My ongoing reflection on the Hunger Games trilogy from Suzanne Collins continues with today’s Acton Commentary, “Bread First, Then Ethics.” This piece serves as a sort of follow-up to an earlier commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” as well as an essay over at First Things I wrote with Todd Steen, “Hope in the Hunger Games.”

In this week’s commentary, I examine the dynamic of what might be understood to reflect Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as depicted in the Hunger Games (HT to Hunter Baker for his reference to Maslow). In general, “Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” Or more succinctly: bread first, then ethics.
Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsThis dynamic is captured nicely in a brief dialogue in the film between Katniss and Peeta. Peeta expresses his frustration at their situation: “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.”

To this Katniss responds bluntly: “I just can’t afford to think like that.” Survival first, then she can worry about making ethical stands or moral gestures. Bread first, then ethics.

In today’s piece, I conclude that “the pagan answer to the question of hope focuses on bread first, and only afterwards (and perhaps never) on spiritual or moral matters.” The situation is a bit more complex than this, however. What we should understand by “first” in this sense is not necessarily temporal, but rather a priority of purpose or significance.

There’s a certain element of truth to something like Maslow’s hierarchy, even if one might quibble with the details. As Bertolt Brecht famously put it, “Erst kommt das Fressen / Dann kommt die Moral,” or “First comes eating, then comes morality.” A church teaching that ignores the physical needs of people, or only on the life to come, is truncated and flawed. Scot McKnight’s recent book The King Jesus Gospel makes this point quite well.

Indeed, as the Puritan Richard Baxter observed,

If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

So seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added as well. Do not allow for material goods to become a distraction, or even an idol, that steals attention away from our focus on “pardon and spiritual blessings.” But don’t let our focus on “spirituality” become otherworldly and disembodied.

The gospel is good news for the whole person, body and soul. What God has joined together, let no one tear asunder.


  • Hunter Baker

    We need the Ballor Hunger Games Kindle Book!!!!

  • SirBrass

    James spoke to this, actually, in illustrating the outworking of faith he pointed to a truism:  James 2:15-17, ”
    15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, [a]be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is [b]dead, being by itself.”

  • Anthony

    I disagree with your assessment of the scene in the film. Katniss isn’t thinking of her survival first and then ethics but of her responsibility for her sister which requires her to survive. This turns your reference on its head.

    • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

      Thanks for the comment, Anthony, but I disagree. At this point in the story Katniss is really still at the level of concern about subsistence. She’s in “survival mode.” True, she has in mind her sister and her mother; but even this concern for her familial survival is a rather limited and natural extension of her own self-concern. She “can’t afford to think” like Peeta does because she has to concern herself with material provision for Prim. She has not yet arrived at the point where she is concerned with the larger moral questions of the injustices of Panem, the political oppression, and so on.

  • CRC

    I agree with Anthony. When I saw that scene I took her response to be responding to Peeta’ comment “If I’m gonna die”…and her saying “I just can’t afford to think like that.”