After setting the Christian images and tropes with the first two volumes of her trilogy – Hunger Games and Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins places her characters where all Christian tales end, at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, in this case known as “The Hanging Tree”.
Introduced in Deuteronomy as part of the Hebrew legal code, the phrase “hanging tree” identified the punishment for a criminal:
If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Followers of Christ claimed the term to describe what Jesus had accomplished at the cross. Peter, the prototype for the Collins’ Peeta, put it this way:
The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree… And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” Acts 9 and 10
Christ, the innocent one, was killed so that the guilty – all mankind – might live a new life. His act of sacrificial love established a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God. All who accept Him and believe His act of atonement are counted as citizens of this new kingdom, the beginning of the long-awaited Age to Come.
Unlike other kingdoms, the Kingdom of God is not political. Theologian N. T. Wright explains
The ‘kingdom’ of which Jesus was speaking was not from this world, but was emphatically for this world: a kingdom from the creator, the one Jesus called ‘Father’, and intended as the sovereignty which would replace the usurped sovereignty of ‘the ruler of this world’ and the human agents which that dark power had employed…This marks … a very different direction. In the present world, violence is what kingdoms do: however much they dress it up, sovereignty is enforced, and sooner or later that means restraint, and sooner or later restraint means violence. But, as Jesus said to James and John in Mark 10, ‘It shall not be so among you.
Katniss’ sings “The Hanging Tree”, a song from her creator, her father. The song embodies the sacrificial love she and Peeta displayed which inspired the people of Panem with the Mockingjay Spirit of Fire. Hope for a new order based on sacrificial love was what drove the revolution their love inspired. Both Peeta and Katniss knew the value of the love, the kingdom, for which they fought. Peeta gave Katniss a pearl to symbolize their agape relationship and hope. Like the pearl of Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13:45-46), Peeta’s pearl represents a kingdom for which all must be sacrificed, the Kingdom of God. God sacrificed his own son to establish it. His son, hanging on the tree, symbolizes the Kingdom of God, drawing to Him all who want a new life. Peeta and Katniss want a love – filled new life – one free of the violence of Panem, the life of Jesus’ Kingdom, even though He lives behind the action.
“The Hanging Tree” is the name of the forbidden song sung by Katniss’ father. The song tells of a condemned man’s call to those who love him to join him at the site of his execution. A similar song gave the title to the 1959 film The Hanging Tree. That film song ended with
The hangin’ tree Was a tree of life, new life for me
A tree of hope, new hope for me A tree of love, new love for me
However, both the revolutionaries and their opponents took the Mockingjay spirit, the hope for a new life, a new kingdom, and exploited it for their desires for political power. Theologian Michael Horton explains this phenomenon:
Conservatives and liberals moralize, misuse and trivialize Christ in different ways, of course, with different political and social agendas.” [i]
The confusion of a kingdom of agape-love (sefless love) with a political kingdom brings confusion to Peeta and Katniss as well. Confusion allows their actions to be exploited and their memories “hijacked” by ambitious politicians on each side of the civil war. Exploitation leads to the lovers hating one another. However, over time,and as the war concludes, slowly Peeta and Katniss reestablish their love, as they withdraw their allegiance from politics, the kingdom of this world. They focus on the kingdom of sacrificial love symbolized by both the Hanging Tree and the pearl of great price.
At the end of Voltaire’s novel, his disillusioned hero Candide retreats from the great and terrible events of the world stage to tend his garden. To the great philosopher, Pangloss, Candide summarizes what he has learned:
I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.
You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.
Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.
Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:
There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.
All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.
Like Candide Katniss has concluded
The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.
Katniss and Peeta likewise end their adventures in a garden,rather than beginning them there as Adam and Eve did. And instead of enjoying the free bounty of nature as Adam and Eve did, they must work tirelessly in order to reap any benefits from their corpse-filled ashen garden.
Peeta bakes a loaf of bread.
Together they plant primroses, not only the namesake of Katniss’ dead sister, but also the historic symbol of St. Peter’s Keys to the Kingdom of God.
They raise a family. They record their memories in a book, so their histories together cannot be stolen.
Katniss concludes by speaking of dandelions, a symbol of love and faithfulness:
What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on no matter how bad our lives. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.
Peeta, the pearl of great price, the Kingdom of God.
[i] Michael Horton. Christless Christianity. The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2012, p. 25.