Culture and Its Implications for Christian Counseling
Author: Dr. Radha Paul
Culture and its impact on human life
Culture, according to The Collegiate Encyclopedia by Merriam Webster, “ is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behaviour that is both a result of and integral to human kind’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. Culture thus consists of language, ideas, beliefs, customs, taboos, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, ceremonies and symbols……..An individual’s attitude, values, ideals and beliefs are greatly influenced by the culture or cultures in which he or she lives.”…
The above description of culture shows clearly how pervasive culture is in the life of the human beings and of human society. There is hardly any aspect of human life in society that is not touched by the norms and expectations of the culture into which the individual is born or to which he/she is exposed as he/she grows up. From the time of conception, nay even before that and till the time of death and even after death, culture exercises deep influence through the various customs, traditions, beliefs and practices. And so, in most of the traditional societies such as India, there are norms regarding the choice of the marital partner, about the sexual union of the husband and wife, about pregnancy and child birth, about child rearing practices, about mile stones in the development of the individual, about roles and relationships during different stages of one’s life, about death and thereafter. These norms, prescriptions and proscriptions are internalized by the individual through various formal and informal methods adopted by these societies. These norms, beliefs and practices are handed down from generation to generation, and thus become characteristic of these societies. Even in the so-called modern or postmodern societies, there are several such culturally prescribed norms that govern the individual’s behaviour. In fact, no human society is free from such cultural rules and regulations.
Such cultural regulations exercise social control over the life of human societies without which orderly life in society will not be possible. Violating these regulations carry consequences for the individual and other significant people connected to the individual. Culture therefore, is indeed a powerful factor in human life.
Culture & implications for counseling
Counseling depends much on understanding the situation of the client, the way in which the client is handling his/her life situation, the beliefs, prejudices, attitudes etc that influence the manner in which the client is reacting to the situation and how far he/she sees himself/herself dealing effectively with the situation. All these are influenced by the culture to which the client belongs.
A culture that believes that every problem is due to one’s fate or due to the sins one has committed in one’s previous birth will definitely influence the client’s accurate understanding and acceptance of the role of various factors in the problem. The cultural expectations regarding the role and behaviour of the client will affect how he or she is able to take necessary steps for handling the problem effectively.
For example, in India, the role of a woman in the family and society is very much defined by the culture.
Right from childhood the girl is prepared to accept and play a subordinate role in the family, both before and after marriage. If such a role definition has been internalized by the woman, it will influence her way of reacting to or dealing with problems in her marriage such as abuse, violence, being treated without dignity etc. Being assertive about her rights as an individual to be treated with dignity will not be easy for such a woman. Demanding her legitimate role in decision making in the family will be difficult. Expressing her views will be anxiety provoking.
Again, young people in India have been traditionally brought up in an authoritarian manner by the parents and elders in the family. The youths are expected to accept the parental authority without questioning the parents, particularly the father, or even expressing their own views The domineering pattern of parenting affects many a young person’s self esteem, self confidence and capacity to manage his/her life effectively as an adult.
As the culture changes, the youths are becoming more and more self-willed and they are not willing to be dominated by the parents. This leads to various tensions between the older and the younger generations in the family, in such areas as choosing one’s own career, choosing one’s life partner, spending time with friends, modern life style etc. Women too are becoming more conscious of their rights and this leads to several conflicts within them and outside as well.
Was Jesus Christ a Conformist?
It is very enlightening to see how Jesus modeled His healing and teaching ministry while He was on this earth. There were situations where He readily conformed and expected others to conform. But there were several other situations where He openly challenged and broke the culturally expected norms of behaviour.
After healing a leprosy-affected man, Jesus asked him to go and report to the Religious authorities, as was the custom. According to Jewish custom, derived from the Law of Moses, the religious authorities had to certify that he was healed of his leprosy. Jesus did not question this custom at all. He was willing to subject not only the healed man but also Himself, the Healer, to the particular law even though He definitely did not need anyone else’s review or validation or endorsement of what He did!
Though He was the Son of God, and Mary and Joseph were very well aware of it, the scripture tells us that Jesus was obedient to His earthly parents.
But there was an occasion when He made His mother and brothers wait outside while He was busy with His teaching. – Not a respectful way of treating one’s mother and siblings! Why did He behave like that? Because it was more important that His listeners should know the difference between earthly relationships and relationships in the Kingdom of God.
There were several occasions when Jesus defied openly the cultural norms of behaviour, even some sacred norms such as observing the Sabbath in the culturally expected manner. He healed people on Sabbath day. He supported His disciples when they were accused of plucking and eating the heads of corn from the field on a Sabbath day.
He did not give much importance to culturally prescribed rituals such as washing the hands before eating even though the Jews complained about it. He was not particular of observing the ritual fasting.
He did not observe the custom that a Jewish teacher was not expected to enter the homes of gentiles or “sinners” or eat with them. In fact He got Himself invited to the house of Zacchaeus the detested tax collector!
These were not conformist behaviour!
According to the Jewish culture, a Jewish man should never talk to a woman in public and never have anything to do with the Samaritans. Jesus violated both these rules in one go by having openly, a long conversation … in fact a deep theological discourse… with a Samaritan woman and that too a woman with dubious morals!
Though women’s position in Jewish society was lower than that of men, particularly in spiritual matters, Jesus had several women as His disciples. They attended His sermons. They accompanied Him in His journeys to different places. He was a close friend to Mary and Martha and visited their home. He commended Mary for choosing to listen to the word of God rather than conforming to the cultural expectations that women should attend to the hospitality for guests. The Bible says that there were some women who supported the disciples with their own resources. He allowed a woman living in sin to touch Him and wash His feet.
These were not conformist behaviour!
There were many cultural definitions of that society that Jesus rewrote because times had changed. Old definitions needed to be discarded and new definitions put in their place. It was no longer the era of the law; the era of Grace had been ushered in.
He redefined “ neighbour into a concept that had nothing to do with physical space or proximity but had everything to do with your responsibility to respond to human needs. The issue was not who was your neighbour, but whom were you a neighbour to!
He redefined the concept of adultery changing it from a physical action to a mental attitude.
His standard of tithing was not just obeying the letter of the law. He did not appreciate a Pharisee who had strictly followed the law of tithing by giving a tenth from his prosperity and keeping nine tenths for himself; Instead, Jesus compared him adversely to a poor widow who gave all from her position of poverty, leaving nothing for herself, though what she gave was insignificant for its monetary value.
His definition of righteousness was expressed when he considered the confessing and repenting tax collector to be more righteous before God than the self-righteous Pharisee who obeyed all the Jewish laws.
He redefined the law, which permitted the stoning to death of a woman caught in adultery; by adding a sub-clause; that read something like this:
“ provided, the person who throws the stone is himself free from sin.”
And strangely, He Himself, the only sinless person in that group of people, did not use the right! Instead He forgave her and asked her to change her life style
We can easily see that Jesus was no conformist; He was willing to defy the cultural norms of that society. He was willing to redefine concepts that differentiated between what was right and what was wrong.
Why did Jesus defy the cultural norms of His times?
What kinds of norms did Jesus defy and why? In what kinds of situations did He defy those norms? For whose sake did He defy the norms?
One of the recurring patterns that can be seen in these instances where Jesus defies culture and traditions or redefines concepts, is that He is involved in a helping relationship with someone who is in some kind of need; or else He is in a teaching relationship and sees the need for creating a different awareness in the minds of people who have been blindly following certain practices without questioning their relevance, thus tying themselves into knots of their own making. Or He is concerned about the wrong paths that people have chosen and wants to make them retrace their steps. Or He perceives the wasted, blocked resources of human beings, male or female, and wants to restore those inherent potentialities.
In the case of the Samaritan woman, obviously an outcast in her own community because of her life style, she needed help to become aware of her intrinsic value. She needed to be helped to change her life; She needed to be shown the eternal source of the “living water” .In short, she needed a life changing experience.
In the case of the woman caught in adultery, her tormentors needed to be confronted with their true selves; their hypocrisies and their hidden agendas had to be exposed. The woman herself had to be saved from continuing in her life of sin.
Sabbath had to be defied because of the priority to heal a human being .A woman who had been “bent” for 18 years needed to be “straightened” so that she could pull herself up to her full potential. Making a withered hand whole was much more important than observing the rules of Sabbath.
Many of the norms that Jesus defied were those that fettered the true selves of human beings.
Guiding principles from the Jesus model
We can see some guiding principles in Jesus’ defying the culture of His times:
Leading or restoring the human being to his or her true self, identity and potentiality is much more important than the routine observance of human made rules and regulations.
People have to be saved from being enslaved by the practices that human beings themselves have created and be redeemed to life in its freedom and fullness as God has planned.
When a higher priority is at stake, a lower priority can be overlooked.
The Jesus model tells us that when times change, definitions and goals have to be changed.
When times change roles and relationships have to be changed.
What lessons can a Christian Counsellor see in Jesus’s way of dealing with cultural factors?
“Do likewise,” said Jesus to the legal expert. That is what He is saying to the Christian Counsellor too. “ Do likewise” as Jesus did. The Jesus model is asking the Christian Counsellor as well as the client to examine whether the cultural practices are relevant, whether they have outlived their use, whether they are enhancing the client’s life or detracting from its quality, whether some of the customs, beliefs, and attitudes are against human rights and social justice, whether a higher priority is at stake than mere adherence to some cultural practices.
When such questions are asked, keeping Jesus as the model, the Counsellor will be able to see whether it is appropriate for a client to break away from some outmoded traditions; whether a woman client’s decision to move out of an abusive marital relationship is legitimate, whether the young client’s plan to be independent of the suffocating control of the parent can be considered reasonable. In other words, the Jesus model helps the Counsellor to look at culture not as the ultimate authority or yardstick in human decision making; it helps the counsellor to give culture just the place that it deserves.
Of course, the counsellor will have to judge whether the client has the strength and resources, internal as well as external, to accept the consequences of defying the cultural norms. The role of the Counsellor is to help the client see the different options before him /her and the pros and cons of the different options. And ultimately, it has to be the client’s informed decision.
No culture ever remains static; cultural changes are a continuing process. Certain aspects of the culture perhaps change more easily than others; certain new cultural practices are perhaps more easily accepted than others. The Christian counsellor therefore will have to have great discernment as to his or her role in the process of helping the client We need to differentiate between practices that have evolved due to several social, economic and historical contingencies of a society and those eternal values that should govern all humanity at all times and in all situations.
And there is only one authority to consult and check with in taking a stand as a Christian counsellor.
That authority is none other than Jesus Christ