In Suzanne Collins’s popular book and movie series, Hunger Games, we are given a gloomy picture of a future America. Some undisclosed catastrophe has transformed our once united country into Panem. Here they are divided into districts according to the goods that are produced. District 1 produces luxury items, district 2 masonry and defense, and so on until the 12th district, which produces coal. It is in this district that we meet our main characters who live difficult lives, particularly Katniss and her family. Katniss hunts illegally just to keep her family alive. After the death of her father and her mother’s subsequent depression, their lives are characterized by want and suffering with barely enough to make it.
This life is in contrast to those who live in the Capitol, who unlike the rest of Panem, do not produce anything. They only consume. Collins leads us, like Katniss, to hate the people of the Capitol for their frivolity, their waste, and their selfishness. How can they enjoy life when others suffer? Though there is some redemption for a small group of these citizens who participate in the overthrow, we still view them as shallow, clueless, and ridiculous.
We Are the Capitol
It is ironic that this series is so popular in the United States because, in reality, when compared to the world, we are the Capitol. We are the ones entertained by ridiculous events such as animal beauty pageants. We are the ones so overfed that we battle obesity. The rest of the world, struggling to survive, must surely look at us with the same incredulity that Katniss views the Capitol. So the question becomes can we truly be in the Kingdom of God if we look so much like the bad guys?
It is this question (and many others) that Jen Pollock Michel grapples with in Surprised by Paradox. In the section where she discusses the kingdom, she considers the paradox of asceticism vs. ease. To answer this she considers two giants of faith: A.W. Tozer (a theologian), who was rigidly ascetic, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who while resisting the Nazi party and training pastors in secret, still worried about clothes. She states:
It’s the stories of Tozer and Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist and Jesus, that kept me wondering: What is the shape of a kingdom life? Just how worldly–or how ascetic–is it? Paradoxically, I seem to be offered examples of both kinds of lives, which leaves me with more wondering. Am I meant to be Tozer, wearing out the knees of my pants and refusing proceeds from the sales of my books? Or am I meant to be Bonhoeffer, seeing no inherent crisis in privilege and obedience? Am I better off to imitate the stern faith of John the Baptist, whose name most surely made it on the wall of God? Or can I, like Jesus, indulge in an eating and drinking faith without fearing the wrath of the ledger-keeper? In other words, is it possible to die for God and worry for the state of one’s shoes while climbing the scaffold?
In the true paradox of the Bible, the matter of money isn’t an either/or situation. This is not to say that there isn’t a sin issue to be found here. Jesus warns repeatedly about the love of money and the impossibility of serving two masters (money or God). However, Jesus also lives on the generosity of wealthy patrons who enable Him to be about the work of God.
Give and Enjoy
Michel also explains both Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on wealth in ways to both challenge and encourage us. There aren’t any ultimatums of all Christians relinquishing wealth, instead, “in the kingdom of God, I am paradoxically called to give and to enjoy.” There isn’t a clear pathway through wealth–there are, however, some lights to show the way. One of these is generosity and the other is enjoyment or gratitude. There are countless verses throughout the Bible that emphasize our responsibility to be generous to those in need. In addition, starting in Genesis, we are encouraged to enjoy our blessings and show our thankfulness to the One who is the Giver of good gifts.
We don’t get to say with confidence that the way we, or others, handle money is absolutely correct. We are kept dependent on God for help to navigate the tricky paths of wealth. We cannot clearly exonerate or judge ourselves, we can only follow hard after Christ and keep asking ourselves the hard questions. Are we being generous? Are we serving money or using it to serve? Are we grateful?
An Invitation to Grapple
It is not just in the area of wealth that we must understand this multi-layered meaning of life. As Michel explores in her book, we can find paradox in Jesus’s incarnation, in grace itself, and in grief or lament. As we grapple with these issues, we can only be brought to awe and humility before God who will not be contained by our finite minds. Instead, we take comfort that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut 29:29 ESV).
Faith doesn’t mean we ignore the complexity of life. When we make our world too narrow, we lose focus on the vastness and inscrutability of God. As noted in Isaiah, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (40:12 ESV). Anything less creates a faith that’s too small for the world, making us as clueless as the residents of the Capitol. That’s why we desperately need the conversations Michel invites us to join. In the end, delving into the murky depths of paradox will only strengthen our faith in the one with Whom there is no shadow of turning.