CultureSacramentsTheological Anthropology

The Handmaid’s Tale and Human Dignity

“Cows don’t get married.”

This line comes from the second season of the Handmaid’s Tale, which, to put it mildly, is a very difficult show to watch, for a variety of reasons. [1] It is said in the context of a concentration camp where “unwomen” – women deemed worthless by the tyrannical government, Gilead – are condemned to die a slow death while working to clean up radiation poisoning. Janine, formerly a waitress and sexual assault survivor, has organized a marriage ceremony between two of her fellow “unwomen,” one of whom is on her deathbed. Janine and those around her are moved by the simple ceremony in the midst of what could accurately be called hell on earth, except for Janine’s friend Emily. Emily, who before being imprisoned and enslaved was a microbiology professor, can’t stand that Janine is “dressing up a slaughterhouse!” To this Janine responds simply, “Cows don’t get married.” 

By pointing to Janine’s response, I don’t intend to suggest that she is responding correctly and Emily is not. I’m supremely unqualified to judge how someone should respond in such a horrific situation, and even if I was qualified I don’t think I would be interested in that sort of judgment. What I am attempting to point out is an important truth contained within Janine’s words: oppression does not dehumanize people. Said differently, treating someone inhumanely does not change their humanity. Oppression has real consequences on those who suffer it – more on that later – but, in my experience, discourse around oppression all too often unwittingly takes away the agency and humanity of those people who suffer from oppression. 

Indeed, a common adjective used to describe horrible situations people are made to endure is “dehumanizing.” I myself have used this construction in the past when attempting to convey the depth of evil present in a situation. Yet, even with good intentions, this sort of language can actually reinforce the cycles of oppression. It does so by tacitly agreeing with the premise put forward by the people causing the abuse, namely that those suffering the abuse are less than human. The oppressors may say that those they are oppressing deserve such treatment because they are innately less than human, while those opposing the the abuse think that it is the abuse that has damaged the humanity of the oppressed, but both seem to agree that the oppressed group is now less than fully human – that the oppressed have been dehumanized. Janine’s simple response points to the fact that those labeled “unwomen” by Gilead retain their humanity and their dignity, regardless of what anyone does to them. 

However, we must hold in tension the real horror involved in situations similar to the fictional one depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale. In highlighting Janine’s response, there is a danger of failing to account for the very real suffering people endure. In the real world, this can happen when we, for example, focus purely on people like Frederick Douglass who heroically resist oppression and, through a combination of determination and luck, are able to fight their way to freedom. People who were unable to escape are not less human, not less worthy. 

Embodiment and Sacrament

To further examine this tension between the real damage of oppression and the humanity of the oppressed, I turn to womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland’s work on enslavement and sacrament. Her analysis fits especially well because the Handmaid’s Tale is depicting a fictionalized version of what happened to actual enslaved Black women in America, which raises important ethical questions that I don’t have room to explore here. [2]

In Copeland’s book Enfleshing Freedom, she explores Christian theology with a focus on Black – especially Black women’s – experience, embodiment, and sacramentality. Within this work she analyzes the existential afterlife of enslavement, how the experience of being enslaved continues to affect our world today. She notes that at the auction block where enslaved people were sold, 

bones, muscles, sinews, blood and nerves, of human beings, [were] sold with as much indifference as a farmer in the north sells a horse or sheep.’ Slavery blurred ‘the line between things and persons.’ The subjection of black bodies to exchange rates and the logic of the market wounded black being. [3]

Here Copeland painfully recognizes the real damage and trauma done to enslaved people, and the world we continue to inhabit. Because we are made in the image of God, she refers to these wounds as “another stigmata,” that simultaneously bears witness to the brutality of enslavement and “the enslaved people’s  moral grasp of the inalienable sacredness, dignity, and worth of their humanity.” [4] For, as many scholars have noted, enslaved Black people quickly recognized and rejected the hypocritical religious system that was designed to keep them in bondage and understood that the God of the Exodus and Christ were on their side in their struggle for freedom. [5]

In addition to wounding the oppressed, the sin of enslaving others – and sin generally – pollutes individual humans and human society. [6] The created order must then be healed from this pollution. “Sin is a personal and individual act,” she notes “yet it affects social or public institutions and structures.” [7] Drawing on the work of Bernard Lonergan, who was the subject of Copeland’s dissertation, she recognizes that sin has a kind of distorting effect on the world around us. Absurd notions like conflating people with property become reasonable, and humanity’s ability to operate in the world is impeded. 

What, though, for Copeland works to heal these wounds, this sin? She argues for a turn to the sacramental imagination. Sacraments, Copeland argues, 

form and orient us to creation, to human persons, and, above all, to the Three Divine Persons. Sacraments pose an order, a counter-imagination, not only to society but also to any ecclesial instantiation that would substitute itself for the body of Christ. [8]

Sacraments work to heal the distorted world created through sin, a world where Black oppression and white supremacy seem reasonable. And, while Copeland does discuss traditional sacraments like the Eucharist, she also sees human community as a kind of sacramental activity. Together, we who are made in the image of God can make Christ’s presence known on the earth. To quote Copeland, “Embodying Christ is discipleship, and discipleship is embodied praxis. This praxis is the embodied realization of religious, cognitive, and moral conversion.” 

It is important to note that Copeland focuses both on praxis and conversion. Praxis in Copeland’s theology is a fusion of theory and action – an embodiment of our theological commitments. True community, the kind of sacramental community Copeland is interested in, is not abstract but concrete. It is real people living and working for liberation together. And, conversion similarly has real world consequences for Copeland. It is the kind of metanoia described in the New Testament, a dying to the old self and living into a reality redeemed by Christ. Copeland again draws on Lonergan to theorize conversion, and while his system is informative it is also lengthy and complex. It is worth noting, however, that the goal of conversion for both Lonergan and Copeland is being in love with God. This kind of love works, in community, to hasten the departure of that which is evil and fleeting in our world, and actualizes the Kingdom instantiated by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. 

Conclusion

With Copeland’s theology in mind, we return to our original scene. Emily is rightly disgusted by what Gilead is doing to her and those around her. She recognizes the very real harm being done to individuals and the broader world, and the absurdity of enslaving women and working them to death in the midst of Gilead, which believes that it is enacting God’s will on earth. Yet, Janine is also right to recognize that her and her fellows retain their dignity and worth despite the brutality and inhumane treatment they have endured. Not only does Janine recognize their inherent, indestructible humanity, but she is working to create what, from a theological perspective, we can call a sacramental community. The marriage ceremony she orchestrates testifies to the human capacity for joy in the midst of immense suffering, condemns the society that deems her and those around her “unwomen,” and speaks to the power of sacramental community to make some small piece of renewed creation real despite the pollution of heinous sin. The existence of the sort of evil and suffering depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale remains a challenge Christians must wrestle with, but we can take some comfort in the fact that even if we find ourselves in hell, God remains with us.


View Sources
David Justice

David Justice

My research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. I primarily explore the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument I draw on his rootedness in the Black church and put King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. I am currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My wife Mariah and I have two kids who are adorable and love wearing us out. You can find me on social media @DavidtheJust

Previous post

Keep Scholasticism in the Schools

Next post

Is God Patient? (Part 3)