I watched Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale over the last couple of weeks. Visually, it is beautiful. Emotionally, it is searing, sobering and thought-provoking. The book was written in 1985, and the Hulu series began in 2017. I hadn’t read the book or watched the series because of my impression of what it was about. It’s not for everyone, but I’m really glad I watched it.
It fascinates me how some individuals pick up on cultural trends years before they are particularly visible. And it fascinates me that when a cultural trend was fully unveiled in 2016, film makers returned to a book written more than thirty years before. In fact, both the author and the series returned to a story at least three millennia old, perhaps even as old as humanity’s ability to express itself in enduring forms.
I’ve always thought that regardless of the source of the Bible, it is about people, their relationship to transcendence, to each other and to the world — our human failures, striving, cruelty, compassion, courage, hope. It is about faith but also about fear, its sources, expressions and consequences.
It is fear that drives a question like, why did this (national destruction) happen to us, and how can we make certain it doesn’t happen again? Fear makes people imagine that if they are just more careful to do things in a certain way, they will avoid horrific consequences. Fear drives people to accept things they would never otherwise accept. Fear says there is only one way, fear drives the wish to acquire power and fear creates the willingness, even desire, to submit to it. Fear invites totalitarianism and a willingness to accept brutality. Fear drives the wish to control the behaviors of others no matter what it requires. Fear drives our failure to connect compassionately to the brutality that is our responsibility. Fear generates many ways to avoid confronting the realities of our human existence, which is not only beautiful — but frightening. Fear is an expression of a failure of the faith that comes from our connection to all being.
As many have pointed out, dictators historically come into power with 40% or less support. The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of the perilousness of our status and our lives, “even” here in America, where we are as susceptible to fear as any other population on the planet — and perhaps less likely to confront it because our great privilege keeps it far away and out of sight. Consequently we allow brutality at our border, the brutality of mass incarceration, the brutality of poverty, brutality toward other life on the planet, brutality toward those who don’t fit an imagined idea of who is ok and who isn’t. The primal fear that others experience is remote from the experience of most of us in America.
Those who base their support for actions and policies that spring from hidden fear on some idea that it’s what the Bible requires aren’t reading the whole book, just lines out of context. Fear, how it is expressed and its consequences, is a human reality the Bible explores. The prophet Jeremiah and others speak of total environmental and national destruction, calling it a punishment. It is punishing, and people should fear it, but it is a punishment people bring on themselves through their own failure: the failure to respect our planet, the failure of compassion and empathy, the failure to create a just society, a society making conscious choices based on a vision of connection:
“You turned and profaned my name and caused every man his servant and every man his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their pleasure, to return; and you brought them into subjection, to be to you for servants and for handmaids…you have not hearkened to Me to proclaim every man to his neighbor, behold, I proclaim for you a liberty… <so> I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth… bodies shall be for food unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 34:16-22).
The Handmaid’s Tale repeated this biblical theme. The Gileadites emerge in response to what they see as a thoughtless, selfish society that brought about great destruction and danger to the country. Their society emerges from fear and maintains control through fear.
The consequences of selfish, thoughtless choices, choices made without any sense of being part of a whole, are real — but these are not issues we can address from a place of fear. Ultimately expressions of fear drive in the same direction as a mindlessly selfish pursuit of one’s own goals: toward isolation, a failure of meaning, a deadening of our capacity for compassion, a willingness to accept brutality to maintain our precarious position in the world.
The Hebrew Bible puts forward the requirement for balance: to follow a set of codes that in that place and that time cultivated awareness of the profound paradox in our human existence, of the fragility and arbitrariness of our place in the world and a sense of humility in the face of that (ritual commandments) — at the same time constantly reminding us of our connectedness, our responsibility for others (ethical commandments). Jewish tradition insists on the intimate connection between ritual and ethical commandments, of their inseparability in a unified and balanced whole.
The Gileadites disparage what is from their perspective a contemporary world wholly given over to a selfish pursuit of personal satisfaction with no consciousness of a greater good. Conversely, they see themselves engaged in building a better world, a process that requires moral renewal, as one group defines morality, the Gileadites.
What the Gileadites forget in their pursuit is the humility that comes from confronting moment by moment their own fragile position in the world. They fail to cultivate an awareness that their current position in life in relation to “the other” is purely a matter of grace, whatever the source of that grace, and that the only appropriate position for a human being based on that grace is gratitude, compassion for all other life that shares their fragile position, and the courage that comes from a sense of connection that strengthens them as they live another day.
As a Hebrew song says, “All of life is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all . . . ” We cannot take steps toward improving our world from a place of fear.
As I read the biblical text, I can’t help but think that the Israelites are an emblem of the struggle of all humanity to find that balance between confronting the terrors of the precariousness of our own existence, the compassion for others in the same existential predicament and the humility to discover our connection to all that is, the connection that sustains us.
I think the Israelites represent our human tendency to create false supports for ourselves in the face of existential fear, which leads to disconnection and a failure of faith and courage. They represent us all, our capacity for good action — and our capacity for evil action, our faith and courage — and our fear.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live…”
Life is precarious and dangerous. There are no guarantees, and not one of us passes through it alive. And yet every healthy creature chooses to live. My hope is that we do it with humility, gratitude and compassion.