I read The Handmaids Tale in the 80’s when it first came out, and I thought it was an intriguing story, but I didn’t see any parallels to the real world. Experiencing the story again, this time watching it on Hulu, I recognized some of my own history in the church, and I saw a good deal of truth about the way gender equality can impact Christian marriages.
To briefly explain the premise, the show takes place in the not too distant future, in a time when infertility has become a serious problem. A radical theocracy takes over the United States, instituting martial law, and rounding up all the women who may still be fertile. These women are distributed to high ranking married men in the newly formed Republic of Gilead. They are called Handmaids, and their job is to bear children.
The series protagonist is Offred, an independent young woman whose job, child, and freedom are taken away from her by the new government. Of course Offred hates the situation, and the audience is encouraged to identify with her. But the character I found myself identifying with most is Serena Joy, wife of one of the Republic of Gilead’s top leaders.
Serena Joy’s journey is complex; she was part of Gilead’s leadership from the beginning. She was a type A personality who used her ambition and drive to write a book about women’s position in society. She was full of vision, and the desire to make the world a better place.
And then Gilead shut down around her. Once the group she helped found was in power, the men leaders decided that the leadership team should be male only.
Serena Joy helped write the laws for the Republic of Gilead, but then a law is passed that forbids women from reading. She ends up isolated in her house, all copies of her book destroyed, with the husband who had been her partner in leading a revolution gone most of the time.
Serena’s story painfully echoes my own journey in the church.
When I was 14, having recently accepted Christ and on fire to serve Him, I went on a ten-week overseas mission trip. Missions was so amazing that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life, but by the time I was in college I realized that I didn’t feel drawn to the Third World. So I started thinking that the way to fulfill my call to ministry was through a seminary education.
I got nothing but encouragement from every Christian I knew when I wanted to minister overseas, but when I wanted to do the same thing at home, suddenly all my friends were shaking their heads. Women were not supposed to be leaders in the church, they said. The bible said so. I was baffled, given the earlier unconditional support, but the message that I was not welcome was loud and clear.
So I readjusted; I would serve in unofficial capacities. God would show me the way, since after all He was the One who called me. I got a teaching degree to support myself, and looked for ways to be useful in the church.
But I was like Serena Joy in Handmaid’s Tale the day she had to sit out in the hall while the men discussed the important things. Her cheery smile could have been mine. Like me, she was determined to make it work. And like me, the rejection got to her.
Through flashbacks we meet the earlier Serena and Fred in love. They kiss in between quoting scriptures to each other. Their romantic love and their faith are entwined, and I identify with that: I’ve experienced it. And it made the disappearance of that love all the more painful.
If we lose a relationship we grounded in our love for God, doesn’t it seem we have lost something of God too?
When the older Commander Fred says that love doesn’t exist, that it’s just nature urging us to procreate; we see how far he is from that man who kissed Serena Joy, who apologized to her when she couldn’t join in leadership meetings anymore.
Serena Joy’s happiness breaks down under the pressure of gender hierarchy.
When she and Fred are planning Gilead together, they are close. But as Fred adopts the idea that women need to be protected from the stress of leadership, he drifts away from her. Why wouldn’t he? She is excluded from the decisions and issues that are most important to him, so of course his attachment weakens.
My own experience in a 26 year marriage is that some of the worst times were while I worked the hardest to fit the church’s ideal of the happily submissive wife. I was told over and over again, in sermons, books, and conversations, that if I would just trust God and be submissive, my marriage would work.
Submission draws out a man’s love, they assured me. I found the opposite to be true.
My husband told me he wanted a partner. He told me to forget about being a good wife and just be myself. Our life together worked much better when I decided to ignore the church’s teachings on marriage. There is some anger and betrayal in that for me, because people who were adamant they had my best interests at heart worked hard to get me to buy into an empty system.
Just how much trouble does hierarchical marriage cause?
In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman, who spent over two decades studying what makes marriages succeed or fail, says,
“Even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to eventually divorce than men who resisted their wives’ influence. Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”
Jesus upended the status-focused culture of the first century by emphasizing the equality of believers. “You are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” (Matt. 23:8 NIV)
Why was equality important enough to Him that he rebuked the disciples for arguing about who was greatest among them, and defended Mary of Bethany’s place at His feet, rather than in the kitchen?
Jesus wanted His followers to practice radical equality because He wanted them to love one another, and human beings are best at loving equals. Would the early Christian communities have been known for love of the brethren if they continued arguing about who was most important? What is true for the church at large is true between married couples: we love each other best in equality.
Kathleen Schwab is a lifelong lover of God, a literature teacher, a wife and mother. She is a co-author (along with Therese Kay) of “Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional,” which is a five week devotional inspired by the synergy of words and art in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Find this Devotional on Amazon HERE.