The Catholicism of “The Giver”

This summer “The Giver” came to movie theaters.  Based on the 1993 Lois Lowry novel, this film has received rave reviews  from prominent Christians for its pro-life message and its stance against totalitarian governments.  Sarah Palin did an eloquent job of explaining the political morality of the plot and Archbishop Chaput promoted the film and the lessons families could learn from it in his weekly column.  Both of these are worth while reviews, however I wanted to dive in a little bit deeper to explore some of the Catholic themes embedded in the storyline.

Brief Synopsis of the plot:
Jonas lives in “the Community.” It is a society devoid of pain, suffering and many other things that its inhabitants have never experienced.  In short, it’s a “utopia.”  In order to pull this “perfect society” off, everything had to be brought down to a certain level of “sameness.”  This was accomplished by removing anything that could cause conflict because of personal differences.  Strong emotions are controlled by strict rules and precision of language.  Sexual attraction is tamped down with medication.  Class envy and racial tensions are harnessed by assigned jobs, identical houses and removing that annoying thing known as color.

When Jonas reaches the right age, he is assigned to be the “receiver of memories” and learns that the community is not so perfect after all.  His new job is not too complicated: all he has to do is in receive memories from the Giver and bear everything within these memories so that the rest of society doesn’t have to.

The dignity of life from birth to natural death.
Throughout the plot of the story, the concept of “release” is mentioned.  If someone breaks the rules, he or she may be released to “elsewhere.”  If someone makes a mistake (such as flying a plane too low near the community) he may be released.  Once a citizen grows old and lives a successful life, he or she is given a special ceremony and is then released.

So what does it mean to be released?

In the most poignant scene of the movie, Jonas and the Giver watch a video recording of a “release” of a citizen of the community.  In this case the citizen is a baby, who just happened to be the smaller of a set of twins.  Jonas’s father, who is a worker at the nurturing center, administers a deadly injection into the child’s skull.  Once the child falls limp, Jonas’s father places the body into a box and disposes of it.

Once Jonas sees this he is sickened and outraged at a society that simply eradicates those people who are seen as a burden to its everyday affairs.  If a baby is seen as too fussy…Get rid of him.  If a teenager is too disruptive…She has to go.  If an old man can’t contribute to the everyday community labor, it’s time for his “celebration of life” and release.

Both Jonas and the Giver realize that each person has a dignity that goes beyond the practical efficiency of the community.  To bring their instincts into more “Christian” terms I would say that they recognize that every person is created in the image and likeness of God.  This dignity is not a privilege, it is a RIGHT.  Every person should be freely allowed to reach his or her own personal fulfillment.  (CCC 1700)This includes being able to love.  Love is something that the community tried to remove, because they saw it as messy and cumbersome.  However, God is love.  Love will lead to perfection, perfection that exists not in this world, but in the world to come.

The conditions for Sin
In the previous section I mentioned the infanticide scene that involved Jonas’s father.  When Jonas’s father killed the baby, Jonas was angry and demanded that his father be punished.  The Giver agreed that the man’s actions were heinous however, he channeled Jesus and basically said  “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”  The Giver’s approach in this moment is an excellent opportunity to touch on the conditions for sin.  In order for a sin to be “Mortal” or deadly, it must be grave matter, committed with full consent and full knowledge. (CCC 1857)

So let’s give Jonas’s Father the mortal sin test…

Grave matter:
Killing a baby is murder.  Murder is definitely grave matter.

Full consent.
Jonas’s father committed this act.  He was asked to do it, and he performed it without any objections.  He gave his consent.

Full knowledge.
This is the one condition the Jonas’s father did not meet.  He did not know how horrible the action of killing an innocent child actually was.  He was just being compliant with the false morality that the society had set up for him.  The Giver understood this, and told Jonas that it was up to them, the people who had the knowledge to lovingly correct the wrongs of the morally corrupt society.

Since only two of the three conditions of sin were met, this action is considered a venial sin rather than a mortal sin.

Communism versus Solidarity
The world of the Giver is one run by Communism.  It’s a society where everything is publicly owned and a person is compensated by his needs and abilities.  This may seem like a fair system, however, it is evident in “The Giver” that the community is corrupt.  Because there are just a few people deciding the fates of the society at large, many people are being neglected.  They do not have the freedom to choose their jobs, vocations, or even what to think.  This socialistic system is taken so far, that people are drugged so they do not feel a full range of emotions or urges.

Most of the communistic actions of the Community’s Government were made in an attempt to resolve conflict.  It was decided that if a select group of elders made all the decisions society would benefit.  in contrast, he Catholic Church teaches solidarity.  Solidarity is the cooperation of different groups of people to solve and resolve problems.  The poor works together with the rich, employers with employees, different nations work together and so on.  No one faction calls all of the shots.

The Trinity and Salvation of the World
The Giver can be seen as the father, and Jonas (the receiver of memories) is the son.  The love between them would be the holy spirit.  This collaboration between the two characters manifests itself in a plan to save the Community.  This plan includes that Jonas makes the sacrifice to leave the community.  If a person who bears memories of the past crosses the boundary of memories, all the memories are released back to the community.  This will involve suffering on Jonas’s part and it will also involve suffering on the part on the Community members.  Once all of the memories are released the sanitized society everyone lives in will no longer exist.  People will no longer be numb to pain however, on the same token, they will be able to feel joy and love again as well.

Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to save us from our sins, one that involved “leaving” his mortal life for our benefit.

Redemptive Suffering

As I mentioned before, the members of the community were protected from perceiving pain because the Giver and Jonas hold all of the memories, and therefore bear all of the  burden within those memories.  The plan to release the memories was a plan that involved suffering to both Jonas and to the members of the community.

Although the members of the community were no longer be protected from pain, the suffering they endured made them more alive than they were before.  They were able to love again.

Jonas made an act of sacrificial love that was very Christ-like.  He essentially gave up his Comfortable life to help others.  Like Jesus, he essentially loved his whole world when they didn’t deserve it.  Jonas also, like Jesus, wanted people to be transformed into new people by his love.

The Giver and Jonas, acting very much in the types of the Father and the Son, allowed for the suffering of the people so that they might exercise true love.  Redemptive Suffering is the idea that when we accept suffering and tie it to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross, we can heal the punishment for our sins or the sins of others.  This does not mean that we can earn forgiveness, that comes from God’s grace, however when we unite our pain to the “Passion” we can rise up into a closer relationship with Christ.

We will all suffer either by our sins or by the sins of another, but we are perfected by our trails. That’s sainthood.



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