CULTURE MADE ME DO IT
Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. We can assume that Mr. Johnson meant that scoundrels will sometime use patriotism, a thing noble in itself, as an excuse for poor behavior. Sometimes it seems that culture has taken the place of patriotism as that last refuge.
By culture, in this discussion, we mean the socially transmitted behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. Some of these socially transmitted behaviors are neither good nor bad, in and of themselves. The English play cricket, Americans play baseball, Brazilians play soccer. Each is merely a matter of preference and has no negative or positive moral aspect by itself.
Some people will try to tell us that almost everything, is culturally relative. That is, it is neither good nor bad except in the context of its own particular culture. They usually sum up their pronouncements with “It’s all relative, there is no right and no wrong.” The response to such drivel is, of course, to ask: “If I disagree, am I wrong?”
Let’s remember we are discussing behavior, beliefs and attitudes. How do we, as Catholics judge all behaviors, beliefs and attitudes? Such culture must be held up to the standard of the Gospel message as taught by the Church.A few examples will be helpful. In Korean culture, Korean mothers carry their infants on their backs. When a woman reaches the age of 65 years, her entire family will gather in celebration. At this gathering her eldest son will hoist his mother on his back and carry her around the room as family and friends applaud. The point of the ceremony is to demonstrate the passing of the duties. As the mother carried the son on her back and cared for him when he was helpless, so now the son will care for the mother when she is elderly.
When held up to the standard of the teaching of Jesus Christ and his Church this aspect of Korean culture seems to fit the Christian message perfectly. It would be difficult to create a more perfect symbol of Christian charity and fidelity in honoring the commandment to honor thy father and mother. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that, until recently, Korea had almost no contact with Christianity of any kind.
Does this individual “socially transmitted behavior” mean that Korean culture is a perfect reflection of the Gospel? Hardly. Koreans are known for being as rude as New Yorker cab drivers, penurious, selfish, pushy and conniving. Don’t ever try to get over on a Korean shopkeeper or you will rue the day.
A little closer to home, we can look at the “socially transmitted behavior and attitudes” in some of the southern states in America. Southern folks are well-known for their hospitality and graciousness. They have a knack for welcoming all people and making them feel at home. It would be hard to find a more endearing way of following the command to “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7). It is also no secret that until relatively recently that same hospitality came to a halt if the guest’s skin tone got a shade too dark.
This is not meant to point fingers at anyone. The point is that Christian behavior and attitudes can sit side by side with extremely un-Christian behavior and attitudes in the same culture. Every behavior, attitude and belief, must be examined and held up to the standard of the Gospel message. It doesn’t matter how long you have done it, if your grandfather taught it to your father, who lovingly passed it on to you. If it’s wrong, don’t do it. If you should do it, then do it.
The Catholic Church is an old hand at the culture business. She knows, like any good mother, that her children are a work in progress. It takes time to transform centuries of practices and habits (CCC 854). Sometimes it can seem like one step forward and two steps back. But that doesn’t mean we ever quit.The transformation of culture, like the formation of a conscience, is a lifelong task. We all have our part to play. We must never accept “It’s our culture” as an excuse for poor behavior. We must also ensure that culture does not become a refuge for any scoundrel in ourselves.
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Published by The Minnesota St. Thomas More Chapter of Catholics United for the Faith, June 2007.