Let's play a game: I will describe a location, and you decide whether it's The Roman Empire around the time Jesus lived or Panem, the dystopian nation where The Hunger Games trilogy takes place.
Question 1: This location has a class of people whose wealth desensitizes it to the needs of the less fortunate. Panem, The Roman Empire, or both?
Question 2: This locale has a tyrannical leader intent on maintaining power and quelling symbols of hope that might incite revolt. Panem, The Roman Empire, or both?
Question 3: This location has a central source of power and wealth with outlying regions that suffer to support it. Panem, The Roman Empire, or both?
Answer (you probably guessed it already): Both.
I'm not the first commentator to note the similarities between the two societies. Others have noted that the word "panem," for instance, is said to come from the Latin words panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses." The term refers, fittingly enough, to distractions aimed at appeasing the public in ancient Rome, just as the Hunger Games were a distraction for the Capitol's residents but simultaneously a diabolical show of government power for the districts.
Yet in addition to resembling ancient Rome broadly, Panem also specifically resembles the ancient Roman Empire around the time that Jesus lived. Consider Jerusalem, for instance. It wasn't the center of the Empire (that was Rome), but one might liken it to District One or Two, both of which had pockets of wealth and authority. Indeed, one might think of the Sadducees--a sect of Jewish leaders with great wealth and power--as representative of those districts. They were responsible for sacrifices in the Temple and held strategic roles in government. They were judges and foreign emissaries, and they used their money to hire skillful interpreters who construed the Torah in ways that favored them in legal or social disputes.
Sounds a bit like those districts with Career tributes, doesn't it?
Then there were the Herodian kings: Herod Antipas divorced his first wife in order to wed the wife of his brother. When John the Baptist protested against this arrangement, Herod ordered his arrest. This same king is said to have ordered John the Baptist's beheading--either because Salome requested it or because he was afraid of an uprising. Meanwhile, another Herod--Herod the Great--ordered the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem to protect his throne from a possible usurper.
All of which sounds a bit like Head Peacekeeper Romulus Thread from the most recent film (or maybe even President Snow).
There are also similarities in the overarching narrative: From the perspective of Church tradition, Jesus functions as an innocent man asked to bear the sins of many on the cross for their atonement. Likewise, in Panem, 24 children are chosen yearly to compete to the death in The Hunger Games as payment, as a reminder to the districts never to rebel against the Capitol again. Or, in the Quarter Quell documented in this year's film, 24 tributes--who are supposedly immune from the reaping--must do the same. In both scenarios, innocent parties are asked to atone for sins they did not commit.
If the similarities between Panem and ancient Rome are striking, so are those between Jesus and protagonist Katniss Everdeen. As with Katniss, Jesus abhors the wealthy, the self-absorbed and loathes leaders such as Herod who, like President Snow, trample upon the poor and condone the killing of children.
Yet if there are parallels between the ancient world and this dystopian one, the similarities may end when one thinks about Katniss Everdeen too much as a Jesus-figure. Unlike Jesus, she repeatedly kills, although admittedly her situation in either Game left few alternatives. Moreover, in both films, she's intent on sacrificing herself, but only for the sake of her sister or Peeta; unlike Jesus, that makes her sacrifice directive, aimed at saving her family or her friends. She's not interested in saving all people, and certainly not intrigued by the prospect of saving her enemies.
So one might say that the parallels with the ancient world end with Katniss, but maybe that's also where the parallels with ours are strongest. Because while she may not be a metaphor for Christ, Katniss is perhaps best understood as a prophetic hero for our time, a symbol of the terrible choices that must be made when people live in a world like Panem, a world like ancient Rome, a world like ours. As in Panem, as in ancient Rome, we live in a world where killing is, unfortunately, sometimes the best of many bad options, where lessons of peace and equality cannot be heard. So while Katniss Everdeen's life may harken to our past, her character also becomes a reminder that such injustices remain, though we have had over 2,000 years to eradicate them. As a result, she encourages us to see that inequality and violence have existed far too long, and she presses us to demand their end.
**Many thanks to Alexis Felder, who contributed valuable insights to this piece.