Listen and Read: Empire, Hunger [Games], and Hope

Below is the audio and transcript from last week’s sermon: Empire, Hunger [Games], and Hope:

Here is the transcript:

Let us pray: Loving and gracious God, I pray that these thoughts would be inspired by you and speak to where we are today. Where these thoughts go wrong, where they are wrapped up only in my own desire to be right, I pray that no harm would be done and that I could find forgiveness for my assumptions.

My mother’s maiden name is Leonora Gerda Van Waalwijk Van Doorn. Mamma is Dutch and was born in the Netherlands in 1956. Just over a decade earlier, as World War II ended, my Opa, my grandfather, Jacobus Petrus Van Waalwijk Van Doorn, was able to emerge from years of hiding. The Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany from May of 1940 until the war ended in 1945. They suffered the highest per capita death rate of all Nazi-occupied countries in Western Europe. Young men, like my grandfather, were conscripted into the Nazi army or sent to work in factories manufacturing weapons for that army. Many resisted, many went into hiding – if they were discovered, they were killed. My grandfather spent his late teens and early twenties almost entirely underground. My Oma , my grandmother, Gerarda De Vries, was in her teens throughout the occupation years. Her family hid many onderduikers, people without papers, in their house; a small house already occupied by my grandmother, her 8 siblings, and their parents. They hid a Jewish woman for a long time and the children referred to her as Tante (or Aunt) Saartje. My grandparents first met when Oma was helping serve food at one of the hostels that hosted a number of young men in hiding.  I’ve grown up hearing stories about the occupation and its impact on my grandparents and their families. I’ve heard so many stories about hunger, fear, and hope that it runs deep within me. For me, empire occupation and resistance to it is not a theory or a hypothetical, it is an experience handed down to me from my Oma and Opa.
How do we hang on to hope so that we can resist empire?
The biblical texts are jam packed with empire occupations, enslavements, and resistance. From slavery in Egypt, to Babylonian exile, to the occupation of Judah by the Romans in Jesus’ time, to the time of Christian persecution written about in the Book of Revelation, the bible really is one big collection of books about how the ancient Hebrew people survived, fought back against, and tried not to become occupying empires. Justice and mercy are at the heart of the texts about these persecuted people. Anger, sadness, disbelief, and terror sit at the heart of their stories. Jeremiah says and the book of Mathew quotes: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18)
How do we hang on to hope so that we can resist empire?
When I first heard about The Hunger Games I didn’t want to read the story. When the first movie came out I had no desire to watch it. I love reading books and watching movies, but in my downtime I watch and read stories that take me away from the terror of reality and oppression. There is a meme on Facebook that talks about Narnia fans wanting to go to Narnia, Harry Potter fans wanting to go to Hogwarts, and Percy Jackson fans wanting to go to Camp Half-Blood… but Hunger Games fans? Nope, I’m good. That is the last place we want to be. The Hunger Games is set in the distopic future of North America. The current powers that be live in “The Capital” and the rest of the nation lives in highly controlled districts spread around the country. Once long ago, we are told, the districts revolted. Once The Capitol had control again it imposed The Hunger Games as a punishment and a yearly reminder. Based loosely upon the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, where every year male and female youths were sent to their deaths in the Labyrinth; The Hunger Games of Panem took a tribute, usually randomly selected but some youth would volunteer, of one boy and one girl from each district who would then have to fight one another to the death in the technologically advanced arena, the futuristic labyrinth. The more I heard about this story the less I wanted anything to do with it. But the youth of The Timothy Society and Ripple prevailed against my better judgment, telling me over and over what an amazing book and movie it was and that I HAD to see it and read it. If all of my youth had read and watched it and were talking about it, I had better know the scoop. So I found myself sitting at the Roxy Theater one April afternoon watching the horror unfold before my eyes. It took me almost a week to recover. Then I picked up the books. It is an amazing story. Empire, hunger, and hope; violence, depression, and love; anger, power, and heroes ran through me, twisting my perceptions of normality and human psychology, deepening my own desire to rise up and resist the empire that pervades our reality every day. The truth is The Hunger Games is not so far from where we are now.
How do we hang on to hope so that we can resist empire?
This story is told from the perspective of 16 year old District 12 tribute, Katniss Everdeen. We witness her thought process as she begins this epic journey, as she walks away forever scarred from the 74th Hunger Games arena, as she becomes the unlikely beacon of hope and resistance to the districts that inevitably rise up to try to rebalance the disparity of power. We might see ourselves in her or in the characters that surround her. For me, I saw my teenagers, I saw my daughters, and I saw my grandparents in their youth. I also saw, as the author intended, our young men and women out in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those on reality TV like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor; young men and women voluntarily or involuntarily thrown together for the wicked games, the backroom deals, and the entertainment of the empire. We watch, we cringe, we cry, we laugh, we can’t turn away from the slow train wreck of young lives ruined by road side bombs and late night binges.
“The [kin*dom] of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” reads Matthew 13:33. Robin Meyers devotes a whole chapter to this short parable in his book The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. He calls this “the most subversive parable in the New Testament” and that it has been almost entirely “lost in translation.” (Meyers, 166) He writes, “To the ancient listener, however, the connotation would have been obvious and unmistakable.” First, the idea of a woman mixing yeast into three measures of flour would immediately bring to mind the story of Abraham and Sarah when the angels came to visit and Abraham tells Sarah to “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes” so that they could feed their hungry guests. Second, that the Kin*dom of Heaven is compared to the “lowly” domestic work of a woman would have been “a scandal.” The patriarchic society of Jesus’ day would have had a very difficult time lettingwomen into the Kin*dom of God, let alone creating it. Third, that the Greek word “krypto” is used in the original text –krypto meaning to encrypt or to hide – means that the woman wasn’t just mixing the yeast in but hiding the yeast in the flour. And finally that yeast was considered something that “corrupted” the mix in a sense “a metaphor for moral corruption.” We might read it better this way: The Kin*dom of Heaven is a moral corruption that a woman powerfully hid in the mix of the world around her. Meyers writes, “We have so long associated purity with religion and held that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” that the idea of being leaven (and thus corruption) in the loaf of the Empire is the furthest thing from our minds. …We need to be [a paradigm shift] – small, hidden, irrepressible, and confident that we can corrupt at least three measures of the imperial loaf.” (Meyers 171)
How do we hang on to hope so that we can resist empire?
Katniss Everdeen has no real interest in resisting empire. She merely wants to survive and take care of her little sister and her mother. Her choices throughout the first book are based entirely upon that value: survival. Indeed, Peeta Mellark, her male counterpart from District 12 is the one with real courage when it comes to his character and values. Let’s watch a short clip of Katniss and Peeta in The Capitol.

 

Doomed, in The Capitol the night before they are to fight for their lives in the Hunger Games, they talk about resistance, hope, and survival. They have different outlooks, but they are both telling a real truth about our lives under empire. For many of us, we don’t have (or don’t think we have) the energy, the time, the resources, or the courage to subvert the empire’s games. We struggle to pay our mortgages even as banks randomly foreclose on us. We try to get good schooling for ourselves and our children even as college loans grow exponentially and our college graduates have the highest rate of unemployment of any previous generation. We work harder at jobs that pay less and we know we cannot expect loyalty from the companies that employ us. Our wages stay stagnant as the cost of living skyrockets and the top income earners reap in our nation’s wealth.  We are enslaved to a system that our politicians cannot change when they are bought by the very corporations that created the system in the first place. I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. [But] I just can’t afford to think like that.
 
How do we hang on to hope so that we can resist empire?
Authors rarely leave characters the same way as we first meet them. Katniss, albeit reluctantly, takes on a greater and greater role in the revolution that inevitably sweeps up around her following the Games. She becomes the reluctant revolutionary, the centerpiece, the mockingjay, that other rebels rally behind. Her desire to survive above all else is where she gets her strength, but the values that take shape within her are nurtured by her love for her little sister and for Peeta.
The Author of Life also rarely leaves us where She starts with us. In the midst of just trying to survive, are we letting empire change us or are we being subversive by submitting to the Author of Life? Every empire worships itself and demands that worship of its constituents, too. Do we have the courage to be subversive and worship God instead? Not worshiping God in the empire approved way of simply attending church on Sunday mornings, but in the Jesus Way of loving our enemies, breaking bread with people who aren’t “like us,” or struggling to reject the hold that the Market God has over us through its advertising alters and high Mad Men priests… Do we have the courage to name classism for what it is and break it apart by not just being charitable but by working for justice even when it means sacrificing our own privileges?
In Nazi Germany’s occupied lands, it was far easier when you have the privilege of blond hair and blue eyes to simply go along… work with the regime… pay homage to the empire. But many took the harder route because they knew their values inspired by their faith of love, peace, and justice were ultimately more powerful than the oppression they were living under. Of course, they didn’t know the war would end in their favor, but they knew that win or lose, resisting was the right thing to do; the more powerful, faithful option. I’m proud of my grandparents and my great-grandparents. I’m proud of my rebel heritage.
I’m also proud of my spiritual heritage, my Jesus. Our Jesus, the one who overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the temple, broke Sabbath law because it was the merciful thing to do, ate and drank with drunks and tax collectors, and saw women as powerful as men in creating the Kin*dom of God. He broke all the rules in order to subvert the empire. He ignored the empire’s edicts and expectations at his own peril. He was willing to die on the empire’s tool of torture in order to show us how to live, to show us The Way of being in the world, to show us God’s love for the broken, those who mourn, those who create peace, the downtrodden and oppressed. He showed us and he died for us so that even in death we would see life and know that love, peace, and justice are more powerful even than death. He was the ultimate example. The question is, do we have the courage to follow it? Do we have the faith to resist empire? It doesn’t take a whole lot of faith to walk into the empire condoned church building on a Sunday morning, but it does take a whole lot of faith to live out The Way once we walk out those doors. We are sent out as sheep among wolves, are we not?
Can we find clues about The Way hidden in the screenings of movie and media, the modern parables, around us? Can we be the hero of our own lives? Can we find the faith to break good rather than break bad? And can we find the hope we need in order to resist empire?

 

May the odds be ever in your favor and, when you look at the odds and how stacked they are against the average person, may the odds make you want to change the world. In Jesus’ Way the odds are in everyone’s favor. May it be so. Amen.
Rachel Fraumann

My personal mission is to translate the life and teachings of Jesus to the next generation of peace and justice seekers in and around Burlington Vermont. I’m always up for a friendly argument, a free hug, or to be available as a compassionate ear or shoulder to cry upon. I have an insatiable curiosity for ideas and love to talk about theology, religion, politics, science, or whatever is on your mind. My current passion is about peeling back the centuries of church tradition in order to find the root of our faith in the teachings and ministries of Jesus so that it can be put into practice. After fifteen years of professional ministry with young people I still love watching a newly empowered Child of God set out to change the world!