine the best army. Goliath was over 9 feet tall, and every day as he stalked back and forth along the no-man’s-land between the two armies, he roared insults. The Israelites cowered in their tents, just like the Districts did for decades under the thumb of the Capitol’s cruel Hunger Games.

The similarities don’t end there.

  • It was during one of these events when David was doing one of the most mundane chores – delivering food and suplies to his older brothers in the army – that he first hears of Goliath. It was as normal as Gale bringing wild food and game to sell to the residents of District 12.
  • David quickly learned that King Saul had offered a pretty incredible set of prizes for whoever took on Goliath and won: wealth, the king’s daughter in marriage, and his entire family would be exempt from taxes for life. The prizes Gale hopes to win are not that different: freedom to earn a living for his family and the potential to win Katniss’ hand.
  • When David’s older brothers heard he was asking around they accused him of being vain and told him to shut up and go home. Kinda like how Katniss told Gale to be careful what he said and who he said it to.
  • None-the-less, word gets to King Saul that a young man is interested in challenging the Philistine champion. Saul suits up David in his personal armor and weaponry. When Gale and his family find refuge in District 13, Alma Coin, the leader of the district, tries to suit him up as a leader.
  • David finds he can’t even move in Saul’s armor and rejects it for his own simple sling. Gale also chafes under Coin’s traditional military style and finds greater success when he can draw on his skills as a hunter and trapper.
  • David faces Goliath and brings him down with a stone to the center of his forehead. Gale brings down the capitol when he destroys its last stronghold,also with rocks, a mountain fortress called “The Nut”. He uses landslides, actually, strategically set off to trap all the workers inside.

There are times and places for active resistance – times when what is yours will never be willingly given. Times when the power disparity is so great, and the political gulf so wide that so amount of picketing will bridge the gap. Gale, much like King David, is that kind of guy. And King David is the only one God ever called “a man after His own heart.”

Watch the Hunger Games: Catching Fire trailer

Catching Fire: Death, grief and rage

For the survivors we meet in Catching Fire death is a constant companion. They are walking examples of post traumatic stress disorder, never having dealt with the grief and rage of what was done to them. Of what they were forced to do.

How does anyone experience extraordinarily shocking events and then return to “normal”?

In Chasing Fire we meet 22 Hunger Games victors, bringing the total we meet through Katniss’s point of view (including herself, Peeta and Haymitch) to 25. Very few of them are what anyone would call “normal”. The morphlings from District 6 have buried the horror of surviving the games in drugs. Enobaria, whose victory was particularly brutal (she tore her final rival’s throat out with her teeth), has pushed her claim to fame to the extreme. Her teeth are now sharpened to shark points ensuring no one will ever get close enough to hurt her ever again. Haymitch, famously, ruegrief.jpgis perpetually drunk. Seemingly more so when there’s an audience. Katniss buries her grief of losing Rue just as she buried the grief of losing her father – she keeps too busy to deal with it. Yet every night the nightmares remind her of what she’s done and what she’s lost.

I started writing this on Good Friday, when the whole Christian world contemplates the unjust conviction, sentencing and execution of Christ on the cross. Jesus’ closest friends were dealt a hammer blow on that day. Their friend and rabbi, a peaceful teacher full of compassion, was killed in the most violent and shameful way. They were there when Jesus’s skin was flayed from his back, they watched the life ebb from his body on the cross, they heard his mother cry.

Like the victors in Catching Fire, the disciples also reacted in their grief in a wide variety of ways. Judas, whose actions lead most directly to Jesus’ death, committed suicide. Peter, who famously denied knowing Jesus, ran away, trying to return to life before he became a disciple. Many of the other disciples clustered together in hiding places, fearing they would also be hunted down and killed. I’m sure they remembered Jesus words, “I must leave you so the Comforter can come,” but I doubt it meant much to them.


When I was writing this, I became stuck right there.

What do I know if grief? My parents are healthy, my beloved Grandmother just turned 90, my children are noisy and full of life. Then I was reminded of my cousin’s death when I was in college. He was in his early 20’s, just a few years older than me, a writer and composer, and movie-star handsome. Friends would ask me to introduce him, begging for his phone number. For some reason he decided to go fishing on a pier that juts out into Lake Michigan – in October when a storm was blowing in. A witness saw a man trying to run for safety between the waves until a particularly large one crashed over the breakwall – and the man was no longer there.

They found John five days later. His fishing pole rested on the sandy bottom just a few yards away.

It was utterly unfair. I raged against God and fate. It is still unfair. John should be reading and critiquing this blog. And I should be doing the same for him.


Of course, Jesus rose again on the third day. The disciples got him back – at least for a little while. For 40 days walked with and talked with his disciples again. He comforted them, he forgave their betrayals, he gave them new jobs. He told them he would be leaving again soon – but that he wouldn’t be leaving them alone for long. In Acts chapter 1 the disciples watched Jesus as he rose, inexplicably, into the sky. While they were standing there, mouths wide open, staring up, two men dressed in white suddenly asked, “Why do you stand there looking at the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way…”


Normally my dreams are disjointed and senseless. Forgettable and quickly forgotten. But shortly after John’s funeral I had a dream unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

John was packing his little pickup truck for a long trip, and he had to borrow something from me that was both sentimentally and financially valuable. I was reluctant to turn it over to him, even with his promises to care for it. But I did, and when I saw how carefully he put it in the front seat next to him I  knew he would care for it like just as I would, and I was immensely comforted by that. Then he hugged me, and I swear to this day I could feel, really feel, that hug.

I woke up in the middle of the night. Although I could barely see the yellow legal pad under my pen for the tears in my eyes, I knew as I transcribed the dream that John had been given permission to visit me. To comfort me. And I was comforted. I had given him permission to go where he needed to go, and to take a piece of me with him.


Just ten days later the core disciples and many other followers of Jesus were gathered together when a sudden, supernatural experience overtook the room (Acts chapter 2). What looked like flames of fire fell through the ceiling and rested over everyone’s heads – but nothing burned. Each was filled with the Holy Spirit and the truth of God poured out of their mouths for anyone who would listen.

They were no longer alone, without Jesus, for God had sent the Holy Spirit to live in each of them – a personal Jesus who never leaves, constantly guiding, encouraging and loving the believer.


Death, grief, rage, loss, we all deal with these at one level or another. Some, like the waves of soldiers, marines and sailors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, suffer more than I can imagine. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I think, maybe, there is some validity in accepting that a part of you went with the person who died, and a part of them stayed with you. And that there is a reason Jesus called the Holy Spirit “Comforter”. Jesus was God in a physical body. He couldn’t be everywhere with every need – but the Comforter can be. Jesus left so we all can call on God, and receive his Comfort.

Catching Fire: Panem, social justice and sequestration

In Catching Fire we get a much more comprehensive look at the lack of social justice pervading Panem’s society.

We began to understand how out of whack the balance of power and wealth had become in The Hunger Games. It is a lack of social justice that forced orphans like Katniss to sign up for tesserae, the food program with the terrible price – another ticket with her name on it in the Reaping bowl each time she requested a years portion of grain and oil for herself, or a family member. Children between the ages of 12 and 18 are eligible for tesserae. Since they were a family of three, Katniss, Prim and their mother, she earned three tickets in addition to the ticket automatically entered each year. And all of the tickets were cumulative. By the time Katniss is selected for the Reaping at age 16 her name was in the bowl 20 times.
So much for the Biblical injunction to take care of the orphans and widows.

“Woe to you, lawmakers, judges, administrators, hypocrites! For you who live in comfort off the government condemn and deride your deeply dedicated fellow government workers in the field. You proclaim that we must guard our borders but you decrease your Border Patrol Agents’ salaries by 35% while they face the loss of their homes and face the guns of the Mexican cartels.” ~ Benjamin Pratt

But life in Panem gets even harsher. When we look closely at the society of Panem there are three distinct stratas. The Have-it-alls in the Capitol, the Have-enoughs called the merchant class, and the Have-nots. In District 12 the have-nots live in the Seam, and the only way out – the only way to becoming a Have, or at least a Have-enough – is to win the Hunger Games.

Against all odds Katniss wins, and moves her family into the Victor’s Village. She is given a beautiful home and more income than she can spend in her lifetime. For the first year after her win packages of food and goods will be distributed each month to every family in the district on Parcel Day. She is also given a curse, the happiness and health of her friends in the Seam hang on her behavior. If she displeases the Capitol in any way the Seam will suffer.

Katniss’ oldest friend from the Seam, Gale is busted by a new head peacekeeper for attempting to sell a poached turkey, he is whipped until he is unconscious and his back is hamburger. When Katniss steps in to prevent him from being killed the response is swift and brutal – and affects everyone in the Seam. The first thing to go isthe Hob, an old building that housed the District 12 black market. It was where Katniss and her childhood friend Gale sold their game and wild produce they had gathered outside the district fences. Then the mines – the only source of income for the Have-nots – are shut down for weeks. More children then ever, the Have-nots of the Seam, sign up for tesserae, but many don’t receive their grain.

Finally, in a strike at the only thing Katniss considered a positive result of her winning, Parcel Day is tainted. The food is spoiled and rodents have ruined the rest. The Capitol is doing everything it can to destroy Katniss as a hero, and if that means letting residents of the Seam starve, then so be it.

It is sequestration, Panem-style.

The problem with sequestration is that those least able to support any loss get hurt first and hardest.

The soft fiscal underbelly of any government are the social services: public safety, transportation, military staff, and safety net services like emergency mental health and food programs. These are the easy targets for those at the top of the heap, who don’t personally use or see any personal connection to the services they hold in jeopardy.

All of these and more are under threat right now here in this incredibly prosperous nation. In the Capitol, I mean our capitol, Washington, D.C., at least a dozen leading politicians dined this week with the president at a restaurant where the prix fixe menu starts at $85  and includes such frou-frou, Capitol-worthy items as an amuse bouche appetizer, a pre-dessert, petit fours and dessert. Factor in the cost of all the security necessary to bring the restaurant up to presidential standards and you’ve probably got enough to fund a small town’s police force for the better part of a year.

And, guess what, it’s making people mad.

Author, pastor and generally laid-back guy, Benjamin Pratt, met his limit with Capitol hypocrisy this week. So he wrote a poem. Really. It makes sense. Pratt explains he channeled the righteous anger of Jesus and Amos, merely changing the cultural cues made these two ancient texts startlingly relevant.

“Two factors contributed to this writing. What’s happening right now in Washington weighs on my soul, as I know it does for the millions who will be affected by this inane gridlock. The sequestration is affecting our family personally. My Border Patrol son-in-law was informed that he and every other Agent will take a 35% pay cut—that is not a mistake—35% is accurate unless something changes. So this man who faces the Mexican Cartels each day will lose that much income, putting his family and home in jeopardy. The second contributing factor is that I had just finished reading the chapter on Jesus’ anger in Peter Wallace’s new book, The Passionate Jesus. So, I imagined how Jesus and Amos might channel their anger.”

“Woe to you, lawmakers, judges, administrators, hypocrites! You joust over every jot and tittle of the law but neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting individuals and families who form the backbone of our nation. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow an elephant! You point one finger of blame in front of you while holding your hand behind you to receive money from the rich and the corporate who buy your vote. Woe to you, lawmakers and judges, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed, snobbery, self-righteousness and self-indulgence. You blind lawmakers and judges and administrators of our land. First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, lawmakers, judges and administrators, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness… You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:13-32, Jesus’ anger paraphrased and made current)”

I’ve only quoted sections of Ben’s whole piece. It is worth reading in its total.

Catching Fire: Plutarch Heavensbee, Sending a Message

We are surrounded by people sending us messages. Some of them are rather minor, but sometimes a major hint comes a long and we just don’t get it. It’s kind of like that when, in Catching Fire, Plutarch Heavensbee shows Katniss his fancy new watch with the mockingjay hologram.

Plutarch's pocket watch

Katniss realized the truth about Plutarch’s clue only after she is in the arena.

“It starts at midnight,” Plutarch says, apparently in reference to a secret meeting he was about to attend – but the whole conversation is slightly bizarre, as if he meant something else. Since everything in the capitol is bizarre, Katniss dismisses the conversation as irrelevant.

Months later, after being sent back into the arena as a tribute, Katniss finally figures out what Heavensbee meant. The arena is set up as a huge clock that was set in motion by a strike of lighting at midnight. Twelve wedges, each containing a different danger, each active for a set hour twice a day. It didn’t matter where she rested. If Katniss stayed still long enough the clock would kill her – even if the other tributes didn’t.

Have you ever had moments where somethig momentous happened – good or bad – and you looked back and realized you could have seen it coming, if you’d been paying attention to the right things?

Jesus talked about paying attention with his disciples in Matthew 13. They asked Jesus why he told stories to make his point, because a lot of people would listen and say, “oh, what a nice story,” and leave it at that, when the disciples knew Jesus was making a much deeper life-changing point.

Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah:

You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.

Jesus told stories that reflected the culture of his age where farming and fishing were of immediate relevance. So what stories might Jesus use today? What truths of our culture might be pointing to Him, that if we would listen and turn, he might heal us? These are the things I see when I look around:

  • A deep need for connection. The proliferation of social media where millions of people reveal the deepest and most mundane details indicates to me that many of us no longer have significant person-to-person connections in our lives. For some reason it is easier to reveal our sins and our breakfasts to a thousand total strangers than it is to our neighbor.
  • A hunger for the spiritual. In the past 20 or 30 years movies and books featuring the unexplained and supernatural have flourished. Even the History Channel – a place you might think to count on for presenting the most factual of events – spends weeks at a time on ghosts, prophesies, and access to the gates of hell.
  • A nagging suspicion that there must be more than this life. For a while you couldn’t go to the movies without seeing a title that included witches. Then it was all about the vampires – sparkly or otherwise. Now whether cute and recovering or terrifying mindless hoards, it’s all about the zombies. Each of these genres, at its root, has one question – what happens next? And, is it better to live forever, even if it’s in a non-human form?

I’m not saying these markers are unique to our age. They’re not. Philosophers have debated these points for millennia  They are universal because they point to the Eternal.

Can you think of a movie, book or event that left a soul-deep yearning in your life? What did you find to fill it?

Catching Fire: Finnick and the face of modern slavery

It’s in Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games series, when we first meet Finnick Odair. Like Katniss and Peeta, he is one of the former victors who has been selected to go into the arena one more time. Katniss is repulsed by Finnik’s overt sexuality. He reminds her of a corrupt officer of the law in her home district who would take advantage of desperately poor women – paying for their favors with one night in a warm house or one hot meal.

Finnick is 24, devastatingly handsome and his reputation as a ladies man has spread all the way out into even the furthest districts. Katniss is eager to keep her distance from this man she considered to be a tool and extension of the Capitol.

photo of actor Sam Claflin

Actor Sam Claflin has been cast for the role of Finnick Odair who appears in the last two Hunger Games books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

It isn’t until later, much later, we discover the truth about Finnick and how he became the Capitol’s playboy. He was only 14, a child, really, when he became champion of his games – but perhaps it was his youth that made him so valuable.

“President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desireable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy the for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.”

~ Mockingjay

Here is where this blog post gets really hard to write. Because with only slight changes to the text, this could be the direct quote of a modern day slave, held, sold and suffering in North American, South America, Asia – or anywhere else in the world. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center it is estimated there are more than 100,000 children in the sex trade in the United States of America each year. Children. In the sex trade. Suffering unspeakable horrors every day and probably multiple times per day.

And that’s only the children only the sex trade. Adult women are also forced into prostitution – as well as men and women physically forced or emotionally coerced, through threats like the one President Snow effectively used on Finnick and other Hunger Games characters, into physical labor in dangerous or difficult situations. Labor trafficking runs the gamut from domestic help, to restaurant work, to large scale farm operations and dangerous factory conditions. The Polaris Project uses the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 to define labor trafficking. It is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”

Abolition International  claims there are more than 27 million victims of slavery worldwide – more slaves than there have ever been before in the history of the world. They estimate it to be a $32 billion dollar industry – and the FBI calls human trafficking “ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.”

In 2010, the Vasquez-Valenzuela family held two young girls inside this Los Angeles, CA apartment when they weren’t working the streets. The windows were nailed shut so the girls would not try to escape. Photo courtesy FBI

According to the FBI the majority of victims in their human trafficking cases are women and young girls from Central American and Asian countries. They are primarily forced into the commercial sex industry and domestic servitude. Men and boys are typically victimized in the migrant farming, restaurant, and other service-related industries. However, there are an increasing number of young males being forced into the commercial sex industry as well.

But not all of the victims of human trafficking in the U.S. are foreign nationals; some are American citizens or residents. For example, an Anchorage man was found guilty in February 2008 of recruiting young women—mostly runaways from other parts of the country—to work for him as prostitutes. He controlled them by getting them addicted to crack cocaine, confining them to a small closet for days at a time, and beating them. Abolition International adds that one in three runaways are approached by a sex trafficker within 48 hours of being on the streets.

So, what can you do? Open your eyes. We are not powerless pawns under a heartless President Snow. Know the signs of trafficking and call the authorities when you see them.

Here is a list of resources. Please get involved. Make a difference in the life of someone who may have already given up hope.

Recognizing the signs of human trafficking –

The Polaris Project: recognizing the signs (their name comes from the North Star that lead so many slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad)

FBI: Help us identify potential victims of trafficking

Who to call when you suspect human trafficking-

National Human Trafficking Resource Center 1-888-3737-888

Your local FBI office (Click here to find)