Mockingjay and Reformed Political Theory
At the moment, the third installment of the Hunger Games series continues to dominate box office sales. Mockingjay (Part 1) continues the story of Katniss Everdeen as she struggles against the tyrannical Capitol. I have written about the first installment before, providing the (tongue-in-cheek) “definitive Christian review.” The latest installment provides even more food for thought. In fact, Mockingjay provides a powerful illustration of a particular aspect of Reformed political theory.
It has to do with resistance against tyrants. We can take John Calvin as an example of the theory in writing. Part of the fourth book of Calvin’s Institutes is taken up with how Christians should view the state. Calvin also lays out the responsibilities of magistrates. Almost at the very end, he deals with the question of what should be done with tyrannical rulers. If you have a king who is sadistic, unjust, a persecutor, and a lover of almost every evil, should a Christian just take it? Is there no recourse for believers? Can they revolt? Calvin’s answer (in Institutes 4.20.31) is that there is a proper and God-honouring way to resist and overthrow tyranny, but it still involves God-given authority. Calvin’s position is that lower magistrates not only can, but must do what they can to overthrow tyrannical higher rulers. Says Calvin,
…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.
In other words, lower magistrates are actually obliged to resist tyranny and overthrow it if necessary.
A classic illustration of this is found in the Dutch Revolt. During the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish were in control of what we today call the Netherlands and Belgium. The Spanish were tyrannical to a fault. They were brutally oppressive, especially towards Reformed believers. However, Reformed folk did not take it passively. There was a strong resistance movement and it was led by lower magistrates from across the Low Countries. Men like William of Orange resisted the Spanish and made war against them. Eventually, these efforts were successful and freedom was secured, at least in the northern part of the Low Countries. Were the Dutch wrong to rebel against the Spanish? No, it was not a rebellion in the sense of overthrowing authority. Instead, it was lawfully constituted authorities leading a lawful revolt against godless tyranny.
We see the same thing happening in Mockingjay (Part 1). President Snow and the Capitol are clearly tyrannical. They oppress the districts and exact tribute from them (human tributes who serve for the entertainment of the Capitol). But there is a revolt underway and it takes place under the auspices of District 13. District 13 was thought by many to have been obliterated. It turns out that the district still exists and has a strong internal government led by President Coin. President Coin is leading the revolt against the Capitol. Consequently, from a Reformed perspective, the revolt portrayed in Mockingjay is a lawful endeavour. In fact, President Coin is doing what she is obliged to do. It would be wrong for her not to revolt against the Capitol. I doubt Mockingjay intends to illustrate “Calvinist resistance theory,” but it does so nonetheless, at least to a certain degree. To illustrate it fully, the characters involved would have to commit their cause to God and seek to carry it out for his glory. Regrettably, the world of Katniss Everdeen, even in District 13, is a godless and unbelieving society. All there is in the world portrayed is the horizontal plane. Therefore, the illustration only works to a point.
Tyranny is always a threat. We would be naive if we thought that we or our descendants will never be faced with it again. If we should come to live under the jackboot of some oppressive, tyrannical power, how should we respond? Because of our history, Reformed believers have given extensive thought to this question and we have an answer readily at hand. We should never passively accept tyranny, but at the same time we must never reject authority. This is why it is crucially important for Christians to be involved in politics. We need believing people in positions of authority, not only for the influence they bear now, but also for the leadership they can provide if and when tyranny must be resisted and overthrown.