This is the story behind my new class Bread Alone: A Contemplative Study of The Hunger Games for Christians, how it came to be, and why Christian parents might want to enroll in it, alongside their teenage children, this summer.
In The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace (1993), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote: “An essential component of a spirituality for peacemaking is an ethic for dealing with conflict in a sinful world. The Christian tradition possesses two ways to address conflict: nonviolence and just war…Throughout history there has been a shifting relation between the two streams of the tradition which always remain in tension.”
If there is any tension between these two streams of the tradition, it exists only in the most erudite circles of the Church, in my opinion. While teaching ancient literature to high school freshmen at a classical Catholic school for ten years, I discussed themes of war, violence, and murder with my students on a weekly basis: Their ideas, perspectives, and assumptions could hardly be distinguished from those of the most worldly secular humanists. It wasn’t their fault: There was no “tension” in their minds about the two traditions because they didn’t know anything about them.
The problem is not limited to kids. Most adults cannot tell you the criteria of the “Just War” doctrine. Some Catholics can tell you that such a doctrine exists — but that’s it. Back when the The Hunger Games films were first released, I noticed something curious about Catholic reviews (which I wrote about at LRC here). To summarize: Catholic film critics “saw very little about the central human problem of war in this wildly popular film that was, in the words of its Roman Catholic author, written about war, and after a decade of living under a government that is perpetually waging war.” It was a massive blindspot.
The problem is not limited to the laity. A Catholic priest once told me that in seminary he spent exactly one afternoon learning about “Just War,” one afternoon in seven years, and he never learned anything about nonviolence. Some priests think nonviolence is a Quaker thing or a “60s” thing or a sign of the feminization of the Church.
The problem is not limited to civilians. I’ve heard from a number of sources that Catholic military chaplains are not allowed to proactively teach Catholic soldiers about the “Just War” Doctrine! They can bring it up only if a soldier comes to them with a crisis of conscience. And if a priest personally subscribes to the other “stream of the tradition”? He won’t be allowed to work as a military chaplain. So how can we expect there to be any tension whatsoever in the minds of Catholic soldiers?
Not to belabor the point but even if you had somehow heard about the two traditions and looked them up in the index of the Catechism, you would find only one. The explanation is clear. “Just War” is laid out next to bullet points. It’s simple. You won’t find Christian Nonviolence in the Catechism. Maybe because “Just War” theory is rooted in natural law, human reason. Christian nonviolence is rooted in the Divine Law. It’s not so easy to bullet-point the mind of God, is it?
“My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways.” Isaiah 55:8
Bottom line: There can be no tension between the two traditions if, in the words of Fr. Emmanuel McCarthy: “Nonviolence is a non-thought.” It was certainly a non-thought for me for the first three decades of my life, until I listened to Behold the Lamb, a series of talks by Fr. McCarthy. (Read his latest at LRC here.) Behold the Lamb is considered to be the most comprehensive and spiritually profound proclamation of Jesus’ vital Gospel message of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. Perhaps for this very reason, it is also, along with its author, controversial.
I had the idea for this class a decade ago. I wanted to teach it as a summer elective at a Catholic school, but I was hesitant to propose it. I was worried it might upset Catholic parents. Because The Hunger Games is violent, dark. But I thought it stood a chance of being approved. There wasn’t anything in The Hunger Games that the students weren’t already being exposed to in Homer and Aeschylus. My second concern was this: I found Behold the Lamb riveting but I wasn’t sure it was Catholic, because I’d been Catholic all my life and had never heard anything like it. The last thing I wanted to do was lead my students (or let myself be led) astray. One of my friends, an administrator, agreed to listen to the series and weigh in.
The verdict? The Hunger Games, a story about children being forced to hunt and kill each other for sport, was approved. Behold the Lamb was not. Sure, I could teach about Christian nonviolence that summer, just not with those lectures.
Why not? Did they not represent sound Catholic teaching? Were they factually inaccurate, heretical? I genuinely wanted to know. My friend knew far more about Catholic theology than I. After some back and forth, I was told: “It’s not really the lectures themselves that are the problem. It’s just…who he is.”
Who is Fr. McCarthy? He is a priest in good standing with the Catholic Church. But he is also that priest who says those things. He has been saying them loudly, consistently, for 55 years and has never been censured by the Church for saying them. Nonetheless, he has been a target of what is now called “cancel culture”. It’s funny that there is now an actual organization called “Coalition for Canceled Priests” and they are having a big conference next week in Chicago. Fr. McCarthy should have been the keynote speaker! Fr. McCarthy is the “OG” of cancelled priests! Someone should go stand in the hotel lobby and hand out flyers about Fr. McCarthy to Abby Johnson, John-Henry Westen, and Fr. James Altman, who are national treasures but also nationally known. In this morning’s newsletter from LifeSite News, they wrote that they need to raise $500,000 in their summer campaign to continue to report the truth. Abby Johnson supports a family of nine through speaking engagements.
When I invited Fr. McCarthy to Atlanta to give a conference in 2015, we raised enough money to fly him down and put him up in a hotel room. I think he walked away with an additional $500 or something that we collected in an envelope. Everything he has ever done has been totally grassroots. He raised twelve children. He’s had no institutional support, just an email list, word of mouth, and the workings of the Holy Spirit. I can think of one conservative Catholic publication that bemoans now being canceled for holding true to “tradition”: They canceled Fr. McCarthy decades ago with a basic hit piece! It did damage to his reputation for a long time. Of course true to the culture of cancellation, people who have disagreed with Fr. McCarthy have never been interested in debating him, or really even listening to him. They just take the microphone away, and ignore.
Why do they do this? Because once you introduce the idea of Christian nonviolence, it does create a tension in the mind. That tension is either the sign of an informed conscience, the sign of cognitive dissonance, or in my opinion, both. When one experiences cognitive dissonance, either one thing or the other must get dropped. That’s just a psychological fact. And let’s face it: They don’t want the wrong one to get dropped! (For some fascinating oral history on all of this, I recommend listening to two interviews I did with Fr. McCarthy on the Catholics Against Militarism podcast: Episode 1, “Author Interview with Fr. Emmanuel McCarthy,” and Episode 13, “The Miracle of Edith Stein.”)
Indeed, “cancel culture” existed in the Church long before Traditionis custodes. In fact, I’m also offering a local version of this class in my town, and I didn’t even bother trying to do it at my local church. I’ve been down that road before: Someone on the parish council will Google McCarthy and get scared and then too much energy will be spent trying to obtain permission, bypass gatekeepers. Someone will smugly tell me that if it wasn’t for soldiers we’d all be speaking German, etc. I probably won’t even be allowed to advertise on the church email list. I’m just doing it the Fr. McCarthy way: putting up flyers around town and seeing who shows up!
To wrap up, I ended up not teaching the class to my high school students that summer ten years ago. I had no other materials to help me teach the spirituality of Gospel nonviolence, and even if they did exist, I was sure they would not be able to teach it with the clarity and power of Behold the Lamb. (And I believed that to teach nonviolence poorly could be worse than not teaching it at all.) The school made the wrong call, in my opinion, but I’m not trying to paint them in a bad light. The esteem in which I hold my former colleagues, their love for the Church and knowledge of Scripture and tradition, and their seal of approval on the content of the lectures, is the very thing that gives me the confidence to teach this material today. For that, I thank them.
What Fr. McCarthy says sometimes upsets people. It also changes lives. My friend, the priest who had studied “Just War” for one afternoon in seminary, attended Fr. McCarthy’s conference in Atlanta at my behest. He later told me that he had been so angered by what he was hearing, he almost left at lunch and didn’t come back. But he stuck it out, and listened, and was very glad he did. Behold the Lamb changed my life and it has changed the lives of thousands of Christians around the world. Until I listened to Behold the Lamb, Jesus’s Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies had been “so clear to me that it was almost invisible” (to steal a line from my favorite songwriter, Neko Case.)
I hope this study will make the Way, the Truth, and the Life more visible, scrutable. By interweaving Fr. McCarthy’s Behold the Lamb with a compelling narrative like The Hunger Games, I hope to make the study of Gospel nonviolence both more appealing and more accessible for people of all ages. Students will be able to apply what they hear in the lectures to the concrete situation they are reading about, which will hopefully lay the groundwork for some great discussions, among families, friends, book clubs, and church groups.
I hope to draw students into a deeper pondering of Divine Law by setting it against a dystopian backdrop, a world in which human beings know no God and can rely only on the faculties of human reason to guide and sustain them. Sometimes we see things more starkly when we see them in relief. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, said she wanted to educate young people about the realities of war. I think she inadvertently educates people about what the world would look like with no faith in God. We may be surprised to discover how closely this world resembles our own.
In his first Message for the World Day of Peace in January 1979 Pope Saint John Paul II said: “To reach peace, teach peace.” This is what I aim to do with this study. I can’t imagine growing up in the world today, assaulted by violent images in video games and movies, pummeled by news of the latest school shooting, drawn into false realities through social and mainstream media. No wonder young people are experiencing widespread mental health crises, anxiety, depression, and suicide in unprecedented numbers. I think there is nothing more important that we could be teaching the young. Our Lord said:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give it to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
I am honored to teach “alongside” Fr. McCarthy, who has never copyrighted his life’s work, who has made it available to anyone online for free, and who has given me carte blanche to creatively work with it in whatever way I can. Fr. McCarthy has been my greatest teacher. I want to pass along what he taught me to a new generation, who can then work with it in their own minds and hearts and lives, growing closer to Jesus Christ, and in cooperation with grace save their souls, and through that — help to save the whole world!
The first offering of this online class will take place from July 1 – August 9, 2023, which will coincide with the 41st Annual 40 Day Fast for the Truth of Gospel Nonviolence, which you can learn more about here.
Join us for contemplation, discussion, and debate! This class is open to everyone ages 14 and up. Parents (and grandparents!) are strongly encouraged to participate with their children or grandchildren. It’s perfect for road trips as all of the material can be listened to instead of read. It will make for great dinner conversation! Teens who are not attending live discussions with a parent or grandparent will need parent permission to attend on their own. If you wish to enroll your teen in a class that is for teens only, please email me, and with enough interest, I will be thrilled to open a new section only for teens.