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How ‘The Handmaid’s Story’s Twisted Theology Displays America’s Sins

Margaret Atwood, writer of the 1985 feminist dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Story, just lately informed Folks Journal: “I decided not to put anything in [the book] that somebody somewhere hadn’t already done. But you write these books so they won’t come true.” You would possibly assume the novel’s depiction of a totalitarian theocracy to be a sardonic, cynical studying of Scripture, but it surely’s extra of a cultural critique exhibiting the hazards of utilizing decontextualized Scripture to achieve political energy, which is nothing new (simply ask Martin Luther, or learn Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23). Atwood’s feedback remind us The Handmaid’s Story is indebted to the sins of our cultural previous, in addition to a warning of how these sins can revisit us.


Within the oppressive patriarchal regime of Atwood’s fictional Gilead, there are strict class distinctions, however even the wealthiest ladies have little energy outdoors of their prescribed gender roles. Handmaid’s modern America has skilled a plague of infertility, and within the absence of latest life, society resorts to brutality and dehumanization. The key commanders of Gilead instigated and gained a conflict with America, setting up a category/gender system that disempowered any girl able to childbearing. These ladies had been enslaved as “handmaids” for commanders’ households, and in Gilead, they endure an everyday rape ritual by their commander, offered as a non secular “ceremony.”

In Atwood’s novel and the Hulu miniseries (returning for season three June 5), the trials of a handmaid are seen by way of the eyes of Offred, the handmaid of chief commander Fred and his spouse, Sarena Pleasure. Offred’s merciless context invitations quite a few political and feminist examinations, however in an apocalyptic sense, The Handmaid’s Story echoes our American previous, displays our current and prophecies our fears for the longer term.

Thinker Michel Foucault understands trendy Western society as a repressive jail system referred to as a “carceral system.” He claims that the self-discipline enforced upon jail inmates by way of surveillance and punishment is a smaller, extra excessive mannequin of the bigger cultural mindset. In a carceral system or society, “disciplinary normalization”—the method of how seemingly-intuitive and self-chosen cultural concepts of what’s “normal” or “abnormal” change into conditioned by increased authorities—usually takes place. We’re continuously judged, says Foucault, by “judges of normality”—academics, docs, social employees. We behave “correctly” as a result of we all know we’re being watched, and we concern punishment if we deviate from the norm. On this sense, carceral techniques mould society right into a homogenous group, even when they nonetheless imagine they’re “individuals.” Foucault additionally claims {that a} “delinquent,” or one who deviates from the norm,” is an “institutional product.” These judges of normality inform us who is sweet, unhealthy, bizarre or “normal.”

Foucault explains the mechanisms of the carceral system are sometimes invisible to us. However the carceral system of The Handmaid’s Story lays naked its workings. In Gilead, the ladies are “delinquents” due to their gender. The handmaids repeat a pat slogan—“under His eye”—as a reminder not of God’s care and provision however of their fixed surveillance. They put on crimson clothes to signify the blood of childbirth, in addition to white hats with “wings” on the edges that forestall them from seeing or being seen. Any try by a handmaid to change into a person, by studying or sporting completely different garments and even calling a pal by her actual title, makes them delinquents. This morality is constructed by those that maintain energy, and the handmaids are compelled to internalize these injustices as “good” and “traditional values.” For instance, when a girl is raped, the handmaids are compelled to recite why God allowed it: “To teach her a lesson.” This uncooked depiction of rape-culture ideology is one other indicator of how the “judges of normality” are responsible of “calling evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

The methods used to uphold the carceral system of The Handmaid’s Story replicate elements of an analogous carceral system at work in American historical past. Just like the African People who had been purchased and offered as chattel slaves in America, the handmaids are diminished to their our bodies, even given painful bodily markings to indicate their objectification: the slaves had been branded and the handmaids given ear tags. Offred says “we are containers” and “two-legged wombs.” The handmaids’ solely worth is of their usefulness.

Ladies in Gilead are infantilized and compelled to take the title of their oppressors, simply as Africans of each genders had been in America. Each teams had been forbidden to learn even the Bible—however it’s learn to them by these in energy; the narratives inside had been twisted with a view to match the ideology of the regime and justify their merciless means to energy. This spiritual abuse, utilizing the title of Christ in an try to erase the Imago Dei, is likely one of the worst stains on American historical past—and Atwood warns us towards it.

After all, dissimilar to American chattel slavery, the handmaids’ our bodies are cherished as “sacred vessels.” However that is merely one other type of objectification. What must be the conception of the Imago Dei inside these ladies is marred in an try to destroy it. There is no such thing as a particular person identification in Gilead. These “chosen” ladies are solely “sacred” as a result of they empower the prevailing authorities by offering them with youngsters, a very powerful social marker.

In a secret night assembly, Commander Fred tells Offred: “I only wanted to make the world better,” happening to clarify, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” Fred is verbalizing the concept that “there is no empire without slavery.” We see this implies of carceral oppression each in world historical past and American historical past.

The Handmaid’s Story has typically been pigeonholed as liberal propaganda, however its darkish parable displays fears vocalized from each side of the American political spectrum. The present and novel have been within the information recently, with ladies within the handmaids’ archaic garb protesting the Alabama abortion legislation as a political transfer that may strip ladies of possession over their our bodies. The sequence does warn towards a girl dropping management of her personal physique, however the principle focus just isn’t lack of rights over illegality of abortions. The central focus of the story, reasonably, is the ache of dropping a toddler. The handmaids’ our bodies are managed by males by way of systemic injustice and rape, however the trauma is magnified when their youngsters are taken away. Within the American slave period, it was the norm for ladies to be separated from their youngsters, and within the oft-unspoken Child Scoop Period of the 1950s and 60s, younger pregnant ladies may very well be compelled to surrender their youngsters for adoption. Within the current, migrant youngsters are ripped from their households on the border. At its core, The Handmaid’s Story communicates how ignoring the Imago Dei in one other human being all the time results in cruelty and brutality. These acts of cruelty additionally dehumanize the abusers.

The sequence additionally explores the dying of free speech and the suspicion of science, two intense factors of competition in American politics at present. In Gilead, the handmaids stroll previous hanging male our bodies close to the river of their city. These our bodies, faces lined, are reminders that the liberty to talk and act have to be restrained on the worth of dying. These males had been professors, journalists, docs, educators—all heretical professions in Gilead. We study the Boston Globe headquarters grew to become a “slaughterhouse,” an emblem of the dying of free speech.

The false faith of Gilead is not only a theocracy, but additionally a theonomy during which the judicial legal guidelines of the Previous Testomony are practiced. There is no such thing as a grace, and in an odd mixture of “eye for an eye” ideology and Sharia legislation, sins usually are not “forgiven” with out abuse and punishment. In actuality, they don’t seem to be forgiven in any respect. As a substitute, there’s a concern of true faith. We study that many church buildings have been torn down and Baptists are outlawed, as is the hymn “Amazing Grace” (and all its implications). Though Gilead considers itself a non secular society, there isn’t a freedom of faith, and anybody with a divergent perception is humiliated, harmed, in all probability killed. Gilead is loveless. There is no such thing as a Jesus there.

The leaders of Gilead concern the sunshine of Christian love as a result of their quest for energy created a self-serving system. Might this carceral system be instituted in non-fictional America? We all know it has in our stained previous. As Frederick Douglass described it: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” Douglass notes it was not solely energetic evil, however silence that allowed slavery to flourish.

In The Handmaid’s Story, Offred explains: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” The story is prophetic in its warnings to be watchful for a carceral mechanism to manifest round us. And whereas there isn’t a indication Atwood or the present’s producers see Christ as the reply to those abuses of energy, in reality, He’s the one factor that may rehumanize those that have been dehumanized. Forgetting the Imago Dei in others is what results in Gilead. We should let the scales fall from our eyes as a result of, as Offred warns: “I was asleep before—that is how we let it happen.”

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