I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back and feeling utterly horrified and yet fascinated at the ideologies and events that swam on the pages of Atwood’s book. It’s not easy reading, it has a way of getting under your skin and sticking in your mind for ages afterwards. So when I heard there was going to be a TV series airing on channel 4 in the UK, I was intrigued. I’ve so far found the show to be brilliantly harrowing and although it has slightly deviated from the book, it has been faithful to the story.
The story that Atwood paints is a picture of a world that see’s women and their ability to have children as a commodity, a precious commodity, which is bound under the strict control of a corrupt theocracy that uses military style power to enforce its rules. Women are no longer allowed to work, have their own money or freedom. They are tied to the men around them, either as wives, servants or handmaids (which are basically sex-slaves, there to provide children because the wives are infertile).
As a dystopian junkie, I can’t help being drawn in, finding myself fascinated and yet appalled by what I see. And it’s not because it feels like an attack on Christianity, but rather, I am horrified because of how close to reality this dystopian world is.
When there is extremism and corruption, the people who suffer the most are women and children. It doesn’t take us long to see this truth in our own world. Just looking at the United Nations Human rights pages, here is a sample of the areas where women experience discrimination:
- Laws and policies prohibit women from equal access to land, property, and housing
- Economic and social discrimination results in fewer and poorer life choices for women, rendering them vulnerable to trafficking
- Gender-based violence affects at least 30% of women globally
- Women are denied their sexual and reproductive health rights
- Women human rights defenders are ostracized by their communities and seen as a threat to religion, honour or culture
- Women’s crucial role in peace and security is often overlooked, as are the particular risks they face in conflict situations
Do you see some of these echoes in the Handmaid’s tale? There are women in this world, the world we live in, that face the same horrors; unable to own property, trafficked for sex, controlled through fear and violence. This is no dystopian fairy tale. This is a reality for many women and children.
Atwood didn’t make all of this story up, she got her ideas from the world around us and spun a tale that highlights the horrors of the human heart.
And the way she does that is by showing this control and fear carried out by an extreme sect of Christianity. As a Christian myself it pains me to see scripture ripped out of its’ context and used to beat people into submission, or to see them using the fear of God with the chilling remark of “Under his eye“, always watching, judging, waiting for you to mess up.
But it’s not something new is it? The use of god and the bible to control and suppress people unfortunately happens. And I am not just talking about crazy cults, I am thinking about our church history of “mainstream” Christianity where we see leaders that taste the power of popularity and people wanting to follow them. Soon its about control and keeping people in line and what better way to do that then using the fear of god? It’s a devastating place to be, where everyone is under law rather than the Gospel and it’s disguised as biblical. Grace and forgiveness are sidelined, guilt and blame rise up and those at the top have cowering sheep in their fold.
We nee to let this story serve as a warning; when people are motivated by fear, corrupt power and control we see an ugly society and a distorted Christ.
I know it all sounds very bleak, but there is hope, and that hope always comes through Jesus Christ. Christ who never rules in fear, but is just and gracious. And not all of our church history is bad, there are points and people who shine the light of Christ which gives us hope that the spirit is at work with his broken people.
I just keep coming back to the stark contrast between the scowling “Eye of God” in the Handmaid’s tale to the shepherd Jesus who watches his sheep. Jesus who treats women with dignity and love, who pours himself out for us and we receive and enjoy him.
The Jesus in the Gospels is a walking Eden, a paradise of hope and joy. If it’s Him we are looking to and trusting, then the way we lead and run our world should look very different.