Captain America: the Winter Soldier – Freedom or Security?

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The latest movie in the Marvel franchise, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, explores a timeless political question in a modern context. The question is whether people value freedom over security and whether we sacrifice our freedom for the sake of security or risk security for the sake of freedom.  The modern context is the increasing exposure of our private lives to the state through the information we reveal by our ubiquitous use of digital technology.  This information enables the state to keep an ever watchful eye on us, and ominously to use this information to identify ‘threats’ to the state.  The central conflict in this story is between those that are scheming to use this technology in the name of maintaining order and those who recognize it as a threat to freedom and fight to dismantle it.

This threat to freedom comes from Captain America’s original enemy, the shadowy terrorist-type organization, Hydra.  Hydra is portrayed as being the main agent of chaos in the world.  After their defeat in WWII, they learned that that the way to eliminate freedom from the world was not to take it by force, but to convince people to give it up willingly.  They would do this by making the world an increasingly dangerous place (the Winter Solider is presented as a hidden menace that has provoked much of the violence in the world) that out of fear man would relinquish his freedom in exchange for greater security. 

This theme raises the question of why there is a tradeoff between freedom and security.  Why does more freedom have to mean less security and order?  Conversely, why does more order have to result in less freedom?  Perhaps the origins of this tension lies in our modern concept of what freedom means.  The modern notion of freedom lies in the Enlightenment understanding of man as an autonomous individual.  ‘Autonomous’ literally means self-law or rule. There are two fundamentally different understandings of autonomy.  One assumes that moral laws exist and are revealed or discovered.  The other assumes that moral laws do not exist but are determined by individuals. 

In the former view, free individuals govern themselves according to natural moral law.  By natural, I do not mean scientific laws of nature, by moral laws that are intrinsic in human nature and known innately, revealed by God to men everywhere.  A free individual does not need the threat of force from the government to compel him to live a righteous life.  Rather, he does what is right because he knows rationally that this is what is best for himself and his community, or perhaps for religious reasons that this will please God.  This approach limits the power of the state by rendering it largely unnecessary for preserving order.  Order is established by individuals within local communities governing themselves. 

In the later view, free individuals throw off the constraints of moral law that they themselves have not chosen, rejecting the idea of a moral law that they receive and must submit to.  Instead, moral codes are fashioned according to what suits the needs, or more precisely the desires, of the individual.  Right and wrong is a matter of what he chooses, and enables ‘authentic’ self-expression and unrestrained satisfaction of desire. 

This approach, ironically, enlarges the power of the state by increasing the distrust individuals have toward each other.  Trust in a society requires a shared sense of meaning, which is developed through a commitment to common moral values.  Individuals may enjoy the freedom of only looking out for themselves, but they despise when others do the same at their expense.  When individuals are not governing themselves according to a common moral code, distrust breeds fear, and fear demands that force be employed to regulate behavior that is viewed as threatening.

In the first view, the government has a limited role in providing security.  A sense of security arises from the trust individuals have with each other when they believe that others are governing themselves according to intrinsic moral law.  In other words, when people are freely governing themselves, not according to the laws of the state, but according to the laws of God, the need for security and order is also fulfilled (the government still has a role because evil exists and there are always some who will not govern themselves rightly).  In the second view, the government has potentially an unlimited role in providing security.  This view of freedom produces ever growing chaos which invites government power to provide the order that individuals are failing to provide for themselves.

 

Lessons on Responding to Sexual Brokenness from the Dallas Buyers Club

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This is the time of year when, for entertainment, my wife and I explore Oscar winning films that we missed (or had never even heard about) from the year before.  Our first foray into this round of award-winning films was the Dallas Buyers Club (2013) for which Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor, and Jared Leto Best Supporting Actor.  Based on a true story, it tells about the plight and triumph of Ron Woodruff, a blue-collar Texas electrician and devoted Rodeo hobbyist, whose diagnosis with AIDS and struggle for survival transforms him from a self-serving homophobe to a courageous advocate for the gay community, as he fights to start and protect a business that imports experimental HIV treatments that were not yet approved by the FDA.

While the movie is disturbing (and shocking) in its depiction of lewd sexual activity (both hetero- and homosexual), it does not portray these in a way that glorifies or trivializes sexual deviancy, but rather shows vividly its potentially destructive effects.  And though Ron Woodruff is not portrayed as a Christian, his response to sexual brokenness – his own and that of others – is in some ways quite Christ-like.

Here are some lessons people who take seriously the Bible’s teachings on sexual morality can learn on dealing with sexual brokeness from this film:

1. Loving ‘the sinner’ may be very costly

Christians often employ the distinction ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ to explain how one can accept a person while rejecting their sin.  While I believe this distinction is valid (because of the belief that a person has a core identity that is deeper, more fundamental than his desires) and possible to put into practice, I also believe that it entails a greater obligation than many people realize. Loving a ‘sinner’ is more than just passive tolerance (not harming, not excluding, etc.) but an active seeking of their good, which often requires sacrifice.

After experiencing for himself the benefits of experimental AIDS treatments, Ron Woodruff initially sees an enormous business opportunity in importing and selling these to AIDS patients, and profits tremendously at first (charging $400/month for membership to the “Buyers Club” to avoid the charge of illegally selling unapproved drugs directly).  But as his business encounters resistance from powerful corporate and government interests, his battle becomes much more than about the money: it becomes about justice for his clients, most of which are powerless and destitute.  He risks his own health and treasure to ensure that the AIDS patients get the help they need to prolong their lives.

When Christians say they need to ‘love the sinner,’ they should consider that doing so truly, in the manner of Christ, may require enormous personal sacrifice.

2. One’s own sexual brokenness should shape one’s relationship to ‘the sinner.’

When Woodruff learns of his condition, he denies it and is outraged at the doctor because he believes the doctor was insinuating that he himself was gay. He explodes with all the incendiary language used to describe gay people. language that was acceptable in the mainstream at that time.  As he researches the disease, believing at first that it only afflicted gays and drug addicts, he discovers that it can also be spread through unprotected, heterosexual sex.  His memories of his own reckless sexual dalliances flood his mind and in a dramatic moment he cries out in despair, suddenly recognizing the awful consequences of his sin. This awakening to his own sin represents a turning point in his attitude toward homosexuals.  Soon after, he begins to experience cruel treatment from his heterosexual friends, as they make ignorant inferences from the fact of his disease to his sexual orientation.  Clearly, his understanding of his sin, which was acceptable to him and his friends, helps him to identify with and have compassion for the sin of others, which was not.

Christians should not be ashamed to proclaim what the Bible teaches about sexuality.  They should not cave to the pressure to deny or change the meaning of the Bible’s content to make it suitable to the norms of the times (otherwise how could they maintain reverence for the Bible as an authoritative book?).  Doing so erodes the foundations of the religion and thus threatens the religion itself.  At the same time, they should not regard other forms of sexual brokenness, as classified in Scripture, as somehow tolerable, or rationalize their own sexual sin by comparing it to others forms they consider more heinous.  The gay community is right to call Christians out on such hypocrisy.  While some Christian communities are consistent in their condemnation of all kinds of sin, others are not, turning a blind eye to adultery, pre-marital sex, etc. The result is a form of sexual self-righteousness where, like the Pharisees justifying himself by comparison to the tax collector (Luke 18), religious people justify their own sin by saying, “Well, at least I’m not like that other person.”  The right response to others’ sexual brokenness is to have a deep self-awareness of one’s own that generates compassion towards others as ‘fellow sinners’ and humility with regards to oneself.  This is the only way to avoid the kind of judging that Jesus speaks against in the Sermon on the Mount.  This is not, as some misconstrue it, a warning against discerning between good and evil, and calling evil for what it is (not doing so is the opposite problem of hypocrisy – tolerating all sin including your own), but is about not condemning others as sinners, because we ourselves are under that same condemnation, apart from the work of Christ.

3. Defining the meaning of ‘morality’ is foundational

One of the main reasons, I believe, that the conservative religious community is losing out in the public debate over sexual orientation and ‘rights’ is that they have allowed the other side’s basic conception of morality to prevail and largely go unchallenged.  That concept, simply put, is this:  morality is that which does no harm (or in an inversion of the Golden Rule “don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you).  This simple dictum is used to justify all manner of sexual deviancy with the logic that any kind of sexual behavior between two consenting adults is moral (or not immoral) because it does no harm.

I do not have time to deal with this comprehensively in this post, but to say that the Bible offers a much richer, powerful, beautiful concept of what makes something good, right, and just than simply avoiding hurting people.  The main problem with this view of morality is not its basic assumption that immoral behavior causes harm, but that none of us are objective or honest enough to admit all the harmful consequences of our immoral behavior, especially when we enjoy said behavior. This is one of the moral lessons of the show Breaking Bad.  While we the audience see plainly how destructive Walter White’s drug making enterprise is, he is blinded to it by his own pride, rationalizing it by imagining only good consequences coming from it.  The AIDS epidemic is unmistakable empirical evidence that even sexual behavior between consenting adults can do much harm, but virtually no one will admit that their own sexually immoral behavior has detrimental effects.  And if another tries to point it out to them, they can simply retreat behind skepticism (‘that’s didn’t happen because of what I did; you can’t prove that, other things caused that!).

If you end up watching this film (and I’m not necessarily commending it; it certainly does not fall under the category of ‘edifying’), and you happen to be a Christian, I hope that these lessons will be clear to you as well.  If you have seen it, please critique or add to my commentary.

Can Monkeys Form True Beliefs? How Evolutionary Naturalism is Self-Defeating

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This week, at my alma mater Georgia Tech, I spoke to a group of student leaders in an organization that is dedicated to advancing the cause of Christ on campus.  The purpose of my message was to equip the students with some intellectual tools for critiquing the philosophy of naturalism, which is prevalent on campus.  Simply stated, naturalism holds that all that exists is natural, having properties that can be known through sense experience, and therefore all explanations of phenomena must be limited to natural causes.  This post will summarize one of the arguments against naturalism I shared with the students.

The argument focuses on a naturalist view of evolutionary theory.  As a scientific theory, evolution provides an explanation of the mechanism of species diversification.  Built on ample empirical data from both the present and the past, it shows how species can change with time in response to changes in their environment (adaptation).  The idea that this process of diversification driven by natural selection is random, unguided, and ultimately purposeless, though is not derived from science, but is a requirement of a naturalistic worldview.  This ‘evolutionary naturalism’ is what opposes a biblical view of creation, and it is fraught with logical incoherence.

Esteemed philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in his 2011 book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, argues that evolutionary naturalism is logically self-defeating (one of the most powerful arguments one can make against a theory is to show how it contradicts itself).  The argument centers on the insightful question, “Is it likely that an unguided process, that only favors random changes in species when these changes enhance their survival, would produce cognitive equipment (i.e. neurological processes) that reliably form true beliefs?” Evolutionary naturalism says that the human brain, and accompanying sense organs, evolved in such a way as to confer survival advantages.  So, in other words, does our brain’s ability to form true beliefs guarantee increased chances of survival?

Obviously, some true beliefs are useful for survival:  knowing the truth about what is safe to eat and what animals see you as prey a certainly an advantage.  But while true beliefs may be advantageous, is it necessary that advantageous beliefs be true?  Simple reflection reveals that the answer is obviously no:  one can think of countless examples of beliefs that can be useful, but not true.  For example, imagine a primitive ancestor whose cognitive equipment forms the belief that baby alligators can eat people.  This belief would cause him to not only avoid baby alligators, but in doing so also avoid the real predators:  momma alligators!   Or he could develop the beliefs that bright colored creatures are poisonous (e.g. poison frogs), and thus avoid death by poison, but of course some bright colored creatures are not poisonous, and some may even be good for food.

Some advantageous beliefs are true, others are false, but whether it is correct or not would just be accidental. Thus, Plantinga notes that  “while it is possible that any particular belief can be true, it is not necessary that any beliefs be true.”  Consider the belief, then, in evolutionary naturalism itself (this is where the argument gets tricky, so get ready to ponder deeply!).  This belief, by its own criteria, would have to be beneficial to survival, which means it might be true or it might be false – we should not be able to know if it’s true, just that’s useful.  Since unguided evolution does not necessarily produce brains that reliably form true belief, then why should we trust that our belief in unguided evolution, which our brain produced, is true?  This renders evolutionary naturalism self-defeating:  if it was true, we would have no explanation for how we are able to know that ii is true.  Or, as Plantinga asks, “If you have no good grounds for trusting your cognitive faculties as truth-oriented, why trust them regarding the truth of evolution?”

This problem perhaps is why Darwin himself echoed such doubts with his own theory:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.  Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?

Law and Grace: What a Snowstorm Can Teach Us About Opposing Life Principles

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The “Snow-megeddon” (all 3 horrible inches of it!) that was unleashed on the Atlanta area, and throughout the South, provoked varied responses that illumine the contrasts between opposite life principles:  Law and Grace.  These principles differ chiefly in how they govern our relationship to who or what we believe to be in control of the circumstances under which we live – what I will refer to simply as “the Power.”

Principle of Law –

This principle holds that the Power works on our behalf in response to some merit that originates in us.  It yields an attitude of entitlement that is proportional to the degree of our own self-regard:  the better (more worthy) we consider ourselves to be, the more we expect the Power to deliver protection from pain and suffering, inconvenience, and discomfort.  In order to deliver these services, the Power must exercise control on the basis of certain knowledge of future events, thus eliminating all risk and uncertainty from the circumstances surrounding us.  When the Power fails to fulfill these expectations, which it often does, we (so long as we still maintain high self-regard) blame the Power (or its many proxies, i.e. people in positions of authority) with rage, believing in our hearts that the Power’s sudden incompetence is, at best, a symptom of indifference to our plight and, at worst, an indicator of malicious intent to ruin us.

The principle of law is a quid pro quo system, operating on an individual and/or collective sense of owing and being owed.  The higher our self-esteem, the stronger our sense of being owed. Thus, when the Power fails to work on our behalf, we demand change: either in the rules of the game, or for a new Power to take its place.  When this principle of law takes hold in a self-centered, consumerist culture, personal responsibility is shifted from the individual and completely onto the Power.

IN THE SNOW: This principle is at work in all the blame being hurled at authorities (and from authorities to other authorities -  Georgia’s governor just blamed the National Weather Service for “under-predicting”).  “They” should have known better, warned us earlier, told us all a week ago to plan to stay home today.  “They” don’t care about the people, just about themselves.  Heads will fall for this!  These people should be fired!  Eventually, you will see this lead to irrational decisions to close schools whenever there is a hint of snow or ice, and to invest large sums of public money on snow equipment that will seldom be used.

Principle of Grace –

This principle holds that the Power works on our behalf out of some stable trait or characteristic that lies in the very nature of the Power itself.  It solicits trust in the Power to protect and provide due to its benevolent intentions and kind disposition toward us, not because of what the Power owes based on our own merit.  It yields an attitude of thankfulness that deepens in inverse proportion to our self-regard (the humbler we are, the more grateful we are).  Thus, the experience of being shielded from pain, suffering, and discomfort is received as a gift, not demanded as a reward or wages.  When the Power does not manage circumstances as we wish, grace teaches us to rest in confidence in the Power’s intentions to do us good, humbly recognizing that good often happens to us in unexpected ways.  Thus, risk and uncertainty are understood as part of life, and embraced as portals through which the Power can do wonderful things for us and in us, things that we did not expect and that are better than what we would ever have asked for or imagined.  Adverse circumstances then are seized as opportunities for change, especially in how we use our own small power, from employing it for our own narrow interest to using it for our neighbor’s good.

IN THE SNOW: This principle is at work first and foremost in the joy of children in the snow:  laughter in a snowball fight, screams as sleds (usually cardboard or cookie sheets in the South!) glide down the hill, smiles for pictures next to the snowman. I saw this even in my 17-18 year old students: they couldn’t wait to revel in the gift of the snow.   It is at work in the kindness of neighbors, turning strangers into friends, as we have heard numerous tails of ordinary people feeding, sheltering, comforting, and transporting “snow refugees.”

We feel it in the refuge of a warm house and the unexpected rest from work.  A snow day reminds us that we do not have to work constantly to survive in this world.  That while work is necessary to produce what we need to live, the sum of what we have is far greater than the accumulation of the fruits of our labor:  our livelihood depends far more on the Power than it does on our striving.  I feel it right now as I write leisurely in the comfort of my bedroom.  While I love to work and embrace the responsibility to provide through my labor, I also recognize that it does not ultimately depend on me and that the Power gives far more than our work can produce.

This grace is perhaps ultimately displayed in the snow, though, through its purity.  Its blinding whiteness reminds us of the promise of the Power that “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).  This purification of the soul comes through the scarlet blood of a perfect sacrifice:

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

(Don’t forget to read the Intro post to this, if you missed it!)

Law and Grace: What a Snowstorm Can Teach Us About Opposing Life Principles (Intro)

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Monday night I watched the local news – TV and Internet – attentively, awaiting word on school closings in my district in West metro Atlanta.  No word.  The weatherman did not forecast significant snow accumulation (in the South 1/2″ is significant!) in my area until the evening.  Thus, I started my day on Tuesday expecting a full school day, perhaps with a cancellation of afterschool activities.

I knew the snow had started earlier than predicted when my students’ eyes began diverting toward the window and away from me in my 2nd period class.  At the end of the period, the announcement buzzer elicited a sound of glee from the class, the students expecting a “we will be dismissing school early” directive issued from the principle.  Instead, he said, “Go straight to your next class, not to the lunch room, when the bell rings.  After school activities are cancelled for today”  Yet the students’ glee was not crushed because they inferred that this meant that school administrators were contemplating the “conditions on the ground” and would soon decide to cancel the remainder of the school day.

They were right!  An hour or so later, they announced that school would end an hour early, and that students who drove themselves must leave immediately.  My wife got word and while she was en route to pick my elementary age children up early, I graded papers while monitoring the halls, wondering when I could leave and what might be the best route home.  I had gotten word by this time of horrific traffic conditions on the major roads in our suburban town, and the chaos around me was increasing as buses were arriving at different times and parents were rushing to the school to bring their children home.  A kindly janitor, who had come to clean my room, spoke critically, in response to the growing craziness, about the powers that be, saying that “they didn’t care about safety [a ridiculous accusation, I thought] or else they would have closed the school earlier.”  The griping and blaming had already begun.

Once traffic around the school cleared, I headed home, lucky to have an easy back road route that took just a few minutes.  My wife and children were not so fortunate as the already infamous traffic in Atlanta yesterday snarled them in a nearly 4 hour round trip (their school is about 15 minutes away from our house).  They arrived home about an hour later, their eagerness to play in the snow extinguishing any flames of discontent sparked by long hours in the car.

As I learned about the full extent of the chaos – full school buses stuck, children stranded at school, friends stuck in traffic for hours – I imagined empathetically the vitriol that would be pouring into the superintendent’s office from the community and contrasted this with the joy of my students and my children in the gift of the snow and already announced school cancellation for the next day.  This got me thinking about the Bible’s teaching on the two fundamentally opposed orientations we can have toward life, specifically concerning how we relate to the Power we believe to be in control of life:  the principle of Law and the principle of Grace.   The next post (coming later today!) will attempt to lay out these reflections.

Lessons about Evil from The Hobbit

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After seeing tonight for the first time The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I was reminded at how insightfully and realistically J.R.R. Tolkien portrays the nature of evil throughout his tales of Middle Earth.  Peter Jackson remains faithful to this vision still, I believe, in the Hobbit film trilogy. What does this most recent installment of the film series remind us about the nature of evil?  A few basic thoughts:

1. Evil prefers largely to remain hidden – concealed from plain sight.

Gandalf leaves the company to investigate reports of a gathering darkness at the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur, the effects of which have become plainly and disturbingly evident in the sickened forest of Mirkwood.  His suspicions are confirmed when he discovers that the hidden tombs of the nine Ringwraiths (the Black Riders in LOTR) have been emptied.  When he arrives at Dol Guldur, he realizes that its emptiness is an illusion resulting from a concealment spell.  When he uses his own magic power to reverse its effects, he decries that these forces have been mustering discreetly, escaping his and other guardians of Middle Earth’s notice.

Jesus’ teaching on the nature of darkness resonates: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19)  Evil flourishes only when it is concealed; light exposes and weakens it.  Thus, in describing the coming of Jesus (the eternal Word) into the world, the apostle John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

To drive this point home, consider the ways you have covered up, or continue to cover up, things that are contrary to your conscience.  This might take the form of surrounding yourself with people who will only affirm you in your behavior and never confront you to hold you accountable.  We learn such behaviors at the earliest age.  My 2 year old just this week was caught multiple times hiding on the table (not well concealed at all!) gorging herself on candy she knew she was not supposed to have.

2. While it remain hidden, it gains strength until it is too powerful to overcome.

As Gandalf uncovers the evil that has been hidden, the Orc-chief (the white one that is not in the book and whom I wish they had not added to the movie) tells him that he is too late.  The forces of evil have gathered enough strength that they are powerful enough to unleash themselves on the world (in the form of a massive army of Orcs). Gandalf encounters the Necromancer, who pre-figures the dark lord Sauron, who is described as “growing stronger day by day.”

Once evil is strong enough to reveal itself for what it is, its power is to great to fight without great cost and destruction. It is much easier to combat when it is timidly hiding in the darkness, slowly gaining strength.

Think about times when little sins in your own life grew and grew until you became slave to this sin, unable to stop even though you knew how destructive it could be. This also happens at the societal level.  The forces working to undermine marriage in this country have just recently begun to show their true, gruesome nature, but they have been working subtly under far more tolerable guises for decades.  Now that the forces have been revealed, they are unleashing a torrent of destruction that is extremely difficult to stop.

I think about my 20-yr old brother who died last year as a direct result of his enslavement to addiction.  The evil in his life became evident to plain sight three or more years earlier.  But the origins of it are much earlier in his life.  I remember feeling disturbed and angry whenever I would see his childish acts of evil (mostly disrespectful, profane kind of behavior) go undisciplined, but instead laughed at and reveled in.  I knew that if evil was not driven out of him as a child, when its presence was largely concealed by a “cute” boyhood guise, it would cause much pain and grief in the future when its true nature came to fruition.

3. Evil works from the inside out; not from the outside in.

This point emerges from comments in this film, and the last one, about how the greed of the dwarf king (Thror, grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield) attracted or enticed the dragon Smaug to invade the kingdom of Erebor.  As the king’s lust for gold became insatiable, the dwarfs unearthed far more gold than they could ever need or have use for.  But it wasn’t just the increase in wealth that attracted the dragon.  It is not as if the dwarfs were innocently going about their mining business when they suddenly became the victims of a wicked monster.  The kingdom had become weakened from within from moral corruption, which made them more vulnerable to external attack.

One gets the impression that the dragon is an external manifestation of the king’s deep internal greed.  This idea is more directly conveyed in the book.  After watching the movie, while combing the book for comparisons, I came across this passage describing Smaug’s reaction to Bilbo’s taking of just one gold cup from his treasure hoard: “His rage passes description – the sort of rage that is only seen when rich folk that have more than they can enjoy suddenly lose something that they have long had but have never before used or wanted.”  Sounds like the essence of greed!

This theme also resonates with Jesus’ teaching that the human heart is the wellspring of evil: For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23).  Evil on the outside of us, when it is visible, originates on the inside of us, when it is invisible but easier to defeat by bringing light to bear upon it.

On the Glory of Self-Sacrifice: Catching Fire and the Incarnation

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Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games movie franchise, follows the lives of the heroes of the first film – Katniss and Peeta - as they experience the aftermath of their newfound fame as “victors” of the 74th Games.  As victors, they secured for themselves a lifetime of wealth, comfort, and ease, in contrast to the impoverished communities – exploited by the oligarchy that reigns in the opulent capital city – from which they came.  Yet as they travel throughout the 12 Districts that comprise the nation of Panem on their obligatory “victory tour,” they immediately discover that the defiant manner in which they achieved victory and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other has fomented a rebellion.  And their tour, contrary to the government’s design, is fanning the flames of revolutionary fervor.

Their tour culminates in an enormous celebration at the mansion of the president at which they are the honored guests.  There they are offered an endless array of the choicest foods.  When Peeta declines an offer of some sumptuous pastry because he is too full, another of the guests offers him a lavender colored elixir that will “make you sick so that you can keep tasting things.”  This offer is clearly intended to make the audience sick in their conscience over the injustice of severe wealth inequality in their society:   while the masses toil to find just enough food to survive, the privileged eat not for nourishment but solely for pleasure, vomiting up their food so as to continuously satiate their palettes.

The glow of Katniss’s and Peeta’s victory diminished abruptly when they learn that the next games will feature previous victors from all the Districts.  After surviving the games again, as a result of figuring out a way to destroy the invisible virtual arena in which they take place, Katniss and Peeta are separated, with Katniss being kidnapped by a band of rebels led by other former victors, including her mentor Haynich. She learns that many of the victors in this newest round of the games had secretly pledged to protect her with a view toward using her as a catalyst to spark a nationwide revolt against the capital.

These victors, along with Katniss, made an uncommon choice:  the choice to forego the pleasures and privileges provided them by the state to risk their lives in order to liberate the powerless and restore justice for the poor. While most would commend this choice as moral, few would probably make it.  What would motivate anyone to do this?

This moral theme in The Hunger Games plainly echoes aspects of the Bible’s teaching on the Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas.  I thought about this connection while reflecting on the words of the Advent carol “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”

Come to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end;
By his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
This the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.

The divine Son of God forswear fame (‘he whose glories knew no end’) and ease (‘leaving riches without number’) to condescend into an impoverished state (‘born within a cattle stall’) for the sake of an oppressed and enslaved people (‘by his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer’).  Thus, the Apostle Paul proclaims Jesus as one who, “Did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  Liberating captives often requires becoming one of them.  Enormous moral force is exerted when someone who could stay comfortable and free chooses to give it up so that others can gain the same.  I am not saying that Katniss is meant to be a Christ-figure, and she by no means is a complete one, but all good stories whisper the penultimate story of history, which we celebrate this Christmas.