In my last post, I argued that The Hunger Games creates a reality in which the Empire – the Capitol of Panem – exerts its power mainly by controlling the bodies of its citizens. Throughout the story, Katniss learns to use her own body to resist the Capitol.
The Hunger Games works as a story because its dystopian world is such a thinly-veiled picture of our own. The Capitol carries on much as any Empire ever has, especially with regards to how it treats bodies. And as Katniss demonstrates, our bodies provide the best means of resisting Empire.
Christians have long know this, since Jesus used his own body to resist the Roman Empire. Katniss’ embodied rebellion is an echo of Jesus’ defeat of Death.
Learning how Katniss and Jesus resisted Empire with their bodies shows us how to resist Empire today – with our bodies.
Rome was an empire as evil as the Capitol. The Hunger Games themselves explicitly echo Rome’s great Coliseum, and Panem is Latin for ‘bread’. And like all empires, Rome controlled its citizens by controlling their bodies.
The most graphic, overt display of Roman power over the body was crucifixion. To display Rome’s utter control over, well… everything, Rome dealt exceedingly harshly with those who rebelled against Rome’s rule.
It wasn’t enough for Rome to kill a traitor. The rebel’s death had to be an example of what happened to anyone who crossed Rome.
Enter Rome’s version of the Hunger Games: crucifixion. The rebel is first stripped naked, exposing his body to everyone. No one has any secrets from Rome. Next he’s tortured – beaten and mocked. Then he’s paraded through his town, paraded among those in whom he’d been hoping to spark rebellion. And finally, he’s hung on a cross, his crime written above his head, and left to die slowly and agonizingly.
Especially if this was attached to a military victory, Rome called these public displays of military might “Triumphs”.
The message of these elaborate public spectacles was clear: Behold Rome’s awesome power. We have utter control over every aspect of your reality. We rule you utterly. We have power even over life and death.
These are the claims every Empire makes. Rome made them. We make them today. And so the Capitol, as Collins’ Every-Empire makes them as well. But the Empires lie. They don’t actually have power over life and death. In fact, those claims are nothing short of idolatry.
Only God has power over life and death. Jesus shows us how to resist the Empires’ false claims with our bodies.
Jesus was arrested as a rebel, an insurrectionist. When he stood before Pilate, the Roman governor, Pilate was shocked that Jesus didn’t acknowledge his authority. He asks:
Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?
Jesus’ crime was that he aspired to be “King of the Jews”, as the sign on his cross read. Rome thought they were sending a message to the always-uneasy population of Jerusalem:
Behold your king. Here’s what happens when you try to rebel against us. We have absolute power over you. You have no hope of resisting us.
But Jesus knows the truth: that his life wasn’t taken from him. Jesus gave his life, his body to Rome:
You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above. — John 19:10-11 (NLT)
Pilate – the embodiment of the Empire – has no true power. Pilate thinks that his Empire’s power is absolute, but in reality, no one is taking Jesus’ life. As he says in John 10, Jesus chooses to give up his life.
Why? Because Jesus is turning the Empire on its head. Jesus is defeating Death with Death.
Jesus’ crucifixion made a mockery out of Rome’s claims to control Jesus’ body.
[Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them. — Colossians 2:15
The Empire’s power is fear: fear of death. Fear that life stops at the grave. As long as the Empire has the power of Death, as long as we live in fear that they can stop our bodies, we’ll submit to them. We’ll follow them. Because we think nothing is worse than death. That’s how the Capitol uses the Hunger Games. It’s how Rome used the Cross. It’s how our own media uses crime and war and terror and car accidents.
When we’re afraid to die, we’ll follow anyone we think has power over our lives.
That’s why Jesus gave his body to Rome: to make a spectacle out of them. His Triumph over them made a mockery out of all their claims to power. He showed how foolish any ruler is who claims to have the power of life and death. No one has that power but God.
It’s also why Katniss’ rebellion worked so well: she showed the Capitol that there are some things more important than physical life. That living in the shadow of fear isn’t really life at all. That Love really does conquer all. Katniss stripped the Empire of its most powerful weapon: our fear of Death.
Anyone who wants to resist Empire must do so here: in the places where the Empire makes claims to our bodies, to the power of Life and Death.
What does that look like in our contemporary setting? How does the American Empire make claims on our bodies? And how do we resist those claims? I’ll address that next week, but for now, what do you think?