Acton Commentary

Bread First, Then Ethics


The question of hope in relation to material and spiritual goods is one that clearly distinguishes the Christian perspective from that of the pagan world. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy pivots on this distinction, and as Robert Joustra recently observed, “At the root of that genre, of all fantasy, of story and of imagination, is hope.”

Todd Steen and I recently examined the Hunger Games through the lens of hope, and we observe that the film version of the first installment of the series has a scene that nicely explicates the pagan view of hope in Panem:

This dialogue shows how hope is used as a means of social control. It turns out, of course, that this manipulation of hope as a weapon is not so easy; President Snow’s effort ends up turning against him.

There is a kind of dichotomy between the material and the spiritual world that runs through Collins’ depiction of Panem. Jeffrey Weiss has examined the absence of religiosity in the series, and as I’ve written previously, “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”

This dualistic perspective is in radical disjunction to what might be called a sacramental worldview, which recognizes the various and ubiquitous dispensations of divine grace behind everything, even something as mundane and as necessary as bread. On this view of the world as infused with divine grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “the bread is God’s free and gracious gift. We cannot simply take it for granted that our own work provides us with bread; rather this is God’s order of grace.”

But as Weiss has also contended, the large scale absence of God and religion from the scene in the Hunger Games serves a narrative purpose. Indeed, one could argue that the post-apocalyptic Panem is a uniquely American world, in which the pragmatic tyrannizes the theoretical, the future, the ultimately hopeful. As W. H. Auden (invoking Bertolt Brecht) depicts the American mindset in his poem, “Grub First, Then Ethics,” the human person

must get his calories

before he can consider her profile or

his own, attack you or play chess,

and take what there is however hard to get down:

then surely those in whose creed

God is edible may call a fine

omelette a Christian deed.

So there is this compellingly complex paradox between what we might call bread and hope from the Christian perspective. On the one side, bread is necessary sustenance for our physical life, and an appropriately worldly evaluation comprehends a measure of hope in relation to this aspect of our existence. As the apostle Paul writes, “Whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest” (1 Co. 9:10 NIV). But when disordered, our material hopes become temptations. In the words of the tempter, “tell these stones to become bread.” On the other side, as Jesus answers definitively, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God knows that we need bread, and we aren’t to focus on the acquisition of bread as an ultimate goal.

So one way of understanding the difference between the pagan and the Christian perspective on bread is to follow Jesus’ depiction of the situation:

Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

This Christian perspective reorients and revalues bread, putting it within the broader context of spiritual goods and eschatological hope.

The pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters. The Christian answer seeks God’s kingdom, realizing that primarily the kingdom is “not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Ro. 14:17 NIV).