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Prayer and unprayer: the practice of faith amidst the terror of Gilead

Thursday, 17 May 2018  | Megan Powell du Toit

Last year, many Christians complained about what they saw as anti-religion bias in The Handmaids Tale first TV season (for example, see here and here). I suggested instead that ‘it is anti-fundamentalist, or anti-religion that is used to dominate and coerce. There are hints of religion serving, instead, the opposite function’.

A quick recap for those who haven’t been keeping up: The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near future America, in which a fundamentalist patriarchal cult has taken control. Dwindling fertility means that some fertile women are forced into the role of handmaids to commanders – the high status men of power – and their wives. These handmaids are used to bear children for the commanders and their wives in a twisting of the Old Testament use of concubines. My review of the first season gives some more background.

Moving into a second season, the different ways faith can function within society has become much more explicit as a theme. In doing so, the series asks the tough questions found at the heart of faith:

Where is God when we suffer?

How do we deal with sin?

Does prayer work?

Indeed, prayer is central to this exploration of faith in season 2.

Those of us who watched – suffered through? – season 1 could hardly imagine that the series could become more confronting. The last season ended on a high note. The handmaids refused to stone one of their own, thus saving her from death. The second last scene was of the handmaids marching together to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, an image of the power of solidarity. We then saw June taken away. There was uncertainty as to the fate of the handmaids, but a strange flicker of hope.

Season 2 opens with June arriving at a stadium with the other handmaids. They enter to see a line of nooses. The women are herded on to a platform, and their necks are noosed. Although we as the viewers suspect this is a ruse – after all, it’s only the first episode – the women are terrified. But it is, as suspected, a tactic of terror. The women are spared, a reminder that after all the power of life and death sits within the grasp of the oppressors.

It is at this moment that the first real prayer of the season is uttered, if we discount one quick formulaic phrase. And this prayer is starkly confronting. June responds to the mixed relief of continued life by saying:

Our Father, who art in Heaven. Seriously? What the actual f__?

I was echoing her sentiments. Though I knew she at least must be spared somehow, my heart was racing. June’s prayer echoes the cries of humanity down the millennia. It sounds like a contemporary psalm of lament. It is intriguing again that June, once more, in the midst of the horror of an oppressive religious regime, turns to God in prayer. Her continued prayer life is more surprising than her anger. And, like June, we question the goodness of God. The moment of hope from the end of season 1 now seems to mock our naivety.

There are two more significant moments of prayer in this episode. One is by Serena, the high status wife of June’s commander, blessing June, or more specifically perhaps the child in her uterus. Here we are reminded that Serena also has faith, though it is one blinded to the suffering of those like June. Such a blessing feels more like a curse. And then, following quickly upon this blessing, is a goodbye from the ultrasound technician which departs from Gilead formula. ‘Godspeed’ he says, and this departure from the stock Gilead phrases alerts June to the possibility that he has left a means of escape. Perhaps, indeed, God will bless June and her unborn child. The ‘Godspeed’ suggests that the motivation behind his help is faith in God.

And June does escape, though only to the gloomy spaces of the abandoned offices of the Boston Globe in episode 2. Here we again see nooses, and realise that the left-of-centre journalists of the Globe have been the victims of a massacre. In one of the rare indications of June having belonged to a more institutional form of religion, she sets up a shrine to the victims, praying a Catholic prayer for the dead. This is, I think, the first instance of a more positive communal form of faith, though stripped of that community June is forced to pray by herself.

Meanwhile, one of the high status wives, played by Marisa Tomei, has found herself banished to the concentration camp-like environment of the Colonies. Nevertheless, ignoring the derision of the other women, she kneels and prays:

Dear God, thank you for your good and generous blessings.

Give me strength to perform your good works here on Earth.

This contrasts with June’s prayer of the first episode. Confronted with horror, instead of June’s angry honesty, we have what seems like pious platitude. She remains chained by the oppressive theology of Gilead, which allows no questioning.

Later poisoned by a victim of the regime, the wife keeps saying ‘God will save me’. Realising her death is on her, she asks her poisoner to pray with her, and is refused. Her prayer is answered with a lonely death. Is this judgment? Or is it indeed still a better death than the usual slow death of the Colonies? Or is it just what happens when humans hurt each other? It is difficult to know if God is at work, or if all faith is self-deception.

So far we have seen the sect-like religion of Gilead and the vestiges of Catholic tradition. In episode 3, we are introduced to another faith tradition, that of Islam, and again it is in a context of prayer. June is brought to the home of the next chain in her underground railroad, Omar. Hiding under his bed, she discovers his prayer rug and Quran. Again, one of the rebels is shown to be motivated by personal faith. But it doesn’t seem like this has helped him. It becomes increasingly clear that his rebellion has been discovered. And soon, so is June. Her freedom has been short-lived and, so far, no prayer seems to have availed anyone.

So far four episodes have shown, and the fourth episode of this season is a low point, as it was also in the first season. There are 13 episodes in this season, so we know this low point isn’t the final word. But at this point June is returned to her life as a handmaid. Most of the prayer in this episode consists of the sanctimonious external expressions used as formulas in Gilead. Many such phrases occur in this episode – ‘praise be’, ‘praised be his mercy’, ‘blessed be the fruit’, ‘may the Lord open’. They signal social conformity and also serve to remind people of their place. Thus, they are unprayer – not directed at God at all, and often insincere. While it is usually the handmaids forced into insincerity, at a crucial moment in this episode the wives are also forced into lying prayer. June reveals that the baby has kicked in her womb, revealing herself as the unacknowledged mother at this parody of a baby shower. In a society in which fertility is prized above all, the wives must pretend joy and reluctantly utter a chorus of ‘praise bes’.

The time-hallowed tradition of June’s prayer for the dead is contrasted in this episode with a newly created prayer ritual involving the wives and handmaids. This mainly consists of the use of the verse ‘let the little children come to me’. This expresses a desire for the baby to arrive safely and be given to the wife, but is a misuse of a verse which is instead about those with childlike faith approaching Jesus. I don’t know whether this is intentional or not but, for someone who knows the original meaning, it seems that Serena is usurping the place of Jesus. The prayer then has become again unprayer – directed away from personal relationship with Jesus and instead into human devised ritualism, almost a magical incantation.

While the series seems to be advocating personal relational prayer over the conformity of ritual, it does so in a troubled way. It isn’t clear so far that personal prayer can move the heart of God. In order to bring June to heel, she is shown the dead body of Omar, the Muslim man who helped her. His prayerful faith hasn’t helped him. His selfless attempts to help June have ended in his death, his wife now a handmaid and their child torn from them. June is broken by this realisation. Flashbacks during this episode reveal her guilt over her adultery. She also is devastated by the realisation that all the handmaids have suffered due to her leading them into rebellion. Omar is the final straw. June decides to hide her shame by mental assent to the role of Offred (her handmaid name), a name she has hitherto rejected in her own self-identity.  

There are two more significant prayers in this episode. At her lowest point, June is visited by Serena who has come to pray over the baby, completely ignoring June in the process. She uses the words of Julian of Norwich, crooning ‘all will be well, and all will be well’. For June, at this point nothing is well, and it is unclear whether anything can be well again. These words of Julian are words of hopeful trust because of the surpassing love of God. They are strange, then, dripping from the lips of this representative of a distinctly unloving regime. The love of God, or at least God’s ability to fix anything, is in question at this point.

This heartbreaking episode ends with the broken June praying herself away. Yet ironically, in this naked vulnerable prayer, June is again shown as one of the most authentic selves of the series, approaching God from a place of honesty. She begs: ‘Please God, let Hannah (her daughter) forget me, let me forget me’. This act of self-negation could be seen as the moment of spiritual transcendence in some traditions, but here it is defeat.

It seems clear then that a personal relational faith is being preferenced over a more institutional or even communal form. However, the use by June of her Catholic tradition suggests a more nuanced approach: that faith traditions that have nurtured the faith of generations may also have value. It will be interesting to see whether this possibility is brought out more as the season proceeds.

Yet against this, at this point in the season, is a prevailing despair. Prayer so far this season has helped no one. And yet… and yet June still prays. Though we hope that this time God does not answer this prayer, for we do not want June to admit defeat and submit to being Offred.

This season has examined the practice of prayer in a depth often missing from Christian discussions of the topic. So far it has been at the centre of each episode. Real prayer has been contrasted with unprayer. Prayers we want answered seem almost mocked by God, and now we are left with a prayer that moves us in its pain and yet we cannot but hope that God gives a definite no to it. Prayer itself has also served to lay bare the problems of suffering and guilt. The writers show a knowledge of our prayer heritage – the Lord’s Prayer and Julian of Norwich getting nods so far. And so I feel confident in predicting that prayer will continue to weave a story of the role of faith in the midst of trouble as the season progresses. It seems to me, though, that prayer makes best sense when we know the High Priest who intercedes for us. So far, Jesus is remarkable in his absence from Gilead. Will he continue so? I find myself wanting to pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publishing Manager of the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium. With honours degrees in both theology and literature, she finds the arts a fertile ground for the theological imagination.

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