When I was a junior in high school, I read Shirley Jackson’s great short story “The Lottery,” and I will confess that her narrative still haunts me. You might remember the plot. The townspeople of a village in the American heartland are gathering on a beautiful summer day in late June for a festival. There is good food, lively conversation, and upbeat music. It becomes clear that the focus for this celebration is the annual lottery, and the reader naturally assumes that the winner of the lottery will receive a prize of some kind. But when the choice is made, the “winner” shrinks away in fear, protesting the injustice of it all, while her fellow citizens close in on her, rocks and stones in hand. As the story ends, they are upon her.
In medieval Mexico, the Aztecs would choose a particularly handsome and brave warrior from a rival tribe. For a year, they would wine and dine him, provide entertainment for him, and treat him like a celebrity. Then, at the close of the year, they would lead him to the top of a tall pyramid and rip his still-beating heart from his chest, and offer it to the gods.
In the arenas of ancient Rome — most famously in the Colosseum — young gladiators would engage in mortal combat for the entertainment of blood-thirsty mobs, and emperors would use these spectacles for cynical political purposes.
In the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur, we hear that the king of Crete obligated the king of Athens every year to send seven young men and seven young women to battle the Minotaur, who was hidden in a devilishly complex maze. No one survived the ordeal, until Theseus managed to outwit the monster and escape from the maze.
All of these examples of human sacrifice — both fictional and non-fictional — swirled through my head as I watched the much-anticipated film The Hunger Games, based on the wildly popular series of novels. As in Jackson’s story, a lottery results in the choice of sacrificial victims from each “district” of a post-apocalyptic North American nation state. These youngsters — they must be teenagers — are then taken to the capital city and, like the Aztecs’ prisoners, they are pampered, made-up, and treated as celebrities for an extended period. Next, they are compelled to engage in mortal combat, so that, of the 24 participants, only one will survive. Like the Roman crowds of old, the people of the nation watch this process unfold and find it deeply entertaining, while the leadership manipulates the games (and the people’s feelings) for their own political ends. Finally, two of the participants in the Hunger Games (they changed the rules a bit) play the role of Theseus and manage to survive their ordeal and thus call into question the games themselves.
The really interesting question is this: Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature? The contemporary literary theorist Rene Girard has speculated that practically every human community is grounded in what he calls “the scapegoating mechanism.” This is the process by which we discharge our societal tensions onto a victim whom we have decided, collectively, to punish. In this, we effectively (at least for a time) manage to bring some peace and stability to our always volatile communities — which goes a long way toward explaining why the scapegoat dynamic is so popular with governments and why it is usually given a quasi-religious sanction.
If you doubt Girard on this score, I would invite you to take a good, long look at what Hitler accomplished through his scapegoating of Jews — and at what most of us accomplish through gossip and back-stabbing. As a wag once put it: “wherever two or three are gathered, look for victims.”
Girard discovered something else, which, despite his Catholic up-bringing, took him quite by surprise. He found that Christianity was the one religion, philosophy, or ideology that both unmasked this scapegoat mechanism and showed a way out. For at the heart of Christian revelation is God’s utter identification, not with the perpetrators of violence, but with the scapegoated victim. The crucified Jesus is hence the undermining of the dynamic that has undergirded most civilizations and that continues to beguile the human imagination to this day. If we find stories like The Lottery and The Hunger Games disturbing, it is due to our at least implicitly Christian formation. Human sacrifice flourished in the midst of some of the most sophisticated and intellectually advanced civilizations in history. It is demonstrably the case, and not just a matter of speculation, that what brought it to an end in both the Roman and Aztec contexts was nothing other than the influence of Christianity, the religion centered on a crucified Lord.
What haunted me as I watched The Hunger Games was that the instinct for human sacrifice is never far from the surface and that it could easily exist alongside of tremendous cultural and technological sophistication. I suspect that this film is disturbingly prophetic. We might comfort ourselves with the thought that such things could never happen here, but as we in the West enter increasingly into a secular, post-Christian cultural space, we place ourselves in danger of reverting to wicked forms of behavior and social organization.
— Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. He is the creator of a ten-episode documentary series called Catholicism.