The Handmaid’s Tale has been much talked about ever since the famous novel became a miniseries on Hulu. Like any good dystopian story, the novel wasn’t meant to ask “what if” about the future so much as “how so” about the present. Dystopian stories warn us of what might happen tomorrow. Great dystopian stories plumb deeper, asking what it is about us now that could bring us there.
The near future depicted in Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seem likely in America without a devastating infertility crisis and a successful suspension of the Constitution. And yet the terror seems very real, very on our doorstep. The story brings many Americans to a frightful and even angry state. Left wing viewers may fear that Republicans desire this kind of society, which is absurd. Christian viewers may fear that such a depiction is anti-Christian and mocks their faith (which I don’t believe was the point of the novel). The author, Margaret Atwood, wasn’t writing a diatribe against Christian values, but writing a satire of the political attitudes in the 1980s that are still relevant today. She was inspired not by cracking open a Bible, but by taking countless comments about women and turning them into hypothetical policy.
What makes Atwood’s dystopia unique is that it actually is real. She takes what has happened and applies it to a country that boasts an inability to devolve into barbarity. There are countries today that take away women’s rights, mutilate genitals, execute homosexuals, justify prostitution, and enforce strict dress codes that reinforce class. But not here. Never here. Only, everyone is anxious that it can be here. Liberals fear that we’re headed there by the right. Conservatives fear that the left will allow Sharia law to be ushered in.
For Christians, who see in the story a horror drawn out of the pages of their own book, questions arise about what such a horror says about our faith and politics. We might explore our own scripture and be embarrassed at how we can reconcile our religion with the antagonists. We might find ourselves ashamed of our own values. Below are some serious thoughts the story urges us to consider, thoughts that develop one from another.
- There is no Jesus in this future.
For all the call for a “return to values” and religious law, see how far you get in the story before Jesus is mentioned. It’s important to ask yourself whether the society imposed is Christ-centered at all, or merely externally religious based on the wishes of the power-hungry.
- The society trusts in God, but not enough to submit to him.
In this future, trust in the government and submission to its agents is demanded. Trust in God is nothing more than an utterance in vain, an afterthought. His name floats around as prayers and patterns, but leaders have taken their own measures in responding to what they believe are God’s punishments for specific sins. Even if it could be known that this infertility crisis was a response from God for our sin, who says we’re not supposed to merely get on our knees and repent? Instead, a man-made response is enacted with force (also disregarding what seems to be clear environmental causes).
- These leaders are horrible at exegesis.
Seriously. The passage of Bilhal and Zilpah is quoted at the ceremony in which men try to knock up a female servant in the presence of their wives. And while the decision of Jacob and Abraham to have children through their handmaids was part of God’s story, to infer that this allowance is a command when infertility looms is an exegetical non sequitur. In other words, just because it happened under God’s watch in the Old Testament, doesn’t mean it’s a godly tradition any more than polygamy, slavery, or goat sacrifice. But when a political crisis emerges and you don’t trust in God, you will use bad readings of scriptures as a justification for solving problems your way.
- The Republic of Gilead is not the Kingdom of God.
Jesus said that the rules of the ungodly world exercise power one over another through force and the label of authority. But his followers were not to operate in such a way (Matt. 20:26). Rather, the great leaders are servants, and give themselves ransom. We don’t see this kind of government in Gilead at all. We see a country operating the way many countries have always operated, only with a religious veneer and haphazard justification.
- The Republic of Gilead is a Christian country at the nadir of its identity crisis.
Gilead starts out exactly like our country, is our country, with the added element of an infertility crisis. The cultural values are exactly the same beforehand, and the assumption is that long-held prejudices against women will come to an oppressive fruition if just the proper environmental circumstances come about. So, if we meet a physical crisis bad enough, our identity crisis will be more than a mere cultural issue. It will erupt in a cultural bomb that will place society in chains.
See, we may not think that most conservative Christians have such commodifying and accusatory attitudes toward women. And maybe we’re right. For now. But if something like an infertility crisis were to come about, how we think about women would change over time, and how we act based on that thinking might change. In the 1930s Hitler didn’t come out of nowhere. Even American figures like Henry Ford (yeah, the Ford truck guy) published a newspaper in which Jews were blamed for the loss of moral values, as well as the cause of WWI.
But if after WWI you’d ask most Americans and Europeans in if we were headed toward stuffing Jews in camps to starve to death and burn in ovens, even people with hateful attitudes might have scoffed. “No, we won’t think of doing that. We just want the Jews to leave, or be taxed for grabbing our money, or something.” It took a severe economic crisis for Germany to take the step toward genocide. The elements were already there: antisemitism and charismatic leaders who promoted it. Once the crisis occurred, genocide was inevitable. Thoughts became words became actions.
The point about Handmaid’s Tale being relevant today is not whether the nation will naturally slide into such institutionalized dehumanization of women, or that an infertility crisis would cause it to happen. The point is that a Christian culture with an identity crisis can and could slide into such a state if faced with a severe economic crisis. You can tell a person by how they face trials, how their values perform under siege. The way a society responds to tragedy strips away the veneer of “civilization” and exposes our real values. If we don’t have a strong handle on who we are, if our values are not truly centered in service to the other, all it takes is one hard crisis for us to give it all up.
Germany had a long history of Protestant faith, but he had lost his interest in Christianity long before WWI or WWII. Interest in national opulence, hatred of aliens, and failure to trust in God rather than human alliances led the country into failed humanity on both counts.
Radicalization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In the Middle East, radicalization of Muslims is linked with geopolitical turmoil. Listen to bin Laden’s videos. Hatred of America wasn’t just about her godless values and Western rejection of Islam. A history of imperialism was also at the root of the call to wage violent Jihad. Those who felt close to the consequences of imperialism were vulnerable to becoming radicalized.
Listening to some Christian fundamentalist groups today, one wonders what it would take for verbalized terror to become institutionalized terror. Westboro Baptist holds picket signs telling the world who God hates. Would more people join their cause if the nation inched closer toward falling apart? It’s easy to love your neighbor when times are nice. What desperate measures would folks be willing to embrace as the clock counted down, the resources dwindled?
We may not think that we would agree to impose the rule of Gilead if America’s infertility rate fell to, say, 10 births per 1,000 women. But what measures would we take? We don’t know the answer until the crisis comes, but the clues lie in the words we express. Look at what our leaders say, political, cultural, religious. What do people say on TV? In tweets? And how many are listening to them, applauding them? These are the signs to watch to give a good guess as to how the public would respond to an impending crisis.
The Church has to embrace Christ and submit to him in season and out of season. If it’s wrong to treat women like walking wombs now, it will always be wrong to do so. Let this be a lesson for Christians that may not mean much now, but could later. And let this be a message the world, that when you look for Christ, you will not find him in people who want to use God as a tool for their own schemes. You will know a people by their fruits. Their spiritual fruits.
Blessed by the fruit of the spirit. May the Lord provide us with hope.