I was reading a book review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Diamond posits that there are things we can learn from traditional societies. What caught my attention in the book review was the example of how a society’s customs can become so entrenched even if they are senseless.
Diamond wrote that the Kaulong people of New Guinea, until 1957, practiced the ritual of strangulation of widows (it appears that it was just females who were strangled). There was no evidence that this practice helped the Kaulong society in anyway, but none-the-less it was so embedded in societal belief that a female widow would insist that her male relative strangle her after her spouse died. If the male relative refused to do the dastardly need, the widow would taunt or mock him about his manhood.
HOW DO SUCH CUSTOMS START?
This raises the question, which cannot be answered in this short blog, how do such customs start? A Liberian pastor told me a story that is a great example of how these strange customs may begin.
A number of different missionaries have served in Liberia. In one particular instance a church was formed under the careful oversight of a missionary couple. They not only brought their Christian convictions to the Liberians, but also worked at teaching them techniques to keep them healthy. One of the things that the missionaries emphasized to the congregants was the importance of boiling water before they drank it so that they would stay healthy. After the missionaries were gone (or died – I don’t know which), it became established in the church’s theology that no one could be a true Christian unless they boiled their drinking water. After all that is what the missionaries had said they should do.
I laughed when the pastor told me this, and I grimaced when I read the story about the Kaulong widows. Both stories have made me think about what customs I may have ingrained in my own personal and religious life that makes no sense at all and actually could harm relationships that I have with others.
MY OWN PERSONAL EXAMPLE
Let me share a personal example. I grew up in a rural area with Southern customs. It was a given when a man came into the house from farming or any other task, he always was expected to take his hat off. I soon learned that the removal of your hat showed proper respect, while not removing it made your character questionable. I had seen both my grandmother and my mother correct young men who were at our dining room table when they had not removed their hats. I can still hear the refrain, “Young man, in our house, a man always removes his hat.”
Just a few years ago, my daughter brought home a date (who is now her husband). I was dismayed when he did not take off his knit cap when he came into our house. When he left I informed my daughter that a “young man in our house always removes his hat.” To his credit the next time he came he immediately took off his cap.
Soon after this experience, I was telling a friend who is a few years older than I am about it. She looked at me quizzically and asked if I really wanted to make the taking off of a hat an issue. She informed me that times have changed and young men don’t necessarily take off their hats when they enter a house. Though she did not ask, the question left hanging in the air was “Is wearing a hat in the house really a character flaw?”
I had to step back and look at my own ingrained belief and concluded that wearing a hat in the house was neither disrespectful nor a character flaw. It was a belief that I needed to let go of.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY (OR BLOG)
There is nothing wrong with having customs that are a part of our family, community, or church culture. However if a custom has no benefit, then don’t hold on to it if it will hurt a relationship or cause anyone harm.
What is a Think Through? it is an idiom that conveys the meaning of carefully considering possibilities and outcomes of a situation.
Today’s Think Through: What custom do you have, or was imposed upon you, that became a stumbling block even though there was no benefit to it?
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