**Spoiler Alert: This article contains mild spoilers for the show Squid Game.**
Within weeks of its release, Squid Game climbed to Netflix’s most-watched show of all time, and as of this writing, remains wildly popular around the world.
Squid Game is also extremely violent—a point people brought up almost every time I mentioned I was watching it. Yet the emphasis on violence misses the mark somewhat. Yes, the show is undeniably violent. Even leaving aside its premise of adults competing at children’s games—with the single winner taking home an enormous cash prize, and losers eliminated—the show features regular brawls, murder and attempted murder, and a black market organ trade. (Content Warning: gore, violence, suicide, sex, attempted rape, and descriptions of sexual assault.) But in spite of this, Squid Game is not (quite) a splatter film, reveling in gore for the sake of gore. In fact, amidst the violence it nevertheless maintains a strong ethic about how human beings respond to insurmountable tragedy and oppression, warning against facile responses that neglect human well-being and urging sacrifice, solidarity, and compassion.
Squid Game’s exigence, the situation which provokes this ethical response, is the ongoing inhumanity of a capitalist system which subordinates human needs to financial ones. Written in the years after the 2008 financial crisis, Squid Game, its creator says, is broadly a critique of the economic processes responsible for creating an ever-widening wealth gap and leaving people around the world destitute. The critique comes through crystal-clear, as all participants enter the game deeply indebted, sometimes to the point of legal trouble. Driven by this pressure, prior to the games the participants steal from elderly family members, bargain away their own body parts, and consider suicide. During the games, they prove equally ready to take drastic measures at the chance of winning the money necessary to pay their debts and return to normalcy. Viewers, while in no danger of being ensnared in a deadly match of children’s games, are nonetheless likely to recognize how the ever-present pressures of steeply rising housing costs, flat wages, student loan debt, and more, may lead people to make choices that run against their best interest and even against their sense of self and right living.
Indeed, Squid Game goes out of its way to strengthen connections between the oppressive world(s) the characters inhabit and our own. One character’s spiral into poverty, we learn, started when he participated in a strike against an auto manufacturer—a strike which happened in real life and which echoes massive, ongoing strikes in the United States against Nabisco, Kelloggs, John Deere, and Harvard, to name a few. Through such parallels, Squid Game invites readers to consider how the difficult and dehumanizing situations they too are wedged into may similarly stem from economic pressures.
This economic focus does not mean, however, that believers can tune its message out, that Squid Game has nothing to say to us or to a life of faith. Far from it. In fact, Squid Game addresses believers directly, weaving several religious characters, all unlikeable, into the narrative. Some religious viewers have taken these characters as an affront to Christianity. At least one Christian blogger has complained that the religious characters (especially the pastor) are portrayed as “manic, incoherent [and] selfish,” with no resemblance to actual, real-life Christians. In fact, however, the religious characters that Squid Game includes function as a mirror, confronting us with common, flawed responses to injustice in the world (especially financial or economic injustices) and pushing us toward more compassionate actions.
For a show with just nine episodes, Squid Game includes a surprising number of religious characters: three. One, perhaps the least offensive character, is a street evangelist and appears only in the last episode, holding a bright red wooden cross with Jesus’s name on it. When one of the characters is unceremoniously dumped from a car onto a street, the evangelist rushes to his side—but not to ask whether he’s okay; instead, the evangelist immediately shares the gospel with the fallen man. A second, slightly more offensive character is the pastor linked above, Player 244. Despite the fact that he himself is in the games (why, we never find out), the pastor obviously considers himself superior to the rest of the participants. Rude and dismissive, he talks over the other participants at moments of crisis, repeating rote prayers and shouting down their suggestions. When he wins a game, he chalks up his survival to God instead of showing gratitude to other players’ assistance. Of course, believers are warned in Scripture against such behavior; neither the evangelist nor the pastor seem to be doing very well at following the God they claim to believe in.
They’re also not doing a good job at showing compassion to or solidarity with others; they are not (only) out of a right relationship with God, they are out of right relationship with fellow humans. Ignoring the real needs around them, the evangelist and pastor alike peddle faith as a kind of trump card, a way to escape the problems and exigencies, however horrifying, of real life. For the evangelist, faith is the answer to such physical problems that come with being tossed out of a car onto the cold pavement in the dead of winter. For Player 244, faith guarantees his righteousness and so gives him license to ignore and humiliate his fellow participants, who are (by virtue of not having faith) clearly in the wrong and destined to lose.
For both men, faith is ultimately little more than a way of wiggling loose God’s favor, like some kind of divine vending machine; all we have to do is say the right prayers, the right sequence of words, and all will be magically well. Never mind that at least in the case of Player 244, faith has been unable to keep him out of such deep difficulty, financial or otherwise, that he is willing to quite literally gamble with his own life to get out of it. The message remains the same. Regardless of human suffering, faith is the only possible answer.
This attitude seems harsh but is, unfortunately, common within some Christian circles. The tendency to try to wipe away human suffering with well-meant religiosity runs so deeply that James warns against it, urging believers to avoid self-righteousness and to care for the physical hardships and poverty faced by other human beings (James 2:14-17). James’s urging stresses that for believers, it’s not appropriate to ignore our own financial or social privileges while pointing to faith as the only solution, glossing over people’s real needs—yet the fact that James issues this warning indicates that, then as now, Christians fall into this trap all the time.
Yet it is the third religious character who more fully underscores the harm that a model of faith as a vending machine—grace as a cheap exemption from right relation to other human beings—may do. One participant is connected with a megachurch pastor as a family member—yet this pastor, we learn, abused and finally killed his wife and raped his daughter, all while praying loudly for forgiveness. The story is horrifying, though parallels also exist within American Christianity, including the ongoing crisis in the Southern Baptist Church and Liberty University’s similar efforts to cover up sexual assault in order to protect its own image. In such circumstances, leaders trot out “the Gospel” as a reason to quash efforts to do justice and mercy.
Even in less awful, non-criminal situations, the supposed primacy of faith—a spiritual state of being—over physical and social well-being may interfere with the church’s ability to do good in the world, as for instance in churches that wall themselves off from connecting with community organizations, lest their beliefs be contaminated by contact with the outside. So long as believers persist in seeing faith as exempting them from the obligation to care about and for real needs, faith will continue to both passively and actively deepen injustice, rather than correct for it.
Squid Game has no positive examples of religious faith, but that does not mean it has no positive examples of human compassion and care. The tweet that convinced me at last to watch the show—since lost in the flood of tweets on my ever-growing timeline—called attention to the characters’ solidarity with each other in suffering. Solidarity is not, in the show, a perfect solution. In at least one case, mutual solidarity is weaponized against the characters.
That does not mean, however, that solidarity is worthless. It is, instead, the only possible answer to grief and tragedy on the scale in which they exist in Squid Game, and in our own broken world.
Perhaps the most touching example is highlighted in the sixth episode. The characters are paired off and asked to play a game of marbles using rules of their own choosing, with the aim of winning all ten marbles from the other player in thirty minutes. Titled “Gganbu,” a word which gestures toward close friendship, the episode ostensibly focuses on the relationship between the main character Gi-hun and the eldest participant, Il-nam, as they play back and forth with the marbles, neither seemingly willing to win outright and claim victory.
Equally important, though, is the relationship between two young female players: 240, named Ji-yeong; and 067, Kang Sae-byeok. Though Sae-byeok is another of the show’s central characters, Ji-yeong has appeared before, in particular clashing with Player 244, as she objects to his smarmy, self-focused faith. Here, Ji-yeong shows tenderness toward Sae-byeok; though the characters’ lives are quite literally on the line, Ji-yeong suggests that they lay aside the game of marbles for awhile, pointing out that they can choose a game with only one round in the final minutes of the game. Instead, she suggests that they share a little with each other about their lives outside of the games. And so they do.
Prior to this, both characters, especially Sae-byeok, established themselves as closed-off, resistant to forming any kind of relationship or team with fellow players; Sae-byeok in fact bluntly tells another player that she does not trust any of them. But in this episode, the young women open up with each other, detailing the tragedies that preceded their arrival at the games and sharing with each other what they dream of doing with the prize money—which fancy islands they’ll visit, how they’ll care for their family. In a context explicitly designed to dehumanize the players, so effectively that at times they appear to forget their own names, this decision to pause and listen to another, to invite reflection and sharing, is a radically re-humanizing act of mutual compassion and solidarity. In contrast with the examples of faith on display in the show, the women’s friendship acknowledges and meets, to the extent possible, their shared need. Their friendship subsequently paves the way for further acts of compassion, both on their own part and that of other players.
Other examples such compassion are threaded throughout the show, often providing the only possible answer to its thorny dilemmas. True, solidarity remains a dangerous thing, as the characters often reveal that they are not who they appeared to be at first glance. But solidarity and compassion are also the only possible answers to the hardships that characters face. At least one character sacrifices themselves to ensure that family members are looked after; another character, while outside of the games, takes upon themselves the obligation to look after others’ friends and family members, ensuring they are housed, well-fed, and have adequate means of support. Such actions often prove to be a way of reckoning with the tragedy and trauma experienced in Squid Games.
The work of listening to and acknowledging others, sharing what resources one has, much more fully illustrates what it means to walk in Jesus’s way than Player 244 or the street evangelist does. To whatever degree a solution for injustice is possible in this world (and we cannot dismiss the possibility because that would mean dismissing the reality of suffering), then this is what it involves—not (necessarily) the exclusion of faith but the expansion of faith to include more than rote prayers, more than dismissal of people’s needs, more than the cheap grace practiced by the religious characters.
Watching Squid Game, I am reminded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. There, though the religious characters are not the ones who originally beat and rob the traveler, they are complicit in his dehumanization, by passing him by on the road. Like Player 244, like the street evangelist, they are so focused on the outward display of their faith that they are unable to actually perform the compassionate actions which their faith calls them to. Their faith has become a sham, unable to help anybody—not the person suffering, nor themselves, so caught up are they in their own self-interest.
Yet the Samaritan, who was not recognized as faithful, belonging to a people quite literally cast out from the larger religious community, is the one who performs the genuine acts of faith: sacrificing his own time and goods to care for the injured traveler. In laying his own well-being aside to demonstrate this care, the Samaritan shows what Jesus considers to be true faith. Similarly, in Squid Game, it is characters like Ji-yeong who, despite being actively anti-religious, do the work that people of faith are called to, intervening in others’ lives in ways that attend to, rather than brush aside, their physical and emotional needs.
Ursula Le Guin, in her novel The Dispossessed, writes of the hyper-capitalist society Urras: “they think if people can possess enough things they will be content to live in prison”—yet this is, of course, not true. What matters is “solidarity, human solidarity.” A beautiful passage, it reminds us that through solidarity, our mutual acknowledgment and support of other people, we become and make each other more fully human.
Despite its hyper-violent quality and its dim view of religious characters, this call to compassion and solidarity is what Squid Game offers us. Through two characters, one of them the least religious in the show, it reminds us of the urgency and value of sacrificial, compassionate action to our own life of faith, especially within a competitive, late capitalist society. We may not be players in Squid Game, but much of its ethos pervades the modern landscapes we inhabit: at work, where corporate profit is too often placed above human lives and well-being, or at church, where a desire for political power supplants our mission to love our neighbor as ourselves. By flipping this ethos on its head, as Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok do, by putting human lives above profit and power, we enact our faith most fully. Solidarity may not (always) look as genuinely religious as does street evangelism or empty prayers, but amidst the tragedy and oppression of this world, it is the most faithful and humane—and so, the most divine—response.