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:

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:

Impure: Taking the Next Step

In this series we’ve covered many topics but you may be left wondering what you can do — right now, this week, in your lifetime — to prevent abuse and respond to sexual violence appropriately.

At the bottom of this post you will find a myriad of helpful resources including books, podcasts, blogs, even instagram accounts to check out and consider for your next step.

Advocacy

Pastoral Advocacy

Members of the clergy have a significant role in the life of the survivor. They can be a trusted (or highly mistrusted) figure. This role has too frequently been mishandled and research finds survivors are not likely to share their experiences with them. Because not all clergy are trained and ordained consistently, not all pastors are professionally equipped to counsel those impacted by violence and trauma and this can potentially re-traumatize those seeking help.

  • Clergy should not counsel couples where abuse or violence is suspected or reported. The context in which counseling takes place requires an openness and vulnerability that may be used against the victim outside the office. (Remember, abuse is centered on power and control.) To maintain safety, victims should be counseled idividually if possible.
  • Clergy should communicate their professional boundaries clearly and not assume they are appropriately trained to handle survivors’ often complex needs. If you find yourself in this position do not be afraid to refer someone to a licensed counselor, therapist, or social worker.
photo: etienne boulanger

While church leaders can be seen as a spiritual or physical shelter from harm, it is healthy for a pastor to admit they do not have all the answers. Just as survivors should be able to ask for help, clergy should, too. Pamela Cooper-White offers encouragement for clergy saying,

By simply offering presence, belief, and an unshakable confidence that she [or he] deserves a life free of violence – especially when she herself [or he himself] does not share that confidence—we are giving a gift of healing and empowerment.

Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response

The Church as a Mediator of Healing

Community is powerful. It can be severely damaging but it can also provide healing. Just as members of a church can pass on legacies of shame and judgement towards recipients of sexual violence, they can also be the hands of hope and justice towards survivors.

  • Do not assume victims can heal on their own.
  • “God won’t give you more than you’re able to handle” (and similar sentiments) are a modified version of victim blaming.
  • Community members are liable for adjusting practices that perpetuate cycles of inappropriate use of power and control and continue to harm. Do not remain silent or passive to violence of any type. Speak up about the liturgy. About representation. About the church policies, if they exist.
  • Confess corporate sin and call for perpetrators to repent.
  • Invite survivors to participate in the sacraments and other volunteer opportunities. Jennifer Beste, professor of theology, suggests, “This simple act communicates to the survivor that he or she is capable and worthy of manifesting God’s presence and grace to the congregation.”

Forgiveness is a sensitive area. The word itself can spark intense emotions. In regards to the abusive actions of Larry Nassar, Rachael Denhollander (the first woman to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse) speaks on forgiveness in her victim impact statement.

“The Bible you speak of carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”

Rachael Denhollander, read her full statement here.

Her full statement is moving. She continues to advocate for survivors.

More on forgiveness:

Accountability

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. As the church, we are accountable for both personal (Matthew 23) and communal righteousness (Isaiah 58).

People need to be called out for their behavior, but beyond that their behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in the context of a society that creates space for that kind of behavior.”

Tarana Burke

Community Education & Training

  • Be informed on current local and national legislation that either protects (or exposes) survivors. The Violence Against Women Act, for example.
  • Conduct evidence-based, trauma-informed training for volunteers, staff, and others involved with professional or lay ministry. There are many national or local non-profit organizations that provide training.
  • Encourage participation in local efforts to protect vulnerable populations. Volunteer at domestic violence shelters or food pantries. Place cards with emergency help or hotline information in church bathrooms. Sexual violence intersects with many other social issues.
  • Establish a network of interfaith professionals who can assist survivors, domestic violence officers, therapists, social workers, etc.

Institutional Policies

  • Evaluate and adjust church policies to reflect a safe, scriptural, and ethical prevention of and response to sexual violence. Create policies if they don’t exist. Safety must be prioritized.
  • The hiring or screening process should be thorough for those serving the church, either staff or volunteer. There are ministries and consultants that can assist with the evaluation of institutional policies.
  • Hold leaders in all levels of political and religious offices (and everywhere else!) accountable for their actions. Period.
photo: nicole honeywell

Resources for the road.

Wherever your journey leads you I hope you’ve found this series helpful. Below is a starter-list of resources that may help you in your next steps, whether in your personal life or in your community. Some items are more progressive than others; each have valuable insights to offer.

Advocacy Organizations

Podcasts & Ted Talks

Books

Blogs

Instagram Accounts

  • @enagoski (Sexologist, sex educator, author)
  • @kristinbhodson (Sex therapist empowering families from LDS perspective)
  • @sexpositive_families (Discussion on raising healthy, informed kids)
  • @dr.thema (Minister, psychologist, researcher, author)
  • @sexedincolor (Podcast discussing sexuality)
  • @sixminutesexed (Podcast with short conversations on sex education)
  • @consentacademy (Teaching and discussion on consent)
  • @gottmaninstitute (Relationship experts!)

Read more in this series:

Impure: #ChurchToo & US Politics

(This post is not so much a political statement as it is a comparison of responses from evangelical leaders, both pastoral and political, in the U.S. towards sexual violence. Additionally, the term “evangelical” has become political in recent years. Evangelical Christianity is a broad category with many different perspectives and is not monolithic. Simply because someone self-identifies as an evangelical does not mean they necessarily hold to the basic definition of evangelicalism or agree with more popular voices.)

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photo: mother jones

#ChurchToo

Evangelical purity culture perpetuates rape culture — which is the foundation for #ChurchToo, a follow up to the #MeToo movement.

#ChurchToo reveals the ways in which the church has dehumanized survivors and objectified their bodies, blaming them for the violence perpetuated by pastors, seminary presidents, and prominent evangelical organizations that once sought to keep sex “pure.”

I will allow these examples to speak for themselves:

Sadly, there are even more examples to list. While a minority of cases involve positive steps to repair the damage, generally, the church has not appropriately handled the prevention or response to sexual violence. Instead, survivors have been ignored or silenced in order to protect those in power, namely influential male leaders.

Read the #SilenceIsNotSpiritual statement and consider adding your name.

American Evangelicals & Political Power

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photo: cnn.com

Politically, some American evangelicals are still inconsistent in what they teach and what they do. There is a vast difference between President Bill Clinton’s scandal and the way the church has recognized Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump.

If we narrow our scope to the words of Dr. James Dobson, a voice for many evangelicals and large force behind purity culture, we’ll find he seems to have changed his mind about moral character or sexual immorality within the presidential office over the years. In his September 1998 newsletter, Dobson writes about the scandal between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (The full letter is archived in this book beginning on page 303 but you may also be able to find it online.) Here are a few excerpts with emphasis added:

“How did our beloved nation find itself in this sorry mess? I believe it began not with the Lewinsky affair, but many years earlier. There was plenty of evidence during the first Presidential election that Bill Clinton had a moral problem. His affair with Gennifer Flowers, which he now admits to having lied about, was rationalized by the American people…”

“There were other indications that Bill Clinton was untruthful and immoral. Why, then, did the American people ignore so many red flags? Because, and I want to give the greatest emphasis to this point, the mainstream media became enamored with Bill Clinton in 1992 and sought to convince the American people that “character doesn’t matter…”

“Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? How can we estimate the impact of this scandal on future generations? How in the world can 7 out of 10 Americans continue to say that nothing matters except a robust economy?

Dr. James Dobson, September 1998 newsletter

In this letter Dobson is adamant that character matters. Personal history matters. He questions the nation’s ability to discern the “red flags.”

As candidates appeared in the race for office in 2015-2016, researcher George Barna reportedEvangelicals are seeking something in a candidate that very few other voters are searching for: strong moral character.

Strong moral character quickly went up for debate. While Hilary Clinton’s campaign promoted questions of integrity, Donald Trump’s personal life and political campaign also caused significant controversy.

Within in this context, Dobson appeared to affirm Trump’s recent Christian faith (which he later denies) and joined the evangelical executive advisory board, which does not require members to endorse the President but is significant. This interview just prior to the election is also interesting.

Also on the advisory board, friend of Dobson’s via his late father, and president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr. stated in an interview with the Washington Post that there was nothing Trump could do to lose his support. Falwell believed Trump’s “personal behavior”, or sexual immorality, was irrelevant when compared to his business acumen.

Interesting.

Why this shift in support among Dr. Dobson and others? What part has fear or nationalism played in this?

How can many American evangelicals teach sexual “purity” or “pro-life” values and protect (and elect) perpetrators of sexual violence at the same time?

Food for thought:

Read more in this series: