Much attention has been paid to the concept of “handmaid” in the Republican attempt to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. This phrase appears in Luke’s Gospel as a way of introducing Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the version of Scripture approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
The term has drawn attention because Judge Barrett once reportedly served as a “handmaid” in the conservative Christian group, People of Praise, which takes a fundamentalist view of women’s rights, seeing women as subservient to men. For ultra-conservative Christians, Mary becomes the impossible ideal for women—Virgin Mother—and has been represented throughout history in glorious iconography and stately porcelain statues depicting a docile saintly figure.
The title handmaid was further popularized in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, about a future where American democracy was overthrown and individual rights are shattered by a society that suffers from widespread sterility and where fertile “handmaids” hold a favored place as their bodies are used to perpetuate the race.
Evangelicals seize on the term as an honorific title for a woman who willingly allows for a social structure where women are subservient, leading to Supreme Court decisions that are anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and anti-Obamacare. Progressives shun the term for the same reason, arguing that—like in Atwood’s novel—women will lose agency for decades to come.
I would argue, however, that serious Biblical scholarship indicates both viewpoints miss the true nature of handmaid as revealed in the life and ministry of Mary. Two women of faith express this perspective better than I ever could:
In “The Pause Before Yes,” Debie Thomas, director of children’s and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California, writes, “Nothing about Mary feels straightforward or easy. Despite my familiarity with her story, the mother of Jesus strikes me as a woman shrouded in mystery, a woman whose “yes” raises as many questions as it answers…Part of the problem is that we’ve buried her under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. Some call her a victim of divine coercion. Others, ‘Theotokos,’ the Mother of God. For some, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity—ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. For still others, she is child prophet extraordinare—a young girl who fearlessly announced the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth.”
And theologian Carolyn Sharp adds, “What does it mean to wait for God in a broken world? What does it mean to wait in a time in which God’s promise of redemption is met by the despair of the poor, the greed of those who exploit others, and the rage of those who commit violence?…Mary had some thoughts on that. Her Magnificat is a powerful poem that holds together the grittiness of life on the margins and the resilient hope of those who trust in God. Mary found herself pregnant and not yet married in an ancient culture in which coercive control of female sexuality was a primary measure of masculine honor. Mary faced an uncertain future at best and devastating retribution from her community at worst…So I don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat…but as a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future. Mary’s courageous song of praise is a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life.”
This is the image of “handmaid” that I commend to Judge Barrett and ask that she carry with her into her job as Supreme Court Justice. I respectfully request that she honors her commitment to “choose life,” in all its aspects, including the lost and the loveless, the marginalized and the oppressed, those in need of expansive health care and those who find faithfulness apart from Christianity. I implore her to see her calling in the words of her spiritual mentor, Mary, who proclaims in her great poem, the Magnificat: “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
If Judge Barrett can be a “handmaid” to such ends then I, for one, will welcome her onto the Supreme Court.