“Even in the face of serious social discrimination, holy women have acted ‘freely,’ strengthened by their union with Christ. …In every age and in every country we find many ‘perfect’ women (cf. Prov. 31:10) who, despite persecution, difficulties and discrimination, have shared in the Church’s mission.”
— Mulieris Dignitatem 27
In 1976, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote in an academic article, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Today, that phrase is a popular bumper sticker and a motto of sorts for the profanity-laden feminist website Jezebel.
Today’s Mass readings speak of the real-life Jezebel, who was by no means a well-behaved woman. We read in 1 Kings 21 that Jezebel arranged for a good man, Naboth, to be denounced and stoned to death—all so that her husband, King Ahab, could unjustly seize his vineyard. Through promoting such violence, Jezebel did indeed make history—but not in a manner that does her any credit.
Jesus in today’s Gospel offers a different way of making history, one that can be taken up by men and women alike. In Matthew 5, as he gives his Sermon on the Mount, he presents the principle of nonviolence, which was as radical in his time as it is today.
“Offer no resistance to one who is evil,” Jesus says. “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matt 5:39).
These words of Jesus, understood rightly, are not an exhortation to put up with abuse. Indeed, to permit violence to continue—when one has the power to stop it—is a sin against love of neighbor. It is not loving to enable a person to sin and thereby separate himself from God.
Jesus, in exhorting us to turn the other cheek, is rather instructing us that the answer to violence is not more violence—it is peace. Building peace, therefore, requires that we do the hard work of rethinking our response to violence, channeling our efforts into initiatives that are positive and constructive rather than negative and destructive.
One great witness to the Gospel of nonviolence was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, whose cause is up for canonization. “Love is not killing,” Day wrote. “It is the laying down of one’s life for one’s friend.”
Day’s commitment to nonviolence often made her a rebel in the eyes of the law. To FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, she was a “very erratic and irresponsible person.” Yet there is little doubt that, in the eyes of Our Lord, she was a well-behaved woman indeed—and, unlike Jezebel, her history is celebrated in heaven and on earth.
Image: Dorothy Day’s last meeting with Mother Teresa. This occurred in Dorothy’s room at Maryhouse in Manhattan. Eileen Egan is on the left. The photo was taken in 1979, the year before Dorothy’s death, by Bill Barrett. (Marquette University Archives)(License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0)