Saturday, April 28, 2012

Serious themes in “The Hunger Games”

The recently released movie, “The Hunger Games”, based on Suzanne Collins’s book of the same name, continues to attract moviegoers.  Although targeted at teens, both the book and movie have attracted a widespread audience. The popularity of the “The Hunger Games” probably has more to do with its plot and marketing, than with themes of voter apathy, pop culture’s focus on the self, and the moral relativism prevalent in western society.

Plot Summary
The “Hunger Games” is set in post-apocalyptic North America, in a territory called Panem, which is Latin for “bread”.  A totalitarian government, operating out of a luxurious, decadent Capitol, controls the 12 districts that comprise the nation. Every year, as punishment for a rebellious uprising, each district sends 2 tributes, a male and female between the ages of 12 -18, to compete in the Hunger Games. The games are in their 74th year, and something is about to change.

In a survival of the fittest contest, the 24 tributes compete over a two-week period until only one remains alive. The games are played out in a fenced off wilderness area, equipped with cameras that broadcast the event throughout Panem. The contestants are ranked, and citizens bet on the tributes. The state manipulates the games with technology. The Gamemakers, who dutifully do their jobs, send in fireballs, poisonous blueberries, and ferocious man eating dogs in attempts to eliminate tributes. This manipulation makes the games more exciting for the fans, and more profitable for sponsors and government.

Overtones of the Roman Empire
The philosophy of the games is aptly summed up in the Latin phrase “panem e circenses”, meaning “bread and circuses”.  The Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase in the 1st century to describe the political strategy of providing free grain and lavish gladiatorial games to control the people, and distract them from any meaningful participation in civic life.  The phrase also denotes a decadent and hedonistic populace; people who satiate themselves with entertainment, instant gratification, and pleasure.

In the Panem games, Big Brother and the media team up to keep the people in line and ensure the status quo. For the citizens of Panem, the games are both entertainment and a yearly reminder of the consequences of rebelling against the established order. The games are definitely reminiscent of the gladiatorial contests that symbolized the moral decay of Rome.

Gladiators from the Zliten Mosaic (Libya)

Satire and visual criticism
The movie satirizes the reality TV genre, its popularity and its fans. The hunger games are an extreme version of “Survivor”. The citizens are fans with no moral compass. They happily gobble up the questionable values on display, which are attractively packaged and excitingly presented.

“The Hunger Games” visually portrays criticism of the gap between the rich and poor.  Those in the Capitol enjoy an abundance of food, while the heroine, Katniss, illegally hunts and sell squirrels to provide food for her family. The city dwellers wear extravagant, absurd fashions (that satirize the runway) in contrast to the poor, simple attire of those in the outlying districts.  The powerful ignore the plight of the poor while the wealthy are oblivious to it.

Moral relativism fills the spiritual vacuum
The Capitol is a spiritually bankrupt place. The citizens have lost their sense of the sacred, and of the transcendent soul within each person. “The Hunger Games” depicts a sad world populated with pitiful people who feverishly seek fulfillment in empty and cruel pleasures. The collective moral compass is broken, and the average citizen has no moral touchstone.

In such an environment, the only life that has value is one’s own; others are expendable, especially the marginalized. They can be voted off the island in the most callous manner, as in the lottery selection process, called “The Reaping”, that takes place to select the tributes.

Relativism flourishes in this spiritual vacuum, and insidiously creeps throughout the entire country. In “The Hunger Games”, the spin-doctors have lulled the population into accepting the unthinkable, teens killing teens for the amusement and profit of others.  The people of Panem accept the games as an honorable tradition instead of an atrocity, and the tributes as self-sacrificing heroes instead of frightened children trying to stay alive.  The people are complicit in endorsing an evil.

While I thought the movie was highly overrated, unnecessarily violent in places, and occasionally boring, the movie raises questions about modern day politics, pop culture, morality, and spirituality that deserve consideration. If it does not, our society is as shallow and spiritually bankrupt as the government and citizens of the Capitol.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sitting around the kitchen table

Four generations of women
I grew up surrounded by women of strong character.   My mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother were able to handle life’s ups and downs with grace. The more difficult the situation, the more determined they were to overcome the problems. 

Their example of grace under fire, their “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” approach to trouble, has definitely influenced my attitude and my capacity to catch life’s curve balls. It is as if their strength of will has been passed on from generation to generation.

Warm memories of Sunday mornings
Me (in the white), with my sisters on a Sunday morning
I have vivid memories of Sundays with these three women. Together, my three sisters, my mother, my grandmother, and I headed off to church, where we met my great grandmother. She was always there ahead of us, in her usual place. She sat on the right as you entered the church, about halfway up, at the end of the pew.  In her hand, she clutched her black rosary beads, and we were conscious of the clink of the beads as she turned to smile at us before resuming her prayers.

After church, we would go over to her house, which was situated across the highway and half a block down the back lane from the church. Often, my little sister and I would walk with our grandmothers, while my mother drove the car over. Sometimes, we would urge our grandmothers to hurry, or we would rush off ahead, hoping to arrive before my mother in the car.  Other times, we relished the leisurely walk, holding hands as we happily chattered away.

 My great grandmother (center), with my grandmother to the left,
my mother to the  right, surrounded by me and my sisters
When we walked into my great grandmother’s house, we were treated to the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread. We knew that thick slices of buttered toast, accompanied with her delicious red currant jelly, made from the fruit she tended in her large garden, were on the morning’s menu.

The toast satisfied our hunger, but the lively conversations that ensued were the best part of our time in the kitchen. The women always had a week’s worth of catching up on family news, and as we grew older, my sisters and I would chirp in with our opinions.

Roots that reach deep into the past

When I reflect on that time in my life, I am reminded that I have roots that reach deep into the past, before the formation of my earliest memories. The four generations of women gathered in that kitchen tangibly symbolized previous generations. Each generation helped to shape our individual and collective stories.  The story continues to unfold, stretching into the future, as my daughter’s life, and the lives of my sons are interwoven with the lives of these same women.

My daughter and I in the matching sweaters, my grandmother and my mother

Faith and family informed the lives of these women. In the pew, and around the table, I witnessed a living faith, infused with love.  The spirituality in that kitchen may have had originated in the personal piety of my great grandmother’s clinking rosary beads and bended knee, but it strongly manifested itself in familial relationships.

Not every moment of these relationships was perfect. Sometimes, the women argued. Sometimes they exchanged harsh words in anger. But always, the little kitchen was warm with deep affection. There was the willingness to admit a mistake, to forgive an offense, and a readiness to help one another. 

The experience of those Sunday mornings, first as we gathered at church, and then as we broke bread around my grandmother’s table, was foundational to my spiritual formation.  I absorbed many values, and learned about faith and relationships on those Sunday mornings.

The witness of faith
While my faith is experienced in the present, its origins are rooted in the past, in the witness of my family, and in the witness of the first Christians, who encountered the resurrected Jesus, and passed the faith of that first Easter morning onto future generations.

Easter faith, boiled down to its essential element, is the story of God’s timeless love affair with humanity. It is a story rooted in the past, encountered in the present, and reaching into the future.

Easter faith encounters God waiting in the pew for our arrival: God guiding us across the highway: God baking the bread to satisfy our hunger: God dying on a cross to forgive our offenses.

Easter is the story of God and us, of grace overcoming fire. It is the story of a God whose unconditional love for us will stop at nothing, not even death, to sit at the kitchen table with us.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pursuing peace through humanitarian assistance

NGOs play a vital role in the pursuit of peace
Non-governmental organizations (NGO) play a vital role in promoting justice and in building peace. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace recently learned that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has drastically reduced its funding.

In 2011, the public contributed $12.6 million in donations to Development and Peace, while CIDA’s contribution was $8.2 million. From 2006-2011, CIDA contributed $44.6 million. Over the next five years, CIDA will contribute a paltry $14.5 million, and has stipulated that this money can only be used in 7 of the 30 countries where Development and Peace operates. Although Development and Peace has a substantial presence in Africa, only 1 African country is on the CIDA list. This is shocking since the continent is plagued with problems, like poverty, drought, starvation, AIDS, and civil strife.

NGOs make an important contribution to the global community. Development and Peace, for example, works with other voluntary international agencies to promote sustainable development, to reduce poverty, to empower women, and to protect human rights in Africa, Central and Latin America, and parts of Asia, collectively called the Global South. This is the work of peace building, and it benefits all of us.

The Cambodian experience - an example
I recently had the opportunity to hear Mam Sambath, the executive director of Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), a Cambodian NGO and partner of Development and Peace, speak about the successes and challenges of reconstructing Cambodian society after the 1975-1979 genocide of the Pol Pot regime that killed 2 million Cambodians.

The Cambodian example is instructive for understanding the problems that threaten the wellbeing of thousands of people daily throughout the Global South. DPA’s work in education, natural resource management, food security, and health are helpful in understanding the important contribution of NGOs.

Raising the standard of living for a community
Click on Solidarity Cards to
Some specific DPA projects include literacy training for women, building schools, and providing scholarships, especially for girls. Educating communities in proper agricultural techniques, livestock management, and fish culture secures the food supply, and increases income. Literacy and agricultural projects raise the standard of living throughout the community.

Seeking justice for indigenous communities
In Cambodia, as elsewhere, the physical and spiritual wellbeing of indigenous communities is integrally connected with the land. Through its natural resource management programs, DPA helps communities develop sustainable land projects. It advocates for indigenous land rights, and helps communities obtain legal recognition for projects, and legal land titles. This is important when companies with government granted land concessions seek to develop the land for mining or plantations.

Improving health
Simple measures improve health for both individuals and the community. Water pumps, filter containers and hand washing reduce the incidence of disease. Mosquito nets protect against malaria and dengue fever.

Coping with climate change
With DPA’s help, communities develop an action plan to cope with climate change. Small irrigation projects, dams and canals help communities avoid or mitigate widespread damage from drought and floods.

While projects and programs improve the standard of living in rural areas, it is more difficult to impact government attitudes that contribute to systemic injustice. Mam noted that human rights abuses, the prohibition against public assembly, and limited access to public information are continuing challenges.

Longing for peace
While Cambodia’s experience of gender inequality, illiteracy, poverty, and the exploitation of indigenous communities is a common story, so is the people’s desire to live in peace and with dignity. This longing in the human heart unites people in the Global North and in the Global South, and is a reminder of our common humanity, and our responsibility for one another.

Of the world’s 184 recognized nations, 157 nations comprise the Global South, where lack of safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, environmental degradation, human and civil rights abuses, and ethnic conflict are part of daily life. NGOs help communities address some of these challenges, and are a tool for positive action in the Global South.

Humanitarian projects are worth the money
In my view, government funding of NGOs is taxpayer dollars well spent. NGOs are an effective, efficient, and inexpensive tool for positive action. NGOs pursue peace through projects that fashion a more equitable and compassionate world, where all people share in the good gifts of the earth. Without respect for the dignity and rights of all people, there can be no peace.

The Canadian government continues to cut funding to humanitarian organizations. In the long run, this may contribute to sustaining conflict, rather than promoting a culture of peace.