Counseling For Liberation
by Charlotte Ellen


We do not yet talk about how much we all are interdependent and need to relate to an equal, how challenging and beneficial that process can be, how often this need is thwarted, how little practice we get in it, and how much of our life is spent at the much more primitive level of learning how to be either one-up or one-down.

(1) Jean Baker Miller

The rumble of an approaching earthquake can be heard in the distance. As the ground shakes, unstable structures come crashing down. Damage is done; people are hurt. The landscape is rearranged. Sometimes new beauty arises from the destruction. A new mountain may begin to appear or a waterfall start its flow; a beautiful new city may rise from the rubble of the old one.

The rumbling upheaval in relationships between the sexes is much like a slow-motion earthquake. The rumbling is getting much louder and the motion is accelerating. Already, old "truths" are threatened. Our most cherished beliefs about women and men and how they should relate to each other are being challenged and are crumbling around us. Already we feel and hear the rumble in our homes and schools, our churches and offices, even -- perhaps especially -- in our bedrooms.

Much of our civilization is built upon a system of dominance-submission between the sexes. When the most basic relationship begins to change, everything else must change as well. It is difficult to predict what sort of society will emerge as we struggle toward more egalitarian relationships. Will we simply build something new on the same old fault? Or will the new structures be stronger, more beautiful, more enduring, more fully humanizing for both women and men?

The current revolution in roles has two basic thrusts -- to bring full equality of opportunity and treatment for women and men, and to end the hierarchical system which keeps some people on the bottom so others can be on the top. If these two things happen -- and they are surely interdependent -- a new and benevolent order of civilization may emerge in which every individual can lead a satisfying life. The very suggestion of such an outcome has an idealistic ring. But do we not inherit a faith which affirms the abundant life for all, not just for some? We know already that it is possible to bring together our most impossible dreams and our expertise in order to land ourselves on the moon. Would not a similar commitment allow us to realize the Arcadian vision of a human civilization which makes the fullness of life possible for everyone?

The church, like all other institutions of our society, has for 2000 years built its house of relationships between the sexes on a shaky foundation. The result has been equally dehumanizing, though in different ways, for both women and men. There are some signs of change, but there is still great resistance in the churches (and in the counseling professions) to a new view of human wholeness which would include women as well as men. The reluctance of many churches and church bodies to accept ordination of women is a case in point. Women ministers are still rejected by many lay persons of both sexes. Often they are assigned to low paying and low status jobs. There continues to be a dearth of women in pastoral counseling. Sexism as an ethical issue is largely ignored by the church and by its related bodies.

The "uniqueness" of pastoral counseling and of the minister as counselor has been taken to mean that these disciplines speak with an especially liberating power because of their great religious and biblical heritage. But to fully half the human race -- women -- the Judeo-Christian tradition has all too often not been liberating. "Perhaps the greatest pain women bear from the church is the verbal offer of liberation while being pushed to the periphery of the church's life and ministry."(2) It is time that "the truth that makes us free" be revived and reinterpreted to include all persons. It is time to raise new questions about what it is to be "human" as well as "religious" in the church, a setting which has almost always equated "human" with "male," and "male" with power and dominance, and has valued women chiefly as virgins, wives, mothers, servants or occasionally as saints.

Like the rest of society, the church is feeling the shaking of its foundations as women challenge their traditional roles with increasing vehemence. Change means pain, and the church is feeling that pain, as are the women and men who are the church. The pain for me as a woman who has grown up in the church is my awareness that pastoral counselors, ministers, and laypersons are all too often of a closed mind, deaf to the issue of sexism in the church. I often feel that the church may be the least hopeful place to put my time and energies. Will anyone listen? Will anyone hear? As I struggle to write this book, my pain often expresses itself in anger. I hope that you who read will not take my anger personally, but will use it to get in touch with your own. Often the awareness of anger at a repressive system is itself enough to stimulate change.

It has also been my experience in speaking and writing that some people do listen and some do hear and respond. This book is written out of my hope that "their number is increasing." And it isn't just women who are hearing; men are responding too. I feel a warm glow and a sense of affirmation when I learn of churches which are eliminating sexist language from their worship services and liturgy, of ministers who are studying and preaching about feminist theology and the Mother-Father God, of consciousness-raising groups and task forces on sexism in the church.

All good counseling is consciousness raising, that is, helping a client or counselee or parishioner to discover and nurture her or his full and unique humanness. Any theory or method of counseling is ethical and effective in nurturing individual and collective wholeness if it views every individual first as a person, rather than first as a woman or a man. We have for centuries made the mistake of equating femaleness and male- ness, which are biological terms, with femininity and masculinity which are cultural terms. What the upheaval in changing roles and identities is making clear is that the feelings and behaviors traditionally labeled either "feminine" or "masculine" are not characteristic of either sex alone but are human responses. Assertiveness, independence, passivity, and gentleness are all part of being human, whether female or male. In the pages that follow, therefore, the two words feminine and masculine will appear in quotation marks in recognition of the limitations of our language and culture. It is not that either set of traits, those associated with "feminine" or those associated with "masculine," is bad -- both are good. It is simply that we have divided them up so rigidly between the sexes. A new experience of wholeness for both women and men can result from the conjoining of the "masculine" and the "feminine" in which all human powers are quickened.

This book, then, is not mainly about counseling theory and technique. It is instead an attempt to describe the important connection between good counseling and consciousness raising. Some techniques for use in that effort are included. It is my increasing conviction that a large percentage of the psychological-spiritual problems people bring to counseling result from the tight boxes our culture has forced us into as women and men. This book is about the pain people are feeling because of these confining boxes and because many are now trying to get out of them. The message of the book can be stated in one sentence: As ministers and counselors it is up to us to do whatever we can to get out of our own boxes, while at the same time trying to help other people get out of theirs.

We need to talk to each other; we need to try to hear and understand each other's anger and pain, and not be put off by it. Our goal is not to end the relationship between the sexes, but to improve and enhance it. Through its counseling and caring ministries the church can be a major agency for change -- for rebuilding on a strong foundation the relationship between women and men. Not long ago, at a communion service in which couples fed each other the elements, a young man suggested that we could say as we served the wine to each other, "This is the cup of the new relationship." It is my belief that as we discover that new relationship we will find new and more effective ways to assure life in all its fullness for every human being.



1. Miller, Psychoanalysis and Women, p. 391.

2. Nelle Morton, "Toward a Whole Theology," (Address delivered at World Council of Churches Task Force on Women). Available from Women Committed to Women.