by Carolyn Philstrom
I'm either catching up with the times or bowing to peer pressure. I'm finally reading “The Hunger Games” after seeing the movie this past weekend, along with gazillions of other people. Now if you're a latecomer like me, I'll do my best to avoid spoilers. You've been warned.
The basic plot: A totalitarian country is obsessed with keeping its people under control, fearful that they might incite a second rebellion. So, the leaders take a hint from Ancient Rome. In addition to keeping the people poor and hungry, the Capitol city uses gruesome violence to frighten and intimidate the people into submission. Each year, 24 teenagers are chosen at random. They must compete in a gladiator-like contest, where they fight to the death. All televised. So, the country is in a state of perpetual dystopia where the people are not free.
Depressing and gruesome, right?!! This is why I took so long to get on board with this craze.
Here's what makes the story palatable, and evidently wildly popular: Amidst the dystopia and pain, there are pockets of intense hope and beauty. Just like in our world… our church… even our families.
Alliances, and friendships, and even love, blossom between the characters. Some people who are supposed to kill each other instead end up keeping one another alive. Essentially, the story is a revolution of hope. I guess it wouldn't sell many books or movie tickets to base a plotline off of “The world is depressing, there's no hope, The End.” The president of this fictional country says it best: “The only thing more powerful than fear is hope.”
But there is, of course, also sadness and pain to the story. And like any good fantasy should, it tells us something about reality. I'll tell you, the biggest tearjerker scene was one that reminded me of our own racialized dystopia – and it was the death of an innocent, brown-skinned child.
Even though the death of THIS child was a fiction, so many similar deaths are a reality. After weeks of following the Trayvon Martin story, I sat there watching this scene, and there was something a bit too real about the image of an innocent brown-skinned child being laid to rest. Just yesterday, we heard our brother Justin read far too many names just like these. God, have mercy.
The death of innocent children, like Trayvon Martin or Emmett Till, are tragic, violent symptoms of the disease of racism and hate. These are the emergency cases that, like the death of Jesus, alarm us to the fact that there is something seriously wrong with the world. The sin of racism is a disease that AFFECTS us all, especially brown and black children who are just trying to walk around in their own neighborhoods, headed home or to school. And a disease that INFECTS us all – especially those of us who are white or privileged. The disease can take many forms – anything from acute violence to chronic apathy. It is a major aspect of OUR dystopia. It is a sin of the heart.
I think there's a reason why epic stories of dystopia are so powerful and contagious. They touch on something about what it means to be a broken human living in a broken world. Just look at the worlds of today's readings. Jeremiah is sometimes called the weeping prophet. It is primarily a sad book written under sad circumstances. And Jesus himself was indeed living in the very dystopia that the Hunger Games was modeled after.
But all this turmoil and pain is only the BEGINNING of the story, merely a PART of the setting. See, in each of these worlds – ancient and modern, fantasy and reality, there is a revolution fueled by hope. This is really the basic plot of Christianity, the story of the whole Bible, and really of every good epic story. Even the story of our lives. A revolution of hope.
Today, our worship is rooted in words that are unabashedly hope-filled. “The days are SURELY coming, says the Lord.” We are blessed with these pockets of beauty and unwavering hope, even amidst our sin and sorrow.
These words we hear, the words we sing, even our very presence here, our somber procession yesterday, those hoodies we wore, even our facebook laments - all bear witness to God breaking into our communal and individual dystopia. Even into the depths of our very hearts. The tears we shed, the pain we release – this is what it feels like when God re-writes our hearts.
We wish to see Jesus. And even more so, Jesus does see us, Jesus does dwell with us, that he may provide healing and wholeness – for each of us, whatever your pain, whatever your inner dystopia. Jesus also heals our neighbors and our communities. “I will draw ALL PEOPLE to myself.”
Our guilt is rewritten into empowerment, our sorrow is rewritten into joy. If you want a really powerful example of this, take a look at the life of Ammena Matthews, whose life God rewrote from gang member to anti-violence advocate. She is a leader in the revolution of hope here in the dystopia that is South and West Sides of Chicago. She is one of the Interrupters, and the documentary by the same name is a powerful witness of God's presence rewriting hearts and rewriting lives in OUR world. In OUR revolution of hope.
The Christian life, and the work of ministry, may take us to many places and communities we don't even know about yet. Whose stories we have yet to learn. We can trust that God will be at work through Christ's presence. “I will draw all people to myself.” All people. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, victim or perpetrator, hopeless or burdened, God will re-write that heart of yours and draw you ever closer to Jesus.
And so God uses us as instruments, re-writing our hearts. God erases our sin, our racism, our guilt, our sorrow, and instead writes within us a new law and a new covenant. So let us now sing a new song.
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33