The Subversive Role Of Religion In The Handmaid's Tale

When Nick Blaine (Max Minghella) was a kid growing up in Michigan, he probably never thought he’d be married to a child bride in a mass ceremony. Yet there he found himself: Standing in a row of suited men, handed a ring he didn’t pick out, and facing a complete stranger who should be in ninth grade, not getting married. In the span of five years, marriage in the United States went from being a joyful occasion bonding two consenting individuals together to being a violating ceremony consigning people to fulfill the mission of a rigid theocratic state. Nick and his new wife, Eden (Sydney Sweeney), are joined together in holy matrimony to further the thesis of Gilead: making Gilead-worshipping babies, and saving humanity from a plague of infertility.
Nick and Eden’s wedding wasn’t the only one seen on yesterday’s episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. The other ceremony took place in the Colonies, where society’s rejected women toil to their deaths and the watchful eye of Gilead isn’t so sharp. When the lights go out in the Colonies' living spaces, women can transgress. They can love one another. They can practice their faiths. And as last night’s episode showed, they can get married.
After witnessing the love between Fiona (Soo Garay) and her dying lover, Kit (Novie Edwards), Janine (Madeline Brewer) decides to organize a wedding. As Kit is on the precipice of death, the Colonies' resident rabbi facilitates an impromptu, tear-filled marriage ceremony. The women hand each other flowers pulled from the radioactive soil. Even in this ravaged landscape, flowers bloom; even in this wretched society, love grows.
Juxtaposed with the disturbing wedding seen earlier in the episode, the Colonies-set wedding calls back to a more organic understanding of the divine. The Prayvaganza wedding was all about adherence to dogma and humanly devised ritual. The brides entered the room mechanically; the rings were handed over like clockwork. The vows weren’t exchanged by the bride and groom, but rather were administered by a white man with a booming voice. Gilead only exists because of ceremonies like this one, which replace individual expression with the will of the state. With each Commander-Wife-handmaid ceremony, Prayvaganza wedding, and “under his eye” greeting, Gilead is internalized. God, here, is manufactured through fear and ceremony.
But the opposite of the Prayvaganza wedding isn’t a wedding devoid of religion. Kit and Fiona are married by a rabbi in a Jewish ceremony, after all, not in City Hall. That's because the opposite of Gilead’s warped version of Christianity isn’t atheism — it’s a tight, stubborn grip on an older, kinder, more merciful understanding of a God who accepts everyone. “I told her [Kit and Fiona] are not Jewish, but she says God doesn’t care,” Janine tells Emily (Alexis Bledel), during the wedding.
While the comparison between the Colonies and the Prayvaganza weddings is its most overt occurrence, pre-Gileadean religion has been a subtle motif this season of The Handmaid’s Tale. After June understands the massacre that occurred at the Boston Globe headquarters, she builds a shrine to the victims and prays, for the first time, out loud. “Please send your holy Angel to watch over this place. To Christ our Lord, Amen,” she says, mentioning Christ, a New Testament figure who is largely absent from Gilead. Then, while she’s hiding out in Omar’s (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Econohome, she stumbles upon their secret. He and his wife hide a Quran and a prayer mat underneath their bed. People cannot give up pieces of themselves so easily.
It’s no coincidence that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been mentioned this season. The Handmaid’s Tale is positioning a pre-Gileadean understanding of religion as part of the resistance. Arguably, the most beautiful moment in the entire show — Kit and Fiona’s wedding – arose from the invocation of the divine. Religion isn’t the enemy in The Handmaid's Tale. Rather, a fundamentalist, oppressive expression of it is.
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