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Real or not real?

Peeta Mellark/Copyright Lionsgate via Rotten Tomatoes
Last month, Mockingjay: Part 2 concluded the film version of The Hunger Games series, a dystopian story in which children are forced to fight to the death in a televised Survivor-like arena. President Snow uses
the Games as a way to control the population and stamp out the rebellion in the impoverished and oppressed Districts.

The Hunger Games books and films explore several significant themes but this final installment gets at one particularly relevant right now: how fear shapes the way we see the world and each other.

In the film, this plays out most affectingly in Peeta, a Games survivor who is suffering from the effects of torture. Snow used images combined with potent fear-inducing drugs to reshape Peeta’s memories, particularly of fellow Games survivor Katniss in order to make him fear and hate her.

After his rescue, Peeta struggles to discern which memories are real and which ones are not—and it’s hard. As one character explains in an earlier film, “fear is the most difficult to overcome” because “we are hardwired to remember it best.”

I watched Mockingjay only a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and I couldn’t help but think how Peeta’s struggle reflects our own in a culture where we are constantly bombarded by images laced with fear.

In Psychology Today, Deborah Serani points out that the prevalence of fear-based news coverage is connected to our false belief that crime rates are rising (they are actually falling, according to FBI statistics) and leads us to see the world as a hostile place and overestimate our odds of becoming a victim.

This not only affects the way we see each other—i.e. dehumanizing each other as potential threats—but it also changes the way we act.

In “Overreaction to Fearsome Risks,” Harvard scholars Cass Sunstein and Richard Zeckhauser explore how we overact in terms of public policy to low probability risks which are vividly and widely publicized, like terrorism. When terrible outcomes are vivid and easy to visualize (think 24-hour cable news), we become insensitive to the reality of low statistical risks—even when the risks are dramatically lower than those associated with ordinary activities.

The Washington Post reports we have a one in 20 million chance of dying from a terrorist attack; we’re twice as likely to be killed by lightning. Yet immediately after the Paris terrorist attacks there were public demands to block Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—even though statistically, if I’m doing my math right, the chance of a refugee committing an act of terror is less than one percent.

Our perception of reality has been hijacked. We can’t tell what’s real. But, like Peeta, we can find our way back.

To distinguish between the real memories and the ones that were manipulated, Peeta begins asking his friends which memories are “real or not real.” I deeply resonate with this because, as Christians in a growing culture of fear, we need each other to remind us what’s real—and even more so, remind each other who we are.

Yes, we live in a broken world where evil exists. But we are followers of Jesus, children of the Most High God. We were given not a spirit of fear but of power, love and sound mind. As his people, we are a beacon for the lost, broken and marginalized. We are a compassionate, risk-taking people with our eyes fixed on Jesus and not the waves around us. 

We walk on water, move mountains, stop to care for the beaten traveler, seek the lost sheep, overcome evil with good, take up our crosses and lay down our lives. We swim in a love that casts out fear. We love with that love—and that changes everything.

Real or not real? Brothers and sisters, that’s real.

This is a slightly longer version of a column that first appeared on MWR