The Common Good

Hunger Is Not a Game: Why I Volunteered to Be a Tribute

I cannot start a fire. Often, this is the case even with a dry match in my hand.

Movie Poster for Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Courtesy Lionsgate [United States]

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As a person of relative privilege from the West living in an age of microwaves and igniter switches, this would not generally be a problem, aside from the embarrassment such ineptitude might cause. It would, however, be a problem if I were, say, stranded in the East Tennessee countryside and left to fend for myself against an alliance of desperate, vengeful college students.

Such is the conundrum I face this approaching weekend with my participation in Carson-Newman University’s third annual Hunger Games.

Inspired by the Suzanne Collins young adult trilogy of the same name, The Hunger Games competition is a modest (and much safer) simulation of the trials faced by Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and other tributes in the arena, a future dystopic society’s deadly means of ensuring unhesitating fealty to “the Capitol.” Featuring 14 students “reaped” from among volunteers in each residence hall — and, this year, two “Classic Alumni” tributes of the middle-aged variety — C-N’s Hunger Games exposes competitors to the elements (this is November, after all), momentary hunger, the fears that accompany the darkness of night, Nerf weapons, and, most disturbingly, the competitive rage and greed that lurks within each of us, unleashed in the guise of a coed extracurricular activity.

Which reminds me once again: I cannot start a fire. My daily attire is more tweed than camouflage and I am problematically more apt at identifying systematic theologians than edible berries.

So, with no blood kin in need of rescue, why did I follow in the footsteps of Katniss and volunteer to be a tribute? When first asked about participating, all I could think about was the cold weather and my various ineptitudes, not to mention my often-abstract commitment to pacifism.

Unlike most of the tributes of Panem, my sacrifice came as a choice, yet another mark of my privilege. And in even starker contrast to Collins’ imaginary Hunger Games, C-N’s Hunger Games serve the purpose of seeking to meet the needs of the most oppressed and underprivileged in our neighborhoods — those living below the poverty line, the homeless, Iraqi refugees, low-income students, and more.

I may not be able to literally take the place of someone facing hunger, but I can stand in the breach. I can deny and decry my privilege all I wish to assuage my progressive Christian sensibilities, but, at the end of the day, I cannot erase my whiteness, I cannot cease to be male, I cannot retroactively decline a lifetime of education, and, even if I could turn a blind eye to my access to an abundance of resources — food, shelter, relationships, etc. —such a dismissal would more greatly be one of arrogance than assistance.

In Suzanne Collins’ second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen is both lauded and condemned as a girl whose incendiary actions (not to mention attire) ignited a fire that was steadily growing into a revolution.

This weekend, it will be a small miracle if I so much as kindle a spark in the East Tennessee countryside. And I harbor no messianic delusions that a revolution will begin through my feeble attempts at solidarity with those who are suffering.

I cannot start a fire, but I can do something. 

After all, it just took a handful of berries for Katniss.

Dave McNeely is an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn. He is also a member of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, where he serves as the Minister to Youth and College Students.

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