The Apostle's Tale: FREEDOM
Notice: Spoiler alert!
This series reveals details about the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you don’t want to know anything in advance of viewing, watch the series before you read the sermon notes.
Recently, I’ve become a fan of the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, even as I type that, I know that “fan” is probably not quite right. It is hard to be a “fan” of this horrific, dystopian vision of the future. Perhaps a better description is “captivated viewer.” And I confess, I am captivated. Not only have I watched the series, but I also read Margaret Atwood’s 1986 novel, upon which the show is based, and re-watched the earlier version on film, a movie by the same name which came out in 1990.
Reading and watching The Handmaid’s Tale has caused me to reflect deeply on the word “freedom.” In the words of Margaret Atwood,
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1986, 24).
Specifically, in the context of today’s passage, I have been thinking about what kind of freedom the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death”? Is he talking about freedom to, or freedom from?
The setting for Atwood’s story is the Republic of Gilead, a fictional nation located within the former borders of the United States of America. Gilead is a highly theocratic, totalitarian society. In this Republic everyone is under the watchful eye of spies and secret police who are viewed as being literally the eyes of God. These eyes report any activity that could be seen as going against the new order. Even in private conversation, the handmaids use the phrase, "under His eye" as a constant reminder of the fact that "He" is always watching everything they do and say, if not think.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a fertile young woman who has been taken captive by the government and assigned to bear a child for a wealthy and powerful couple, Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. Because of dangerously low reproduction rates that have occurred presumably as the result of human effects on the environment, the Waterfords and many other couples like them are childless. Women who are known to be able to get pregnant and carry children to term have been taken captive and forced into service as handmaids. If the women have previously had children, those children have been taken away and given over to be raised by wealthy, powerful and childless couples.
Offred is not the handmaid’s real name. The handmaid names consist of the word “of” followed by the name of the handmaid’s Commander. Thus, “Offred” is the handmaid of Fred. When the handmaids are moved to a different household, their names are changed to signify their new master.
Offred’s freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She can leave the house only on shopping trips; the door to her room cannot be completely shut; and the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force, watch her every public move.
In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, the only freedom that continues to exist for most people is the freedom of personal thought. All other freedoms have been stripped away. And for some, even the freedom of personal thought has been deeply tainted—by circumstances, by brainwashing, by intimidation and fear. Every person seems to be aware of being both watched over and charged with the task of watching over others in order to maintain the imposed social order. No one is safe and everyone is, to use the words of Margaret Atwood, “under His eye.”
It is a chilling vision of not just a social order run amok, but of God. For in Atwood’s world, God is not the grace-filled, loving, inclusive and accepting God that we see in Christ Jesus. God is the polar opposite of Paul’s description of the one who refuses to condemn, and who, instead, offers total freedom from the law of sin and death. It is the opposite of those who, in Christ, have found the freedom to walk in the Spirit.
In the Republic of Gilead, the way to live, that is, the way to stay alive, is to closely follow the many laws set into place by the regime. It is to give up individual will entirely and conform to the laws of the Republic. The life of the individual and the life of the Republic both depend on following these laws “of the flesh,” to use the apostle Paul’s terminology. These laws are strict for everyone, but are especially hard on women.
What are some of the laws? Well, according to the story, they are laws based on a very few biblical texts, interpreted literally. According to the author,
In the book, the Constitution and Congress are no longer: The Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew. . .
In the novel the population is shrinking due to a toxic environment, and the ability to have viable babies is at a premium. (In today’s real world, studies are now showing a sharp fertility decline in Chinese men.) Under totalitarianisms — or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society — the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids. The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, 12 sons — but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives.
Margaret Atwood, writing about her novel in The New York Times, March 2017.
The writers of the Hulu series have taken liberties with Atwood’s story. They have updated the setting to the near future. Many of the details regarding the lives of the main characters have been changed so that, as the producers of the series have indicated, the story can continue and be developed into a second season and possibly beyond, that will presumably take watchers far beyond Atwood’s original vision for the story.
Everything in the world of Gilead is about what humans do for God to earn God’s favor and forgiveness. This is a world of strict regulations and singular, black and white interpretations of the meaning of Scriptures. This is a world in which God is angry with humankind. God is waiting in the wings for human slip-ups that will warrant God’s wrath. Humans—men in particular—are the arbiters of God’s will, and their decisions are based on what they deem to be Biblical principles.
Rome during the time of Paul’s writing was no Puritan enclave. Nor was it Gilead. Rather, the Christians in Rome found themselves faced with a unique problem in a unique time and place.
The issue on the table, both figuratively and literally, was the coexistence of two groups with different interpretations of what it means to practice the Christian faith. The historical record indicates that in the late 40s CE, for some reason, a large number of Jewish people living in Rome were forced to leave. Emperor Claudius ordered the expulsion, which remained in place until at the death of Claudius. Nero became emperor of Rome and reversed the order, at which point the expelled Jewish people returned to their home city.
So the Christians bore conflicted feelings about people of Jewish descent living in Rome. During the years when the Jewish population was gone, the fledgling Christian community experienced a rise in Gentiles who had come to the faith. Now with the Jewish population returning, the question for the community of faith was whether it should continue to concentrate on winning Jewish people to Christ or concentrate on the Gentiles. Paul makes his position clear in the first chapter, when he writes, “God’s power for salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 NRSV). For Paul, all meant all, so the Christians in Rome were obligated to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians harbored significant differences in their cultural traditions and practices. Some of these differences revolved around food taboos, but there were other problems as well. Paul suggests that there are some practical things about which people of faith can disagree, but these differences should not impair the community’s worship of God or life together in Christ. (See Romans 14:1-12).
What was true for Rome during the time of Paul is also true for us. Perhaps it is a word we need to hear especially during this present day, in which there seems to be so much disagreement between Christians regarding cultural tradition, faith, and practice.
Paul’s words do not portray God as the divine judge waiting in the wings to punish those who do not follow the law as in Atwood’s fictional world of Gilead. Nor do they portray God as one who chooses one side or position of faith over another. For Paul, all means all: “For there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8: 1-2, NRSV).
These words come to us like a healing balm of hope. They wash over us like the very waters of baptism that signaled our acceptance into Christ’s body. They remind us that we are made one in the body of Christ, so that there Is no longer slave or free, Gentile or Jew, male or female, us or them. We are one and we can remain united as one, not because of what we do, but because of what God has done for us in Christ.
Indeed, we are “under His eye” as people who are called to reach out in loving acceptance and welcome to all God’s people, no matter who they are, how they live, what traditions they bring from their culture, or their present state of sinfulness. In Christ Jesus, we have all been set free from the limits of the flesh, and in that freedom is hope, joy, grace, and peace for all God’s people.