Would you attend this Hunger Games camp?

So, this happened earlier this week.

Hunger Games Camp in Largo, Fla Has Some Concerned

(Oh! I went to post the link to the original Hunger Games Camp story on MSN.com and the video was gone! The point of the video is  the event organizer explaining the team-building, life-gaining activities at the camp.)

I was about to say – “that’s so COOL!”, but my husband was all, “can YOU beLIEVE this? A summer camp that glorifies kids killing other kids?”

But, he’d only read the headline – so I explained to him that it’s all team-building stuff – not a single paintball gun or Nerf arrow in sight. (Do they make Nerf arrows? If not, they should. I’d totally be onboard with those!)

I understand his concern, though. He’s seen the movie. It’s graphic. The deaths are deplorable and violent. (The Huffington Post picked up the story and had this to say about it.) This is my primary problem with movies. When I’m reading a book I don’t “see” the blood. I register that a character died, but I don’t invest my imagination in the details – and if the book is particularly graphic, I’ll even skip a few sentences so I don’t have to carry that image in my head. In the books the story does not drown in the deaths. In the books we hear lead character Katniss’ thoughts as she navigates this horrifying world, trying to avoid both killing and being killed. Knowing she is suffering somehow makes our suffering  as observers easier to bear.

What the Hunger Games is truly about, beyond the gory-kid-on-kid-murderous-violence, is justice.

lovejusticeTwo of the main characters, Katniss and Gale, have been deeply aware since an early age that injustice rules their lives. Their fathers died in a mine explosion. While their mothers are doing the best they can,  each has had to take on responsibility beyond their years to keep food on the table. Their childhoods were sacrificed because the government sees them as expendable.

Once in the arena, another main character, Peeta, declares he will not play the government’s game. He will preserve justice within himself. He nearly dies following that decision while leading predatory contestants away from Katniss and helping her to escape when she was trapped.

The camp I want to attend would  have a section on food foraging and survival skills. And archery. Because at some level I think  everyone wants to be Katniss. But if I were to organize a Hunger Games camp I would emphasize the need to be just in order to bring about justice in our world. We would talk about regional crops and food justice, bullying, institutional racism, and team building with people who are “other” than us.

I think the deeper story in The Hunger Games can be summed up by Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The Hunger Games: Peeta, Innocence and Cunning

In the beginning of The Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark is a puzzle to Katniss, seemingly equal parts of innocence and cunning.

He is “the boy with the bread”, the one who saved her from starving to death. He volunteered to clean up the puking-drunk, passed out Haymitch, a level of selflessness that Katniss herself could not imagine practicing.

Yet, he is the same one who knocked the drink out of Haymitch’s hand the next morning, and intentionally charmed the Capitol residents in an effort to pull future favors from them.

Dove-Serpent-frame.jpgKatniss has a hard time with this dichotomy because she only really sees two types of people: innocent doves and cunning snakes. As we follow her through the story we see her interactions with “doves” and “snakes”. Her sister Prim and her Hunger Games ally Rue are the innocent ones, the doves she goes out of her way to protect.

The “snakes” are easy to identify, also. She talks in passing about “old Cray”, the head peacekeeper who would use starving young women for his own gratification. But she reserves the epithet “snake” for President Snow himself. It is Snow’s machinations that terrify Katniss – his absolute, icy determination to have complete control.

There is no place in her black and white world for someone who walks between the two. So even as they team up to survive the games, she finds herself constantly second guessing Peeta, wondering if his goodness is too good to be true.

Katniss sees herself as a protector of the innocent, but she does not see herself as innocent or deserving of protection – not anymore. Not since her father’s death when she had to shoulder the family’s grief and step up as the sole provider. Yet, she is not a snake either. Haymitch has to teach her how to think like President Snow, to see how her innocent actions have been interpreted as malicious attacks.

Peeta, somehow, naturally walks the line between being the innocent dove and understanding how the snake thinks. It is a line Katniss can never seem to find, and when she does, almost immediately loses again.

It is a line we are called to walk.

In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus is preparing his disciples to continue his work in the world, so he send them out on a mini mission trip. He warns them that it won’t be easy, that he is sending them out like sheep to the wolves. Jesus advises his disciples to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Face it. There is evil in this world. (There has been since the beginning. If Eve had been as cunning as the serpent in the Garden of Eden she might not have fallen for his flattery.) It surrounds us with the only goal of pulling us down and preventing us from walking in peace with Christ. Pretending it doesn’t exist is a pretty lousy defense, and does nothing to help those who are suffering in its grip.

It is our job to know there is evil in the world so we can stand against it. But here is the tricky part – we are to remain innocent. Our innocence is restored the moment we ask God to forgive us our sins. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can maintain that state of communion with God.

You do not have to be a fictional character to be like Peeta. You are called to be, and therefore capable to being, both cunning and innocent, wise and pure. It is only then you will make a difference in the world

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

Flames

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.

The Hunger Games: Katniss volunteers… would I?

In The Hunger Games, when young Primrose Everdeen is selected as tribute, Katniss volunteers to replace her little sister in what is surely a death sentence without a moments hesitation or thought. And while she regrets many things she does in the months and years to follow, volunteering to replace her sister is not one of them

Esther, recruited to be queen, can keep silent and perhaps survive the genocide looming over her people. Or she can speak up and be the first to die.

“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute,” Katniss Everdeen, resident of District 12.

“If I perish, I perish,” Esther, Queen of Persia, Jew.

Although written millennia apart, the same steely determination rings through both of these  statements. Both young women face impossible odds for a victory that could improve their worlds – or a defeat that would destroy their loved ones for good.

I volunteer, if I perish, I perish.After all, the point of the Hunger Games is not really about crowning a victor. It’s about reminding the residents of Panem who holds the power. It’s the Capitol saying every year, “we hold the power of life and death over your children – and by extension over you.” For Katniss, as a resident  of one of the poorest districts, where any skills that might save her aren’t taught until adulthood, the odds of surviving even the first few days are not in her favor

  • Yet Katniss volunteers.
  • And once in the arena Katniss fights.

Esther is a Jewish orphan being raised by a relative. Decades earlier the Israelites had been defeated and carted off into exile by the massive Persian nation. The Persians were somewhat enlightened. They didn’t really care who or what people chose to worship – as long as it didn’t disrupt their peace. The Jewish people knew they had been defeated because they had turned their backs on God. In exile, as a people, they kept their heads down, worked hard and returned to the roots of their faith.

Yet, through extraordinary turn of events that almost resembles an American Idol season, Esther is selected to compete and wins the throne of the reecently deposed queen. She is, possibly  for the first time in her life, secure – until turning political wheels threaten the lives of every Jew under Persian rule. If the Jews are to survive Esther must risk her life, appearing before her husband, the king, without being summoned. If he is even slightly annoyed with her presence she will be put to death.

  • Esther is challenged to think about the reason she was raised to power
  • Accepting the challenge as an appointment from God, Esther choses to fight.

I have always loved the story of Esther, a beautiful girl is plucked from obscurity, becomes a queen, and saves a people. Perhaps this is why Katniss’ story resonated with me. I already knew the framework.

You know what is most annoying about a good story? It is the question that lingers when it’s done. Esther and Katniss both linger. They ask me what I am going to do. What am I doing to do about the little things: the litter on my street, the neighbor kids who need someplace safe to play, convenient versus healthy foods?

And then there are the really big questions. What am I doing to improve my neighborhood? My town? My state? My world? Am I really considering how my actions affect other people near and far?

Do I have what it takes to face the president or the king and stand up for what is right?

What about you? What challenges make you willing to stand up?

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)

 

Catching Fire: Katniss allies with others – not necessarily of her choosing.

In the second book of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Katniss allies herself with a wide variety of other tributes. This time Katniss is fighting for more than her personal survival.

A brief overview

Finnick, by reputation a Capitol-controlled playboy, becomes one of Katniss’ strongest allies in Catching Fire. Photo courtesy IMDb

It is completely unfair and supremely unlikely – yet as a condition of the Quarter Quell, the “super games” held every 25 years, the tributes must be victors from a previous game. Katiniss is the only female champion from District 12. Ever. And only two male champions to have ever come from 12 are Peeta and their mentor Haymitch. Knowing President Snow would kill her to cut the head off the looming rebellion, Katniss can’t help but suspect the games were manipulated so that the odds would not be in her favor.

However, the rebellion has spread further than President Snow has seen. Even the game organizers are involved and several other “tributes” have committed to keeping Katniss alive. The problem is, Katniss doesn’t know who to trust.

 … and this has what to do with who?

So last week we read that God requested that Gideon destroy the temples of Baal and Asherah in the town square and replace them with a proper place to worship God. The key verse was God’s assurance that Gideon could do this ‘in his own strength’ (Judges 6:14). So he obeyed God – in the middle of the night when no one would see him do it – and earned a not-so-affectionate nickname from the angry townspeople as a result, Jerub-Baal, “Let Baal take care of him”.

None the less, God was pleased with Gideon’s obedience, but instead of a pat on the back and a lifetime of peace and wealth, God says to Gideon, “Call up the troops, you’re leading Israel into war.”

Initially, Gideon acts without question, blowing the trumpet and gathering warriors from not only his tribe but several surrounding tribes as well. The Israelite army of 32,000 men was gathered and ready to go when Gideon seemed to get cold feet.

Ever heard of “casting a fleece”?

No? Well the saying has fallen out of fashion, what with the waning influence of organized Christianity in Western culture and all. What it means, in short, is to ask God to do a small impossible thing for you to prove that he really wants you do do this huge impossible thing for Him. And it comes directly from this story.

And Gideon said unto God, “If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth around it, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.”

And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.

And Gideon said unto God, “Let not thine anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once: let me prove, I pray thee, but this once with the fleece; let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew.”

And God did so that night: for it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground. (Judges 6:35-40)

Don’t get the wrong idea. This doesn’t work every time. In fact, I can’t remember any time in my entire life when I asked a similar question of God that he did something like this for me. (But then, He’s never asked me to round up an army and lead them into battle either… Usually, as was the case in writing Glitter in the Sun, it’s just a case of a persistant nudge I can’t shake or ignore.)

But, anyhow, Gideon gets the message and begins marching his army toward the enemy when suddenly God says, “Wait. You’re overstaffed. Ask the men if they’re scared and the ones who say yes are to be sent home.” Most of the army, 22,000 men, are brave enough to admit they’re freaked out, leaving a mere 1,000 men to cover Gideon’s back against the Midian hoard.

One. Thousand. Men. Against an army too big to count.

And again God says to Gideon, “No, you’ve still got too many men. March down to the river and I’ll tell you there who to keep and who to send home.”

It must have been a fairly long march because at the river most of the men collapsed on the ground and put their faces right into the water to drink. Only 300 men crouched down and scooped up water in their hand, bringing the drink up to their mouths while they kept their eyes on their surroundings.

And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go, every man unto his place. (Judges 7:7)

In the movie 300, most of the Spartans sacrificed their lives, drastically outnumbered by the Persian army. Unlike the Israelite 300 who defeated the Midians without a scratch. Photo courtesy IMDb

Yup. 300. Just like the movie, except better. Where many of the Spartans in the movie 300 died, God used the 300 brave Israelites to strike such fear that the Midians quite literally went crazy and most of them died at the end of each other’s swords. Those that escaped were mopped up later by the surrounding Israelite tribes and Israel ended up wealthier afterwards by the plunder left by the dead Midians. Gideon, that guy everyone called “Let Baal take care of him”, is suddenly – obviously – the one chosen by God to lead Israel to freedom from oppression.

The take home question is this: are you being asked to do something completely crazy? Something that can only be accomplished by the power of God in you or through you? Are there only a handful of people who believe you can succeed?

From experience  even though I’ve never had the confirmation of that convenient fleece, I encourage you to do it. Take the leap of faith and see just how far God will take you into glorious victory!

Want more? Part 1, The Hunger Games: Katniss, lessons from a reluctant reader, can be found here.