The Other Handmaid’s Tale
Merry Christmas, Regent Community! Unto us a child is born.
Below, Dr. Amanda Russell-Jones shares a Christmas meditation. Take a few minutes to re-encounter the powerful (and contemporary) message of the song Mary sang shortly after learning she would be the mother of Jesus.
Amanda, a Lecturer at Regent College, works on reception history––how the Bible shapes culture and the church, and how culture and the church of the day shape readings of the Bible. Most recently, Amanda has taught on the impact of scriptural interpretation on questions of slavery and of the treatment of women in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Image credit: Joy Banks
And Mary said,
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Journeying through Advent each year I
spend time pondering Mary’s Song in Luke 1:45–56. It has been familiar to me
from my early years onwards as the “Magnificat”—sung or said in the service of
Evening Prayer in the Anglican Church. Mary’s great hymn of praise begins “My
soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has
regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” Coming as it does in the context of
Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, Mary’s Song celebrates the fact that the
Mighty One has done great things for her in making her the mother of His Son.
No doubt Mary is also rejoicing that Elizabeth too knows this and that together
they can share the mystery, excitement, and physical strangeness of a growing
life in their wombs, whilst wondering exactly what the future holds for them
and for their special sons.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
from generation to generation.
This year in my pondering of Mary’s Song I have had two companions along the way. My first companion has been another handmaid or, rather, many of them, in the shape of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; this time revisited in a powerful drama series created for television which incorporates Atwood’s book then extends it. In the dystopian world of Gilead, a highly religious patriarchy has been set up where the Bible is quoted tirelessly as the thread that knits together and mandates a unique way of life.
Women are divided into three classes—wives; Marthas, who perform the household tasks like cooking; and Handmaids—fertile young women assigned to a household and given a name based on that of their commander. Each commander impregnates his Handmaid against her will via a monthly ceremony. All this is justified by the argument that birth rates are so low and that this is due in large measure to the failure of women to know their place in the patriarchy and to fulfil their God given role of reproduction. No woman is allowed to read or dissent from the regime. Punishments include losing a finger or eye or tongue.
It is a tough watch, as all dystopian versions of Christianity are. Adding insult to injury, my favourite craft (and possibly the only skill for which I am an Olympic hopeful) comes in for criticism in one episode when a highly capable commander’s wife complains that she hates knitting. It was almost enough to cause me to put down my needles and throw the ball of wool at the screen. (For you fellow knitting fans who just cheered—it was a Christmas baby hat. I knew you would want to know. Keep knitting live!)
My other companion of some 10 years has been Josephine Butler, the English nineteenth-century Christian reformer. Butler’s use of the Bible in her arguments with church and state was the subject of my doctoral research and became and remains a great source of inspiration and joy. Butler was convinced that Jesus requires an absolutely equal standard of morality from everyone—male and female. In her time, it was expected that men would “sow some wild oats.” Women, however, were shamed and shunned for the smallest breaches of propriety. Men who frequented brothels or kept mistresses were excused for their behaviour, retaining positions of power and influence. In contrast, the women they used were permanently expelled from society with no opportunity for restoration. Butler pointed out the inconsistency, drawing on Christ’s words––“let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Prodigal sons were welcomed back when they repented, she observed, so why not prodigal daughters?”
If Mary had lived in the Victorian world, Butler asks, would she too have been cast out by a church and society quick to accuse and shun immoral women?
He hath shewed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty
from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.
Butler takes the word handmaid from the King James Bible, the version in general use in her day, and uses it in two contrasting scenarios. At Pentecost, she reminded her audience, the Spirit had fallen on God’s handmaids as well as on his man servants. Sons and daughters shall prophesy, or forth-tell the mind of God—“a high and holy calling” in her estimation.
With this she juxtaposes the expression “handmaids of shame” to describe the women caught up in the State regulated prostitution of her day. A country that calls itself Christian should not be passing and enforcing laws designed to regulate immorality and provide a supply of “clean” prostitutes, she insists. The outcast women she spends time with in the brothels and workhouses and whilst they are living in her home know that they are sinners, she says. What they do not know is that they are loved. In contrast, men who do not acknowledge that they are sinners may, she suggests, perhaps be kept out of heaven by their hypocrisy though they are not shut out of the drawing rooms of London.
If Butler had read The Handmaid’s Tale, or been interviewed alongside Margaret Atwood, she might have quoted from her
work on Hagar. In this work, Butler protested against the fact that the world
has come to be filled with Hagars—"women used for a time and purpose” then
discarded whilst the respectable wives and mothers, “women who are at ease,”
keep silent—or, as in the case of Sarah and, in the novel, commanders’ wives,
prove themselves capable of what Butler called “positive cruelty towards their
He hath filled the hungry with good
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
What dystopic relationships or scenarios exist today that I, you, and we, fail to recognise or take seriously? And what of the Church? Atwood clearly identifies biblical verses with a dangerous patriarchy which treats men and women as dispensable in the cause of the greater good of the survival of Gilead. Butler described herself as being in but not “of” the Church of England which failed to support her. She resolved “to speak much with God but little with men” and, initially, she was censured by Christian leaders such as Shaftesbury and Spurgeon who came to be her supporters later.
However, Butler regarded the Bible as “the most precious book,” one which she put time and effort into studying—learning Greek, reading commentaries and different translations. This “open book,” she said, had guided Britain in the past to make good laws and had moved the slaves in America, forced to read it in secret, to demand their freedom.
Furthermore, in ringing tones Butler declared that in the gospels every encounter of a woman with Jesus was liberative for her and challenged her audience to prove her wrong.
Search throughout the Gospel history, and observe his conduct in regard to women, and it will be found that the word liberation expresses, above all others, the act which changed the whole life and character and position of the women he dealt with, and which ought to have changed the character of men’s treatment of women from that time forward.
So this Christmas, I give thanks for authors who provoke thought and discussion as they wrestle with the world they see, or fear to see, around them. I give thanks for those not content to be armchair theologians, whose theology is forged at the bedside of dying prostitutes and in the cotton fields. I give thanks for television dramatizations that throw new light on works already thumbed, whilst permitting me to knit along as the heads or credits roll. Above all I give thanks for the Bible and being able to look again at Mary’s song and be filled with hope in the God who has been and will be mindful and merciful; who remembers and keeps His promises; who announces not a dystopia, nor, what would be just as bad, a utopia in some imagined place. Rather our sure and certain hope is in the God who announces a kingdom and delivers it right here, right now as Christ becomes incarnate in a mother’s womb.
Mary, who, as his mother, has the most intimate encounter of a woman with Jesus recorded in the gospels, is moved by the Spirit to declare liberation for the humble and the hungry and to express her own joy at being able to accept God’s calling to mother the Messiah.
This is indeed “the world turned upside down” as Butler and the Levellers and Paul said. Looking again at Mary’s Song we can but echo Mary’s words: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”