The faith of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

May 31st, 2017

Much of our critically-acclaimed entertainment offers us little respite from the anxiety and darkness of our political and cultural situation, and Hulu’s television series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood is no exception. It is not an accident that this story feels so immediately relevant despite its age, as Atwood has said that her rules was not to include any events that were not grounded in history. While we may associate some of the practices of the totalitarian, dystopian Gilead with less “enlightened” places and times, it is jarring to see them take place in a near-future New England. The juxtaposition between the narrator Offred’s former life as June, a wife and working mother, and her current circumstances as a handmaid, a sexual slave in use by the ruling classes for her fertility, is made more discomforting by its recognizable elements.

The world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Christianist. The role and title of “handmaid” comes from Zilpah and Bilhah, the handmaids of Rachel and Leah who were given to Jacob to bear him sons. The housekeepers for the ruling class are termed “Marthas,” a reference to the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. A back-talking future handmaid has her eye removed as the verse, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away,” is quoted at her. The Aunts repeatedly remind the handmaids that “blessed are the meek,” and Offred receives the wrath of Aunt Lydia when she continues, “Blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”

In Gilead, if you are the wrong kind of Christian, you will suffer. The bodies of priests are hung publicly as a warning, alongside former abortion doctors and LGBTQ+ individuals (deemed “gender traitors”). During one of their walks, Offred and Ofglen witness a church being demolished, the church where Offred’s daughter was baptized. Ofglen responds by informing Offred that the new government similarly took down St. Patrick’s in New York City, “Blew it up and dumped every stone in the Hudson River.” And it is a nun who helps Ofglen’s husband escape to Canada, though not before he witnesses the bodies of other resistors hung from the beams of another church.

Some Christians have protested the series, seeing it as anti-religion and more specifically, anti-Christian. But despite its fundamentalist overtones and its quoting of the Bible, there is little in the regime that rules Gilead that testifies to the Gospel, to the good news of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is very little Jesus at all. Atwood herself said in a New York Times op-ed that the book is not anti-religion. She writes, “It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.”

The moments I find most moving in the series are the small moments of grace and humanity that manage to break through in the oppressive world of the TV series. A commander’s wife offers to say that she’s sick in order to skip the ceremony in which the handmaid is raped after the handmaid’s female circumcision. The handmaids extend their emotional support to one of their own after she gives birth and immediately hands off the child to the Wife she serves. The genuine moments of connection and friendship are startling because they are so rare, so forbidden in this world. Even sex is clinical and routine, useful and acceptable only for procreation.

There are grand, shocking moments of resistance in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but the more notable gestures are interpersonal in nature. While the stakes in our current cultural climate are not as high as in Gilead, we can take away something from this. Oftentimes, we can feel impotent in the face of things happening in the halls of politics or when meditating on huge, seemingly intractable problems.

Resistance to oppressive systems begins with seeing one another, with engaging with one another in the fullness of our humanity. Kindness is one place to start, but this goes beyond being “nice.” It is the recognition that we are all bound up in this human project together. Our oppression and our liberation are tied up in one another, whether we are powerful or powerless. To be human, to laugh, to cry, to experience joy and beauty and pain, to create art, and to share these things with other humans is the real resistance in a world that keeps trying to strip us down to what we can produce. “The Handmaid’s Tale” reminds us that what is theological and anthropological is also political.

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