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The Beatitudes: A Cautionary Tale

Susan Rutkowski, MDiv
Pastoral Minister of Family Religious Education and Social Justice
January 27, 2023


Here are some beatitudes I was raised on:

Be feminine. Girls don’t need sports equipment…when asking for a baseball mitt for my first communion.

Be understanding. Your brothers are boys and your grandfather is old fashioned…when asking why my brothers were gifted new bikes and I wasn’t.

Be deferential. You’re in a male dominated field.  This is your shot to break in!…when asking why I was the only one sent to get coffee for the “team.”

Be humble. Don’t be greedy. You got the promotion, didn’t you?…when asking for an office to go along with my promotion.

Be a team player. You don’t want to be known as a whistleblower, do you?…when reporting sexual harassment to a boss.

Be satisfied.  Women have their own work and place in the church…when expressing frustration about not having the opportunity to even discern priesthood.

Be pretty, nice, modest, polite, a good girl, don’t make trouble, you’re lucky to be here…all “announced” by men. And I’m a cisgendered straight white woman.  We know treatment of those discriminated against because of race, sexual orientation, gender identification, disabilities, and religion is even worse.

In this weekend’s gospel, we hear the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – the Be Attitudes or Jesus’ attitudes for being in life. I have always wrestled with the beatitudes because I was never sure what to do with them. At best, they are as familiar as a favorite song or poem, or as Joan Chittister observed, “dismissed as poetic piety.” At worst, they are triggering and perpetuate stereotypes and violence against victims of discrimination and abuse, especially women who historically have been treated as inferior in most Christian religions, including our own Catholic church.

With these life experiences as context, I would sit in church, hear “blessed are the meek, persecuted and those who mourn and hunger for justice” and wonder why I should have to wait for the reign of God to be comforted, filled or shown mercy. It didn’t make sense. The lack of exegesis or pastoral response from the pulpit was striking. Never did I hear the word “meek” put into context or a pastoral response to the negative connotation of so many of these terms. Indeed, in my lifetime, I’ve only heard one priest address violence against women in a homily.

A contemporary Catholic response to violence against women only happened in 1992 with the Bishops’ statement When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women. The battered women’s movement along with mounting research in churches, found phrases like “blessed are the meek” indicate people believe God wants them to exercise meekness in the presence of oppressors. In this context, many assume the term means weak, tame, deficient in courage. Abusers use these teachings and passages to justify their abuse. National surveys show 27% of husbands think slapping a spouse could be normal. Ah! Consequently, for those of us bred in a patriarchal family, profession(s) and church, we experience “only” frustration and confusion at uncontextualized passages, but it becomes downright dangerous for someone leaving Mass to return home to an abuser.

Most women don’t pursue a divinity degree, study the pertinent Hebrew and Greek words/translations and/or understand what Jesus meant. Therefore, it is the responsibility of bishops, theologians, pastors and pastoral ministers to address this crisis when possible. I think of women in our community who have dedicated their lives to ending this torment and better understand the enormity of the problem after multiple moms in my residential community have entrusted me with “safe words.” Rape culture continues unchecked and the World Health Organization continues to declare domestic violence a global health crisis ten years later. But this reflection isn’t about anger, it’s a call to action for justice.

Thus, to do due diligence, the third beatitude, blessed are the meek, is from one of the great Psalms of encouragement (Ps 37:11). The Hebrew word that is later translated to “meek” in the Greek language, does not suggest weakness. It means accepting God’s guidance and being grounded in the truth of reality.  It is a disposition before God, namely, humility. When the text is translated from Hebrew to Greek, the Greek word praus is used, commonly translated as “meek,” which refers not to a person in the presence of God but rather describes relationships between people. It is the positive moral quality of dealing with people kindly with humility and consideration (Jesus’ “gentle and humble of heart.”) The variance between the Hebrew and Greek resulted in translators’ reluctance to grapple with the interpretation of Jesus’ words. Consequently, English translations use the word “meek” without rendering the Hebrew or nuanced meanings of the root of the Greek word praus. Given the negative connotations of meek as passive submissiveness in modern English, it can too easily be misunderstood.

The call of the Beatitudes is to humility, mercy, integrity, compassion, justice, peacemaking and courage. When interpreted responsibly, they can be the essence of personal development, the backbone of communal goodness, and a seedbed for the re-emergence of “the common good” in the 21st century (Chittister). These attitudes for being, characteristics of the blessed life, are ultimately God’s dream for us and our life together. They give us insight into the reign of God where discrimination, abuse and violence will live no more.