I woke up clutching my bed frame, heart pounding, mind reeling – three nights in a row – when I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I could not escape this story, both novel and film, and wondered how it could change The United States. It was one of two striking stories of civil strife in the United States this past year, with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln stealing viewers’ imaginations and hearts too. Grossing a combined half of a billion dollars at the box office, I hope that the two films can help Americans work through the great anxieties they address surrounding political and cultural polarization.
The attention to these stories in popular culture calls for sharing stories of encounter and transformation across religious, regional, cultural, and political differences today. Such testimonies are often about people who meet across difference for the first time, build trust, and find a way to work together rather than in opposition. Strongly held differences often remain, but shared paths open from a dense wood.
Portraying extreme circumstances, The Hunger Games and Lincoln help me understand the realities of the present and motivate me to diminish prejudice and polarization. The Hunger Games takes place in the dystopian future, and Lincoln in the tragic past: both are allegory for the present. Both are about a mortal conflict between disparate regions of a North America divided along cultural, economic, and geographical axes. I imagine the anguish of brothers divided on the civil war’s battlefields. I imagine the harrowing experiences of tributes pitted against each other, in the Hunger Games of Panem, the country that Collins describes as rising from a conflict-torn North America. These stories are not only connected thematically, but also politically and historically.
These films draw my attention to contemporary stories that bridge the time-span between their historical and future settings. The central Appalachian region, where protagonists Katniss and Peeta of The Hunger Games come from, endured a particularly awful experience in the civil war. Located at the border between the north and south, Kentucky itself officially remained neutral and was the birthplace of both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. The war divided communities and families, precipitating decades of family feuds and regional tensions through the late 19th century (including the Hatfield-Macoy feuds, amongst others). Stories of encounter and transformation across difference today play a key role in helping Americans to unbind from this legacy.
Through my work with Interfaith Appalachia, I have been blessed to witness these stories unfolding. We bring people together across differences of religion, politics and environmental perspective for service, dialogue and community development. One particularly powerful experience came for me in January 2013, when I led a group of religiously diverse college students from northeastern Ohio on an eight-day program in Harlan County, Kentucky. We partnered with evangelical ministries and community organizations, serving and learning together.
Our main service project was to work with a local widow, Ms. Williams (name changed), repairing damage to her walls from a coal stove. One student found herself startled upon entering the cluttered space, noticing that she was reacting with stereotypes. Rather than shutting down her own reaction, she worked through the tension, asking herself why she was reacting as she had. The student witnessed the beauty of character of someone whose background and life was very different from hers:
So, as we scrubbed the coal dust off those walls, something inside of me began to come clean, too… Standing little over 5 feet tall, Mrs. Williams’ spirit far exceeded her height. She enthusiastically told us about her 12 children and her grandchildren whom she couldn’t even begin to count. She lamented the fact that her house had become a storage unit for her children. “They say they’ll get it in a minute, but that minute never comes!” she laughed playfully. Although elderly, she is a strong woman, proud.
This relationship became a turning point in the student’s experience, strengthening her own sense of self and sense of peace with others.
Working to foster a culture of collaboration, diminishing polarization, calls for not only facilitating experiences of personal transformation but also for sharing these testimonies. I have seen a Freewill Baptist Preacher, coal miner, and Republican, live out his values to teach a young Buddhist environmentalist about non-attachment. I have witnessed a progressive Methodist woman see her own concern about community health and drug addiction embodied by a conservative evangelical man.
There is no shortage of powerful stories. The trick is to tell them so that they stick. These stories, expressed through writing and art, can address areas of great interest to the popular imagination.
Popular culture often points towards concerns and aspirations across society. I have heard positive reviews of both Lincoln and The Hunger Games from people of a wide array of backgrounds, now including judges at the Oscars. And, based on my experiences and intuition, I am riding a hunch that we citizens of this complex country aspire for – in knowledge of our differences – a peaceful land. May the stories offer a road-map, a vision, and a shared prayer.