“Blessed are the meek, dear.” – Aunt Lydia
Blessed are the meek. They always left out the part about inheriting the earth. – Offred/June
I am going to write more than one blog dealing with The Handmaid’s Tale. I have not read the book, but I am watching the series on Hulu, so that will be the version I am referencing.
It is a chilling account of what happens when a theocracy is put into place in a world in panic because the birthrate has dropped dramatically. In the land that was once the United States and is now Gilead, women have been given roles based on their reproductive (in)ability. The wives of the commanders are obviously of an upper class, but unable to have children. The Marthas (so named, I suppose, after the sister of Mary and Lazarus who was doing all the cleaning and cooking while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus) do the household chores. The handmaids are women of a lesser class who have “functioning ovaries.” They bear the children for the commanders and their wives.
Their roles are not optional. They are ordained.
This society is, like any good theocracy, based on the teachings of a Holy Book, in this case, the Bible. But also like any good theocracy, it is not based on the whole of the book. You cannot base a logical system on a book that contains so much of humanity’s emotions, dreams, and desires. The Bible is incredibly inconsistent because people are inconsistent, and because great wisdom recognizes that what is true in one situation would be dangerous and destructive in another. There are few truths that are universal and eternal, and a book that covers human history over a couple thousand years and several different contexts cannot be true without also being inconsistent.
Let me give you an example:
Don't answer fools according to their folly, or you will become like them yourself. Proverbs 26:4
Answer fools according to their folly, or they will deem themselves wise. Proverbs 26:5
Yeah, that’s right. Two biblical proverbs that give exact opposite advice. And they are not even spread out from one another. They are back-to-back verses. The Bible is inconsistent. Even so, it can be true.
What is, of course, problematic about this reality is that people want to make it completely consistent, and the only way to do that is to ignore whole parts of it. Instead of recognizing that the most appropriate course of action might vary from time and place and that different wisdom in different times could all be the will of God, people seek for something unchangeable and eternal. But by forcing the words to be unchangeable and eternal, we force the words to become God. The words are not God. God is God.
And of course it goes without saying that sometimes we take these words of God, make them godlike, and then use them in ways that do not reflect God’s will. There is perhaps no more damaging practice of such work than when we engage in what is called proof-texting. When one verse is lifted out of context and elevated in a way that may not even reflect its initial meaning, and yet it is then imbued with some immense special power, we are not only disregarding the Word of God, we are corrupting it.
So it goes in the world of the Handmaid’s Tale. The verse quoted above is a small example of how a verse is used to keep women in line, even as the part of the verse that would empower them is stripped away. The whole of the society, though, is also built on a rigid interpretation of the story of Rachel’s barrenness and her provision of a handmaid to bear children in her name. One highly contextual primordial story becomes the basis for an entire society. A society that relegates women to functioning or non-functioning wombs alone.
May we tremble before the awesome power of the Word.