The Handmaid’s Tale: Traditional Gender Roles

(If you’re not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, either the TV series on Hulu or the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, here’s a five minute summary on YouTube. The TV series alters and adds a few details but remains true to the general themes and events of Atwood’s original book.)

In both the book and the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale presents layers of challenging social, political, and theological issues. There’s lots of ground to cover but here I want to focus our attention on the use of traditional gender roles and the normalization of sexual violence in Gilead.

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photo: startle.com

Gilead is Not Mere Fiction

As a theocracy, Gilead justifies it’s societal use of strict, traditional gender roles by scripture. Yes, this emerging nation is radical in some ways, but Atwood crafted her novel from events and concepts already present in society or history.

The creation of Gilead was a religious and political reaction to the perceived decrease in traditional values (increase in pornography and prostitution), and other social/political/environmental tensions. Sound familiar? You may be able to name several examples of similar reactionary movements in world history. I’m thinking of one example in particular, the defense of conservative values in the 1970s-1990s in the U.S.

Gilead creates a hierarchy based on gender, but also for different women, which you can read more about here. Two distinct, integral roles, defined “biblically” by creative interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, are the wives and handmaids.

  • Commander’s wives, the counterpart of Rachel, are considered the ideal picture of femininity: respectful (submissive) of their place under men’s power, often soft-spoken and gentile, and ready to assume motherhood through the rape of the Handmaid by her husband.
  • Handmaids, the counterpart of Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, are fertile, enslaved women forced with the task of child-bearing through a monthly ritual of non-consensual intercourse. Handmaids lose any identity or agency of their own and assume the names of their Commander. (The name Offred comes from “of Fred.”)

The roles for women in Gilead stem from examples found in a literal reading (and justification of) Genesis 30. The scriptures have been used like this to condone horrors such as the Crusades, the silence or secondary nature of women, slavery, colonization, homophobia, and nationalism, among other tragedies.

What will the scriptures be used for next?

Sexism in Gilead’s Traditional Gender Roles

If we were to observe Gilead’s traditionally male-led households and government, how do men use the power they have? All women are secondary to men in Gilead through both hostile and benevolent sexism. A majority, if not all, of women’s agency is lost in the radical submission to men. Consent does not exist.

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photo: cw.com

Here I’ve listed a few examples of traditional gender expectations in Gilead with an evangelical comparison:

  • Men hold ultimate influence over others: Commanders and other men dominate the household, government, and security forces. Major decisions are made by men.
    • John Piper and others warn repeatedly against the influence of women over men in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
  • Identity is tied to the man: Handmaids are forced to surrender their old identities (names, families, vocations, often sexual orientations, etc.) and given the names of the men who regularly use (rape) them to procreate.
    • Not necessarily evangelical but women are expected to assume the name of their husband when they are married.
    • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 appears to encourage the marriage between a rapist and the survivor.
  • Women have no right to sexual agency or pleasure: Commanders and their wives do not appear to have sex with each other; Handmaids are to perform “their duty.” High ranking men have access to underground prostitutes. (The very thing that initiated the creation of Gilead.)
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)
  • Cruel mistreatment of women: A Commander punishes his own wife by cutting off one of her fingers for merely suggesting the idea that women learn to read the Bible. Others are given permission to physically beat, burn, electrocute, mutilate, or kill those who are disobedient, most of whom are women.
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)

Do any of these demonstrations of male power sound familiar? These are examples of hostile and benevolent sexism that promote rape culture and normalize sexual violence against women.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that not everything described as “biblical” is truly in agreement with the larger narrative of the Gospel.

Granted, this is not the only example we have of traditional gender roles in history, literature, or television. There are all kinds of experiences and theologies that inform this practice, some more healthy than others. Even so, research cannot ignore the numerous challenges associated between traditional gender norms and sexual violence.

Read more:

A New Study on Sexual Violence & Chanel Miller

(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)

Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.

  • “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
  • “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
  • When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
  • In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.

I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.

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photo: ny times

Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.

Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.

It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?

“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement

Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.

So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?

These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.

Read more:

An Invitation to Doubt

The peak of my conservative, evangelical education included several weeks at a Christian apologetics summer camp while in high school and later as a freshman in college. Those weeks included hiking in Colorado, eating my weight in delicious frozen custard, and learning the conservative evangelical script for hot-button political issues. As the years went on and I lived a little more life, I ran into what some call a “crisis of faith” and was forced to again reconsider what I’d been taught, directly and implicitly, not only in summer camp but in Sunday school and my private Christian education thus far. The script wasn’t helping.

Admitting “I don’t know” can put you in hot water, especially in some evangelical circles. Knowing this, I quietly practiced those 3.5 words as I explored the rest of my college experience, got married, and worked a “real” job. Even as I entered my first few seminary classes I was desperate to cling onto some of that script I’d learned. I assumed that to admit uncertainty was to be either uneducated or too progressive, I might as well become an atheist!

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Flannery O’Connor

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. I found others who expressed concern or confusion over what was commonly accepted in the church. I was relieved and hopeful, but also sad. A faith crisis (or the act of doubting or deconstructing spiritual beliefs) is not usually linear. My faith has both peacefully and horrifically evolved over my brief lifetime with new questions, different experiences, and new perspectives. It’s been a cycle of death, lament, and new life.

Death and resurrection shape the Christian faith, literally and metaphorically. Doubt is a piece of this cycle. Are we not called to resist the urge to conform, be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” and die to ourselves? Isn’t doubt necessary for death and transformation to occur? Perhaps like me, you had/have some idols that need to die, that you need to doubt.

Maybe white Jesus isn’t real.

Maybe Christian nationalism isn’t patriotic.

Maybe God isn’t male.

Maybe Christianity isn’t monolithic.

Maybe science and faith can work together.

Maybe the Bible isn’t clear.

I’m learning to hold the answers loosely and ask a few more questions with holy curiosity, as some might call it. “Always write your theology in pencil!” a beloved professor used to say. Even the most elaborate pencil marks can be edited or erased to make room for better theology and better practices. And because of my doubt, and the willingness to erase some “certainties,” my faith continues to grow deeper.

In my experience, faith isn’t certainty and doubt isn’t apostasy. Faith is the risk of finding joy, beauty and contentment while living in the midst of unanswered questions. Faith is vulnerable and messy, colorful and dynamic, not always chiseled in stone or black and white.

“…because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

A note to the church.

I’ve let go of plenty of unhealthy beliefs (with more to go, I’m sure) and held on to some important ones. Perhaps these things are different than what you’ve held on to. That’s ok. And while I don’t feel like we should romanticize doubt or prolong it unnecessarily, I do think the evangelical church can do better by avoiding the all-or-nothing, black or white, in or out, us and them approach to Christian spirituality.

The church is not for those who are certain or sinless. The church is (or should be) a gathering of sin-sick people, even those with questions and disbelief, searching for wholeness and hope. Is there room in your pews for those experiencing seasons of wilderness? or lament? or silence?

“To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”

Os Guinness, In Two Minds

We need to stop being so surprised by doubt. Jesus did not come for those who “have it all together” but instead came to offer healing and rest to those with heavy weights on their hearts, minds, and bodies. If we’re honest, these weights find us again and again in life in different ways. Suffering, pain, doubt, and grief are a reality in this world. Do our congregations, sermons, worship and outreach practices, and theology reflect this?

To those who are unsure.

If you are challenged by what you read in the Bible or what you’ve been taught in your faith community allow me to invite you to ask your hardest questions. You are not alone.

I recognize your church or family may not be a safe place to express your dissatisfaction or pain but please search for supportive spaces that are. (There are many, many online communities!) If we can learn anything from the Psalms, Job, or even Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, God is not afraid of our questions.

Read a bit more:

Crafting a Mission Statement for Marriage

On the topic of marriage, one of the more meaningful topics Aaron and I have recently discussed was a mission statement. It’s come up at a perfect time, too. We’ve been challenged in recent months to be more mindful in our relationship, vocation, and patterns of rest. A mission statement, although kind of corny upon my first impression, (can we find another name!?) has offered renewed focus as we enter our fourth year of married life.

Similar to developing a rule of life, a mission statement considers several categories. Aaron and I opted to keep it simple and chose to include spirituality, the physical body, the heart, and the mind. (We also included a statement that introduced the categories we chose.) You might prefer more general or specific areas. Just like the rule of life, this should relate to your particular context.

photo: steven schultz

This activity may stir up easy and not-so easy conversations. These are important but if you find yourself continually down the rabbit trail, focus on the ultimate goals for the relationship. What’s the big picture? How would you like to be remembered? This statement can be helpful by showing you where you’d like to go as a couple, even if your present circumstances aren’t what you’d like them to be.

Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • What makes you come alive, as an individual/couple?
  • What factors strengthen the relationship?
  • Where do you want to grow together?
  • Where would you like to be in 20 years? 40 years?
  • Who would you like to be known as?

Below you’ll find the current state of our mission statement with a few descriptions. We expect it to adjust as we grow together and potentially expand our family. I hope that you’ll be encouraged and inspired to write one for your own relationship.

We aim to humbly honor the complete imago dei found in each person, in spirit, body, heart, and mind – reflecting the Trinity, which has no hierarchy. (In this introductory statement it was important for us to recognize each other as whole, individual reflections of God. We do not believe the act of marriage “completes” us, nor do we believe hierarchy, especially gender-based, is appropriate in our marriage.

We aim to engage with scripture, as well as offer up holy questions and creativity, to grow closer to the Creator and in our worship and witness to God’s eternal faithfulness. (We believe embracing uncertainty and mystery, as well as divine creativity and curiosity, is important to our faith and study of the Bible. It is also important to us that we refer to God with gender-neutral language whenever possible.)

We aim to holistically care for and share our bodies with love, respect, and wonder. With proper nourishment and rest we hope to be sources of generous hospitality for one another and others. (Although we have very different methods of achieving physical health, we both believe our bodies are extremely important to not only our individual wellbeing and also communal wellbeing in marriage and society. We recognize the human body is impressionable and powerful – something that requires deep respect and care. Physical spaces are important too, and significantly impact all other areas of life, thus our hope of generous hospitality either in presence or place.)

We aim to listen to one another empathetically, speak to the other with gentleness, and strengthen each other with truth and patience. (We could list the fruit of the spirit in this category but we’ll save that for another day. Both Aaron and I feel our emotions pretty deeply, and I’m stubborn as hell, so this is something we’re actively working on.)

We aim to pursue wisdom through thoughtful study of scripture and our world, in history and present day. We encourage the exploration of art, ideas, and stories to sharpen our minds (and imagination), direct our energy, and increase compassion for others. (Thoughtfulness and intellect are God-given gifts that we believe should be encouraged and continually developed in marriage. We hope to be lifelong learners.)

I only include the italicized descriptions for the purpose of this post, otherwise this statement isn’t too long. Your statement can be playful and concise, or detailed and romantic – as long as it reflects your mutual vision for marriage.

I created a reminder for us to hang somewhere in our home. (Still figuring out the perfect spot.) If you’re up for sharing, I’d love to see or hear about yours!

Rule of Life: An Ancient Practice for a Contemporary Life

There is always somewhere to be, someone to talk to, something to read or do, especially with the expansive grip the internet and social media (and politics) have in many people’s lives. The amount of information we consume each day can be overwhelming and stressful. In all of the “busyness” of life it’s very easy to find ourselves (and our calendars) in disorder.

Since reevaluating my priorities last summer (and some significant changes) I’ve been learning a lot about establishing some sense of order in my life. Believe me, there’s too many things we have no control over but it is possible to create new rhythms, or rather, practice ancient rhythms in our contemporary context.

photo: rod long

A ‘rule of life’ is just this. This practice is no stranger to the Christian faith. Saint Benedict crafted a rule for monastic life hoping to instill healthy habits for both individual and communal life. Many of his principles seem radical but his work encourages community, obedience, humility, and contemplation – things we can still benefit from today.

“Rule” sounds legalistic at first. And while you could apply it in this way, a rule of life is simply a tool to help us avoid “living life on accident,” as a professor used to say. We require blueprints to build almost anything of substance, like a house or business. Why not our lives, too?

“From the creative point of view, the monastic rule is an instrument for shaping a particular kind of life for which a person has deep and genuine desire.”

Thomas Moore, Preface of The Rule of Saint Benedict

Write your own eulogy.

To begin creating your very own rule of life, be prepared to brainstorm. There are a few different books on the topic of drafting a rule and they each have different approaches. You can create a list, outline, table, or even something more artistic. A holistic approach is required, no matter how you look at it, how you record it, or what your life consists of. Be prayerful and honest in your exploration. How do you intend to live your life? What legacy would you like to leave?

Draw a map.

You might begin listing your desires and priorities within general categories like head, heart, and hands, or body, mind, spirit. These categories may expand to include areas like, vocation, finances, health, relationships, spirituality, pleasure, etc. Even exploring your personality through the Enneagram may be helpful. Your goal is to evaluate and write down your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual goals within the context of your life.

Use your calendar.

The next step would be to organize your desires, goals, and priorities from each area into measurable steps. This is best done by using a timetable of daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually tasks. You may find you prefer to use bi-weekly or bi-annually as well. This element helps keep you on track with your goals. For fun, you may also incorporate your goals to the liturgical calendar of the church.

Find some examples here.

photo: caleb george

There is no task or goal too simple or too large. For example, you may include brushing your teeth twice a day and scheduling bi-annual visits to the dentist. It may be important to you to write down relational goals, whether weekly meet ups with friends or colleagues, regular date nights, or family activities. You may include things as frequent as meal planning or spiritual disciplines and infrequent as spiritual retreats or vacations. This rule of life is for you, make it thoughtful and meaningful.

The rule exists as a tool. Allow it live alongside of you and assist you, not guilt or discourage you. As life inevitably changes, your rule may also need to adjust. Perhaps you welcomed a new member of the family, a career change, or your goals/needs simply shifted.

Like a trellis, a rule of life supports and guides our growth. It supports our friendships with Christ so that we bear the fruit of his character and are able to offer his nourishing life to others.

Ken Shigematsu, God in my Everything

For the hesitant.

If this ancient practice seems like just another thing you don’t have time for, don’t toss it out the window yet. Everyone has a rule of life. We have habits and patterns that structure our days but also years and decades of our lives. How would your life (or schedule, relationships, vocation, etc.) be different if you prayerfully replaced patterns of disorder with patterns of rest, discipline, and nourishment?

You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Psalm 16:11

Additional resources: