Name Calling
How we label others and ourselves gives life and takes it away.

What is a Christian response to the flap over radio personality Don Imus's description of the Rutgers women's basketball team? Is his firing a concession to pressure groups or an appropriate judgment? In this debate, is there something deeper to be said about language and the coarseness of public conversation? This column by Mark Labberton, appearing in the Spring issue of Leadership and arriving in mailboxes this week, was written before current controversy. In it Labberton speaks to the deeper issues of naming and labeling. He offers a biblical perspective on the words we apply to others and to ourselves.

Every day our naming of the people around us gives life and takes it away. Really? Really.

Being rightly named means being truly known. It changes our lives. Embedded in our words, and in our actions, are the names we give to and receive from others. Gestures of value, nods of recognition, glances of curiosity, looks of compassion, signs of paying attention build one another up.

God created by naming: "Let there by light," and "let us make humankind in our image." In turn, the human beings named with unflinching instinct, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Yet right from the start our very capacity for rightly naming includes our freedom to misname. "Did God really say . . ." are words that rename God's intent, and reality cracks. "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" easily becomes, "The woman you gave me."

Misnaming misidentifies who we are and our relation to others. The tragic consequences are everywhere.

Power can be measured by our capacity to give names that stick. Middle school teaches us this, if nothing else. If we carry the wrong name given us through some powerful voice at some vulnerable moment, we can be crippled.

Every time the church gathers in worship, we gather as those bearing names not our own: Inadequate. Failure. Bad Parent. Fat. Together. We can be deluded or oppressed by the naming and misnaming we experience and perpetrate on others.

Suffering, individually and collectively, intensifies when it's not named or wrongly named. Injustice wracks our world with the complex legacy of God's treasured creatures misnaming God, misnaming ourselves, and misnaming our neighbor. This abuse of power is our undoing.

Dalits ("Untouchables") in India are required by Hindu law to be given one name, and it must be derogatory: Ugly, Stupid, Dung. Imagine the transformation when they discover that in Jesus, God came as a dalit (itself an extraordinary shock of rightly, if unexpectedly naming, God), and that he has the power to rename them: Chosen. Holy. Beloved.

April 13, 2007

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments

Peggy Pollard

April 18, 2007  9:59pm

Thanks Pastor Mark, It was at your church, more than 20 years ago, that I learned the names of some lifelong friends like Youchang, Ying, and Zhu, and they learned my name. Now part of my job is training people to be friends with international students at a Bay Area University. One of the first rules is to learn their REAL name. Some complain they just can't do it, the foreign names don't stick in their brain–until I practice calling THEM by a wrong name. "Now how does that make you feel. Like I don't really know you!" The gunman in Monday's horror story, according to the news report, used to sign his name "?" so students called him the Question Mark kid. An immigrnt of 15 years in the U.S. perhaps he felt he had lost his identity? Perhaps he was hiding his identity from those around him. And didn't want to know their names, so they could just be targets to him, not friends. Perhaps he lost his identity to himself, and from God. Too bad the Christian community around him, though they did try, did not, or could not break through his isolation to name him and bring him into that community, to the downfall of all. It shows me how VERY important it is that we do indeed make every effort to learn someone's real name so we can be truly known and loved by each other, as God designed us to be. "do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in the book of Life" Luke10:20 Peggy Pollard,

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Randy Davis

April 18, 2007  8:23am

What powerful words - I feel named and will spend the rest of the day naming those people and things around me. Naming allows us to bring some definintion into our own realities - thank you for this thought provocative article! God Bless YOU! (How's that for naming?!)

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Rev. Ayana

April 17, 2007  2:01pm

The road to "Imus" is familiar. Jesus taught that what's in a person's heart will come out of their mouths. Ultimately, what Mr. Imus said is a condition of his heart. There was no contextual, socially appropriate, or culturally convincing reason for it. I cried when I heard those words, because as a Christian, minister, woman, and African American I have been called "out of my name". And it hurts. We are accountable to one another as human beings, not as labels like "conservative" or "African American." Cain killed his brother Abel, then tried to justify himself to God by asking, "Am I my brother's keeper"? Of all people, Christians should deplore the use of derogatory name-calling, no matter who does it or how much they are paid to do it. I thank God that He is using this "Imus" journey to wake us up once again to the evils of name-calling and crucifying innocent people. The redemption lies in those beautiful women's ability to forgive. God's grace is shining upon them and Imus.

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April 17, 2007  8:12am

if simplicty would be the sofhistication of complexitiest then I would say along with Jesus " you serve one of two masters. A heart of stone or one of flesh." Death or Life. If one with eyesight would by trying to explain color to one without... not only would color be evident but also that one can lack physical vision. Why are we always surprised of the pride of the self-seperated self? Can it be that we can't fantom Hell and therefore fanthom the Love of God. If we can't idenify with the living soul, how can we identify with the Life giving Spirit? Perhaps many or some (as I once did) believe that salvation is from winding up single, or with a broken marriage, rebelious or unhealthy children, poor finacial situations or driving a 12 year old car, rather than from winding up as your own worst enemy, by choice, in the non-relationship described as death. Thank God for the carrot on the stick known as self-help and that some of us only have to try to reach for it 30 or 40 years to it's futility and finaly embrace, by His work, completeness which is the Life in the blood shed for us. Salvation is a work of God that fits better than designer clothes, lasts longer than nuclear waste rods, commands storms to cease, and there is no abuse as clarified by our Savior Jesus Christ " Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

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April 14, 2007  12:34pm

The issue here is really one of inside privilege. Chris Rock gets away with saying N word because he is black. Christians get away with other back biting actions for similar reasons. The point that we should understand it that it is the role of the group to police their own people. So if a conservative Christian goes off on either an insider or an outsider it is the primary role on other conservative Christians to hold him accountable to proper conduct. An outsider accusing the same person of improper conduct may be given proper regard, but will not have the same effect. So it should be African Americans that hold Chris Rock accountable and it should be conservative Christians that hold Pat Robertson accountable.

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April 13, 2007  3:41pm

"Is his firing a concession to pressure groups or an appropriate judgment?" I have this one question to ask: If the people who were the target of Mr. Imus's "humor" did not complain, would have CBS fired him because of their own professional code of conduct? And while we're on the subject of Christians getting up in arms about Mr. Imus...why aren't they up in arms about the Rappers, hateful song's who make Imus's comments look like a stupid school yard taunt? Do you ever check yourself when you hear Chris Rock or any other black comedian belt out the N-word, make derogatory comments about women, or do you laugh as well? My hope is that we, as Christians, become consistant in our denouncements when we take offence with the hateful words and thoughts that exists in our favorite musicians and comedians as well.

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subversion inc.

April 13, 2007  3:10pm

can we also put "liberal" and "conservative" into this discussion? both seem to be quite derogatory these days, depending on which you "are". I agree with Mark's assessment of the situation and I think we would be well suited to explore the various avenues down which this discussion leads. peace

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