The Handmaid's Tale

I am really enjoying watching the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale, which if anything is even better than the first.

That might come as a surprise, since many reviewers have found it deeply critical of Christianity, whether Christian themselves or otherwise. But I would suggest that this is too thin a reading of the program.

The premise is fascinating and brilliant. For undisclosed reasons, the fertility rate of the human race declines dramatically, unable to be resolved using medical means. This represents an existential threat to the human race, which could possibly be removed from the face of the earth, unless …

And that is the point.

The ‘unless’ turns out to be ‘unless the government / state’ does something about it. And so the state intervenes, creating a system in which state coercive power - police, army, jail, death sentence - is harnessed to ensure that the maximum reproductive rate is achieved with those few - called Handmaids - who remain fertile.

What makes the premise so interesting is that it combines the most public and the most personal. The most personal in that the problem necessarily involves fundamental personal issues like parenthood, sexuality, and freedom. And at the same time, the most public, in the sense that nothing less than the survival of humanity is at stake. And the point is that there is no possible greater justification for state intervention into the personal lives of the population than the survival of humanity.

In other words, The Handmaids Tale is essentially cautionary - watch out for totalitarian state intervention when the stakes are high enough to seemingly justify it.

And it’s the totalitarianism that makes the skin crawl - the public executions, the arbitrary deprivation of freedom, the coerced surrogacy through ritualised rape, the absence of the rule of law and due process. Some of these depictions are deeply confronting, but I suspect that they are actually relatively tame in comparison with the reality which is endured under some tyrants in the world today.

This is the context in which to see the place of religion. That is, a totalitarian state will always use some form of religious ritual and language to justify - and deflect criticism of - its violent over-reach. The fascinating thing about the religious depictions in The Handmaid’s Tale is that no one believes the religion, it is just a series of tests of conformity to the state program. Or, as the Bible would put it, a form of state sponsored idolatry.

Which is why I’d suggest in the end, The Handmaid’s Tale - perhaps ironically - actually presents a deeply Christian vision, as I say, a cautionary tale, of the horrors of totalitarianism and its use of idolatrous forms of self-justification.

The question that the program should prompt for us is this: are there any current real-world existential threats to the human race, which could form the basis for justifying a totalitarian response? Because, what the Handmaid’s tale is showing us in grim detail is the nightmare of the violence of the state turned against its own people, even in the name of survival.