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A Republic and a Kingdom

America. The near future. Society has run to seed. Promiscuity, prostitution and sexual degeneracy are rife. Abortion, contraception, nuclear radiation, toxic waste and STDs are taking a worrying toll on birth rates. Women are objectified, degraded by pornography, at risk of sexual violence. This unwholesome nation is in desperate need of the reinstatement of some good old-fashioned Biblical values.

And so (according to Margaret Atwood's awfully superb work of dystopian speculative fiction 'The Handmaid's Tale') a subtle coup is staged. An apparent terrorist attack destroys the President and most of Congress, and throws the country into a state of emergency. The Constitution is suspended. The "Sons of Jacob" movement sets to work "restoring order". Non-white people are shipped to "appropriate" homelands. Women are returned to their "rightful" stations, as baby-makers and domestics. It becomes illegal to employ them, and at any rate impossible to pay them as they no longer have the right of ownership -- the centralised, electronic banking system makes it all too easy to simply freeze all accounts held by females and transfer all funds to male relatives. Men are tasked with policing this new order, or sent to the front in combat to enlarge the borders of the Republic. Resistants and non-conformists are publicly and brutally dispatched, or exiled to "The Colonies" to farm or clean up battle fields and toxic waste. The new regime is highly militarised and hierarchical. There are colour-coded uniforms for all. Religious observance is mandatory. There is constant surveillance, pressure to inform, suspicion on every side. Any sort of meaningful human contact requires good fortune as well as meticulous planning to evade discovery -- discovery which could well spell torture and/or death.

The Republic of Gilead: someone's idea of an ideal, rather too easy to envisage for my liking, all straight (hmmm) from the pages of the Good Book. Conveniently selected excerpts, that is, taken out of context and frequently misquoted...
It's the usual story, the usual stories. God to Adam, God to Noah. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. Then comes the mouldy old Rachel and Leah stuff we had drummed into us at the Centre. Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. And so on and so forth. We had it read to us every breakfast... (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, Chapter 15)
This latter allusion to Genesis 29-30 is how the regime justifies its demanding and shocking childbearing policies. High-ranking couples who are unable to conceive are entitled to a 'handmaid' -- a live-in female servant whose role it is to lie back once a month and do her best to become impregnated by the husband in a bizarre sexual ceremony (which also involves the wife in a passive, symbolic capacity). Most of the women assigned to this particular station are considered previously 'disgraced' in some way -- adulterers, divorcees, single mothers, nuns -- and are offered a stark choice between gynaecological servitude and the Colonies.
For lunch it was the Beatitudes. Blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a tape, so not even an Aunt would be guilty of the sin of reading. The voice was a man's. Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when. (The Handmaid's Tale, Chapter 15)
A distortion of Jesus' famous hilltop sermon (see Matthew 5), used here to instil a submissive attitude in the handmaids-in-training. As the protagonist remarks elsewhere, there's no mention of 'inheriting the earth' in the re-telling. She has some sense of the mismatch between the force-feeding she endures and what the Bible actually communicates, but no opportunity to check -- because, naturally, women are no longer allowed to read, and especially not the Bible. It's "kept locked up, the way people once kept tea locked up, so the servants wouldn't steal it. It is an incendiary device: who knows what we'd make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?" (The Handmaid's Tale, Chapter 15)

Whatever Atwood's own views about the Bible may be, the "Christian" totalitarianism themes in The Handmaid's Tale are not a comment on "what happens when people take scripture seriously" so much as they are a gruesome exploration of what happens when people use it for their own ends -- create an ideology from the bits that suit and try to violently enforce it on society. Even within the book there is a sense that what has happened is painfully and oddly at odds with the source material cited as foundational to the regime.

By way of contrast...

Roman occupied Judea. c.33AD. Political, socioeconomic and, above all, religious tensions are rising. The hoped-for Promised Land is in the hands of a pagan empire; the people of Israel are forced to pay taxes and reverence to the Emperor -- a title increasingly associated with divinity on earth, and thus a far and blasphemous cry from the characterising monotheism of Judaism -- "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4) This can't be what God had in mind; the scriptures foretell an altogether different story; something must be done. Resistance movements have attempted to re-establish "God's way" of rule in Israel, but have been brutally crushed. What man can stand against the might of Rome?

And then, along comes Jesus. Something about him is...different. Such charisma! -- the crowds flock constantly about him. Such wisdom! -- his hearers are awed; his opponents silenced. But that is not all...such power...what is this? A word or a touch from him is enough to heal; dead people are restored to life; food is miraculously multiplied; he knows things he hasn't been told; even the very elements obey him. Do you know what this means? He could feed an army on the rations of a single soldier! He could regenerate the wounded in the heat of battle! He could lay bare the planned stratagems of the enemy by supernatural intelligence! He could summon tornadoes, or sandstorms, or tidal waves, or landslides... How easy it would be for him to overthrow the enemies of first century Israel and reinstate the people of God to their honoured rightful autonomy and status.

John records the crowd's reaction to the occasion when Jesus apparently caused two fish and five loaves to stretch around five thousand men, and their accompanying families, and with left-overs to spare: "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6:14-15) As usual, he has other things in mind: he doesn't desire the worldly honour that the people would bestow on him; he doesn't intend to use his power to rectify the immediate political and social challenges of the age.

And that's not the only end he doesn't have in mind. He doesn't use his power to bring down punishment on his opponents: "But the people [in a Samaritan village] did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them." (Luke 9:53-55) He doesn't even use his power to defend himself from his opponents -- in fact, he uses it to defend his opponents from his own disciples: "While he was still speaking, there came a crowd [...] And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him." (Luke 22:47a, 49-51)

Standing trial before Pilate, he explains himself a little: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)
Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:1-7)
It is pretty clear from the gospel accounts that the writers very much believed Jesus to have been more than capable of avoiding the tortuous punishment ultimately inflicted on him. Even the criminal hanging on the cross next to him taunted him with the rumours he had heard, railing “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39) And he could have done, by all reports, and -- powerfully -- didn't. Instead (a few verses earlier) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) And, when the other dying criminal at his side acknowledges him in humility and penitence, he reaches out -- not with rescue from his current bodily anguish, but with a promise of a greater hope...
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)
This is the kind of king Jesus is: the kind of king who humbles himself to serve, and die for, his disloyal people. Under his topsy-turvy rule, the first are last and the last are first (Matthew 20:16); those who would lead must serve (Matthew 20:25-28); those whom the world most scorns are valued most (James 2:5); the ideals of the world are capsized (Matthew 5:1-11). Moreover, his kingdom is "near", and it is not like other kingdoms -- “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). It begins to manifest wherever there are willing subjects, in the lives of those who follow the king's example of radical humility and servant-heartedness. This, not human might and manipulation, is what really has the power to "turn the world upside down" -- an accusation made against the early Christians (Acts 17:6), which I'm sad to say I'm seldom guilty of.


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