February 19, 2013 Leave a comment
Last night, on a plane ride from Boston to Seattle, I finished the Hunger Games Trilogy. Overall, I enjoyed the series and found it provocative and sobering at the same time. Having spent the last week in the world of Panem I was both saddened and glad to have finished my trek through a dystopia intended to shed an interrogator’s light on some of our own social practices.
And, while I found the experience worthwhile there was something deeply troubling to me about the end of the book. I have been unable to make sense of Katniss Everdeen’s decision to vote yes for the final Hunger Games. My companion through Panem – my wife Desiree – has suggested that it was a plot to mislead President Coin so that she could kill her. In the end, Desiree ventured, there was no final Hunger Games because President Coin would have not had the opportunity to enforce the vote. Others on the internet have interpreted her decision in similar ways. However, there are others like me who are baffled by the vote because, though Suzanne Collins takes us inside Katniss’s thought processes throughout the book, we are not really privy to them in regards to this decision. We can read through the lines and come up with a sympathetic interpretation of the events, but the narrative as written suggests that Katniss believed she was making a vote that would count.
How do we make sense of this? I think Katniss’s decision to support a new Hunger Games is one more example of what some theologians are beginning to call “moral injury.” Indeed, I think one of the greatest gifts of Collins’s trilogy is painting such a vivid of picture what moral injury looks like and how war brings it on.
Some of the leading thinkers in this field of research describe moral injury in this way,
Moral injury is not PTSD. The latter is a dysfunction of brain areas that suppress fear and integrate feeling with coherent memory; symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, dissociative episodes and hyper-vigilance. PTSD is an immediate injury of trauma.
Moral injury has a slow burn quality that often takes time to sink in. To be morally injured requires a healthy brain that can experience empathy, create a coherent memory narrative, understand moral reasoning and evaluate behavior. Moral injury is a negative self-judgment based on having transgressed core moral beliefs and values or on feeling betrayed by authorities. It is reflected in the destruction of a moral identity and loss of meaning. Its symptoms include shame, survivor guilt, depression, despair, addiction, distrust, anger, a need to make amends and the loss of a desire to live.
Advocates for principled nonviolence have long argued that violence should be rejected because violence and injustice (structural violence) harms both the victim of the violence and the one committing the violence. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, insisted that the struggle for civil rights was a fight against injustice rather than white people because Jim Crow laws and racism harmed white people as well as black people. Desmond Tutu has insisted on the humanity of apartheid agents, in part, because of the damage it did to their souls. Even in the name of a just cause, violating another’s humanity results in the diminishing of one’s own humanity. All become less human in instances of the violation of human rights.
Katniss, in choosing to vote for the Hunger Games, embodies this reality. Her moral world and compass have been destroyed. In part, this is due to the Capitol’s actions. However, it is also in part because of her own actions, often chosen through her own agency, which make it possible for her to vote in favor of a policy she hates as a means of vengeance. Gale’s willingness to sacrifice many innocent people in the name of the revolution is another example of such moral injury. And, finally, the troubled life that Katniss and Peeta spend together in the closing scenes reminds us of the long-lasting effects of such injuries – often long after physical injuries have healed.
The rise of US soldier suicides has brought this issue into the light in the US. Soldiers trained to kill often struggle with the moral effects of those actions for the rest of their lives. Luckily, there are good people doing good work on addressing these often forgotten injuries. Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University has started a Soul Repair Center, and theologians Rita Nakashima-Brock and Gabriella Lettini have recently written a book on the topic.
We are all interdependent, and injustice and injury to one – even our enemies – create injustices and injuries in ourselves. May we work toward recognizing and healing all the injuries that our violence, oppression, indifference, and politics inflict on each other.