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The Handmaid’s Tale Counters Religious Fanaticism} ?>
I’ve been supremely irked for years when I see crazy characters on TV who are zealots about their faith, with little to no representation that values religion. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has Caleb, a sociopath who dresses like a priest but acts nothing like one; Carnivale has Justin Crowe, a man who attracts a crowd of followers for his own selfish reasons; and The Hunchback of Notre Dame has Frollo, a character so self-righteous he is unable to admit his own hypocrisies. While these are wonderful characters as they make terrifying villains, I wish there were more examples of religious characters who demonstrate a loving, peaceful faith.
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the few shows I’ve seen that presents Christianity as a valid life choice rather than as religious fanaticism. Though June Osborne, the main character, doesn’t consider herself a Christian, her character hints at many biblical truths I try to live my own life by, including mercy, forgiveness, and fortitude.
At first glance, The Handmaid’s Tale appears to represent everything that bothers me about representing religion in the media, where villainous characters cherry-pick scripture to propel their objectives and create brutal laws. In the show, infertility has become commonplace and the human race is beginning to die out. The totalitarian theocracy that is Gilead has taken over most of the United States and uses biblical scripture to its advantage, pushing its tyrannical ideals on others.
This government justifies raping women who have committed any form of infidelity in order to conceive children because, in the Bible, Abraham took Hagar as a surrogate when Sarah couldn’t bear children. Another law justifies literally taking “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5:29) when someone disrespects authority. Lydia, one of the handmaid trainers known as “Aunts,” quotes “blessed be the meek” (Matt. 5:5) to justify her punishment of the handmaids whenever they speak out against her wrongdoings. Gilead is a society without love, mercy, compassion, or forgiveness. However, June shows many of these traits, and she refuses to believe that the merciful God her father believed in is so cruel.
June makes a memorial for people who were slaughtered by guardians and prays for God to bless them; she defends a girl who studied the Bible in secret, which is against the law because women aren’t allowed to read, and she even quotes scripture to Aunt Lydia when the Aunt quotes the Beatitudes out of context by retorting: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:10).”
Above all, June forgives Serena Joy, Wife of the Commander who tries monthly to conceive a child with June. Serena Joy has taken out her frustrations about her marriage upon June. She confines the handmaid to her room for over a week and takes privileges away from her as if she were a child. Though the Commander is the more likely antagonist, Serena is set up as the main stressor in June’s life.
When June is forced to give up her baby, conceived out of this forced surrogating, she sees that Serena Joy is capable of love as she protects and nurtures the baby. June’s heart softens and in the season finale, she even tells Emily, another handmaid, to call her daughter by the name Serena chose—Nicole—instead of the name June originally gave her daughter.
I see Christianity as a beautiful thing, but I feel like so many distort its true message. Some do so because Bible verses don’t always make sense out of context. “Wives submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) is an often touted verse quoted to prove that Christianity is a women-suppressing religion, but if you continue to read, you come to this verse: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Christ gave his life to the church and so he calls husbands to do the same. Other verses are similarly taken out of context to prove an unrelated point, used without considering the surrounding passages or their original purpose.
Some confuse Christianity with specific people groups or individuals, those who have done terrible things in the name of their God. I’ve had many people ask, “How can you say Christianity is beautiful when Westboro Baptist Church did such awful things?” Known for picketing gay pride parades and courthouses in the 90s with signs that read, “Thank God for 9/11” and “God hates fags,” Westboro Baptist is one extremist church out of millions. I don’t believe that God hates homosexuals, nor do the Christians I know, but it’s an attitude many have come to expect from people of faith.
Christianity is so much more to me than the shallow hypocritical practice shown in most media. It’s influenced my life for the better. It’s encouraged me to treat others with compassion, live a purposeful life, and has helped me through dark times. Though fanatics do exist and make wonderful villains, it’s a relief to finally see accurate features of my religion portrayed in a television show that’s getting so much critical acclaim. I hope other media takes their cue from The Handmaid’s Tale and considers portraying faith as a valid life choice, made by many compassionate and wise people. And I hope the word “Christian” won’t forever be associated with negative terms like “bigotry” or “homophobia” in many people’s minds, but will be correlated with grace, mercy, and compassion instead.