While we need hope to seek a better life for others and ourselves, it can also serve as a tool of oppression. A scene added to The Hunger Games movie, not included in the novel by Suzanne Collins, depicts the type of hope that perpetuates injustice. Applying President Snow’s insight, we can identify false hopes including the prosperity gospel.
The Power of Hope to Oppress and Deliver
The Hunger Games occurs in a dystopian future in which the United States has been replaced by a new country, Panem. The luxurious capital region oppresses the 12 districts, each which produces critical resources for the nation. Every year, the government forces two teenagers from each district to fight to the death in an elaborate arena, televised for the viewing pleasure of the Capital. Only one of these children can be declared the victor.
In the middle of the film, President Snow converses with the game producer, Seneca Crane:
President Snow: Why do we have a winner? I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up 24 of them at random and execute them all at once? It would be a lot faster. (Pause) Hope.
Seneca Crane: Hope?
President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.
How can hope effectively prolong injustice? Why does the amount of hope matter?
In The Hunger Games, the small hope is that you will succeed in the games, that your district will win. The large hope is that the Capital will be defeated and the games will end. For us, the small hope aims to make money, become rich, do better than the next guy. It believes I will succeed within the system. The large hope acts to transform the economic and political system so injustices would cease.
The Prosperity Gospel
By exposing the small hope, The Hunger Games critiques the prosperity gospel. For those not familiar with the term, the prosperity gospel teaches the false notion that God always blesses his faithful followers with material wealth. While this belief seems absurd to most people, whether or not they ascribe to the Christian faith, allow me to explain the critical error that leads to believing the prosperity gospel. Understanding the misstep requires starting with the true gospel or Good News of Jesus.
The most simplified gospel presentation includes the cornerstone beliefs that Jesus came to the Earth, lived a sinless, selfless life, but died the punishment that we deserve. As a result, God offers to forgive us and no longer hold us responsible for our sins and selfishness. Consequently, we can go to Heaven and live with Him forever after we die.
While true, this version lacks considerably. The gospel does not only pertain to eternity, but life now on Earth as well. Jesus announced “the gospel of the kingdom,” where his will is “done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 4:23, Matthew 6:10). This begins when we turn to Jesus, and he sends his Spirit to live inside us, enabling us to love God and others.
By understanding that God cares about our lives now, prosperity gospel adherents actually demonstrate great faith that God wants to bless us, but they unfortunately conclude that this necessarily includes material possessions. To buttress their claim, they quote 2 Corinthians 8:9 as evidence that God intends to make us wealthy, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”
A typical counter-argument to this interpretation explains that the terms “poor” and “rich” do not refer to money or material possessions, but the spiritual reality described earlier. I propose a different rebuttal.
Supposing that the verse refers to material wealth, the prosperity gospel errs by interpreting the verse individualistically, believing that God wants us to be rich in an oppressive, unjust system. This corresponds to the small hope mentioned by President Snow.
Rejecting the Small Hope, Embracing the Large Hope
Instead, let us have the “dangerous” hope that God would use us to subvert unjust systems and bring prosperity to all. This hope can manifest itself in many ways. First, we see it in Jesus’s followers taking care of one another and those outside their community. Luke, the first Church historian records,
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
A few hundred years later, the Christians (sometimes called Galilaeans) continued these practices, causing pagan Emperor Julian to complain, “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” In other words, 2 Corinthians 8:9 can find fulfillment in a new economy of justice that exists within the larger society.
We can also manifest the large hope by working to change the practices of the larger society. Jesus said his Kingdom does not violently overthrow governments, but speaks truth to leaders (John 18:36, 37). Examples include William Wilberforce working to end the slave trade in the English Parliament and Martin Luther King Jr. working to end segregation and militarism. When society seeks economic justice, it will prosper, not just from God’s blessing, but because His wisdom works.
What do you hope for?
Starting with the example of money, have you embraced the small hope of trying to get ahead? How can you work towards prosperity for all?
Let us also examine this principle more generally. What do you hope for? Make a list. What is individualistic and what is for others? I’m not saying we can’t have desires for ourselves, but I am encouraging us to passionately long for the greater good as well.
Lastly, if you follow Jesus, this is a matter of faith as well as hope. Do you ask and trust God for the larger hope?