One third of San Francisco public schools will be renamed in the coming months following a decision by the city’s school board to remove the names of individuals who had owned slaves, actively participated in segregation, or were colonizers.

The decision, which includes 44 school sites, attracted national attention as it includes schools named for Thomas Jefferson Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The decision has drawn scorn from conservatives who see the decision as yet another example of liberal hysteria but also from other liberals. Last week, The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner grilled Gabriela López, the head of San Francisco Board of Education who refuted some of the historical claims that had been made by the committee which had investigated the named figures. (Read the interview.)

But the government isn’t the only actor wrestling over questions of renaming institutions. As Ravi Zacharias’s misdeeds have been exposed in recent months, the ministry named after him has wrestled with whether or not it should continue to bear his name.

Of course, renaming places, and people, for that matter is not new. Throughout the Old Testament, God renames places and people. But why? That’s what we wanted to get into on the podcast this week.

Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament and program coordinator of Bible and theology at Prairie College in Three Hills, Alberta and the of author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters and its forthcoming sequel, Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters. She also joined Quick to Listen in 2020. (Listen to “When Those in Power Get Sick.”)

Imes joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss Old Testament precedent for renaming people v. places, what it means for humans to have the ability to name, and whether or not churches should bear people’s names.

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Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Yvonne Su and Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #251

What do we really need to know about names in the Scripture?

Carmen Imes: I did my dissertation at Wheaton College on Exodus 20:7, to not bear the Lord's name in vain, while my colleague Austin Surls was also working on the divine name in Exodus, namely the meaning of the name and how we're supposed to understand that. One of the really helpful contributions that he makes to the understanding of how names work in the Bible is that there's this very widespread assumption that names in the Bible always capture the essence of a person, so that if you know the meaning of their name, you know the essence of who they are. It's not quite that simple. He talks about a range of ways that names can function. When a child is born and the parents give them a name, that name is sometimes a play on words that has to do with something that happened in the circumstances of their birth.

Sometimes it is pointing forward to who they hope they will become. Sometimes it turns out to be prophetic in a way, but it's not necessarily the essence of a person. There’s a variety of ways names can function.

We're talking today about place names, which are even more widely varied. People tend to name places either after themselves or their children. If they build it or conquer it, they name places after something that happened there. Sometimes it's like a moment of naming and sometimes everybody's just been calling it that or associating it with a certain event for so long that the name sticks. We don't have a moment where there's this official conferral of a name, but it's everybody calls it the Place of Weeping because weeping happened there.

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There's a variety of ways that places get their names. Interestingly, God rarely names a place. Usually, people name places and it often has to do with an encounter they had with God or something God did in that place. But God seems to be more interested in people's names than places’ names.

Does that indicate a difference between how God views people and places?

Carmen Imes: God is interested in naming places in Genesis 1. As he brings creation into order, He calls the day, day, and He calls the night, night, and He names the sky, the land, and the sea. He's naming the domains that will then be populated on Days 4, 5, and 6.

But then He makes humans in His own image. It seems as though He passes the baton so that humans take up the task of naming. In Genesis 2, we have the man naming the animals and God brings him the animals to see what he would name them. He's inviting Adam into His own creative work and naming is part of that.

There are a few places later where God names or renames a person or a place, but it seems like people are the center of His attention usually. He renames Abraham, Abraham, Sarah become Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel Hosea's children. He first gives very bleak names and then He promises to change their names to something more encouraging.

It does seem like God cares more about the identity of a person. When He's changing someone's name, it's a signal that there's some kind of identity change for that person. He doesn't usually intervene in the parents’ naming of children. That's something parents just do. We don't get a lot of angels that show up and say what to name. There's a few of those, but it's not common. The one renaming of places that I found is Isaiah 62 when God is speaking through the prophet to Jerusalem, Jerusalem being symbolic for the people of God.

God cares about what Jerusalem is called because of that symbolic connection, but He says you will be called by a new name that the mouth of Yahweh will bestow. In verse 12, He says they will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of your way and you will be sought after the city is no longer deserted.

This is a prophetic word meant to inspire hope that God is not finished with Jerusalem, even though they're experiencing exile. In verse 4, He says “No longer will they call you deserted or name your land desolate, but you will be called Hephzibah and your land Beulah,” which means “my delight in her” and “married.” There’s going to be a reversal of Judas fortune, and that will be symbolized by the giving of a new name.

Is this reference to how others are going to identify me a refrain that we hear through different Psalms or expressions of thanksgiving?

Carmen Imes: Yes. Memory is such an important aspect of biblical teaching. The way we remember is important. For people in ancient times, it was high on their priority list to be remembered. That's one reason why they emphasized having children. Not only do the children care for them in their old age, take over the inheritance and begin caring for the land, but they carry on the family name. The ultimate shame would be to have no offspring, no one to carry on the name. That seems to be really important for ancient culture.

Are there parts of the ancient world that you would like to call attention to in terms of the significance of their names or a significant naming ceremony that occurs in the Bible?

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Carmen Imes: There are a few different ways that places are named. In Genesis 4, when Cain goes off on his own, he builds a city and he names it after his son. He's honoring his son and carrying on his name in that way, building a memorial to his own family.

Names of places are often named by conquers. This has some relevance to the current story from San Francisco. There's a bizarre story in Judges 18. It is like the world comes unglued, everything's gone wrong. The Israelites have completely forgotten whose name they bear and they've gone off the rails. In Judges 18, the tribe of Dan, although they were given an allotment in the land, apparently didn't take full possession of it or didn't find it adequate, so they're out hunting for a new inheritance, which we should be suspicious of as readers because God has already divvied up the land in Joshua 13 to 22. There's no reason for the Danaites to be homeless, but they start traipsing around trying to find another place to live.

They go all the way north to a peaceful and unsuspecting city. It doesn't have relations with any of its neighboring towns. It's remote in this valley and the Danaites crush it. They completely catch them unaware because there's no conflict between them.

They take this city and they rename it Dan, after their ancestor. This is an example of a place renaming that shows dominance of one culture over another. That one stands out to me as a renaming that probably shouldn't have happened but usually place names are functional.

They communicate to contemporaries about what's happened in a certain place. There's the story of Jacob when he's headed to his mother's family’s town up in Haran, looking for a wife, and on his way out of the Promised Land, he spends the night somewhere, sleeps with his head on a pillow.

In Genesis 28, he has a vision as he's sleeping of a stairway with angels ascending and descending, which to him would've meant, There's this access between heaven and earth and I've stumbled upon it. He says, “This is none other than the house of God,” which in Hebrew would be “Bethel house of God.”

He names the place Bethel. Several places mention Bethel later and acknowledge, this is the place that used to be called Luz, but now it's Bethel. In Genesis 12:8, it refers to Bethel, but the story of Jacob renaming the place hasn't even happened yet. The story is being told to people who would have known it as Bethel.

The examples sound like when things are not going well, people tend to name things after themselves or conquerors of great battles. When things are going well, they tend to a point more to God. Is that a human tendency?

Carmen Imes: Yes. It’s fair to say that when people are renaming a place after themselves, they might be feeling like things are going well. But from God's perspective, this is a person who's become too full of themselves. Interestingly, we have other places that are named after really sad moments or conflictual times.

In Exodus 17, Massah and Meribah are in the wilderness after the Israelites leave Egypt. They name the places after the strife that happens there. Sometimes the name doesn't memorialize a happy event but a deeply sad event.

How is name remembrance different from image remembrance? Is there a difference between naming a place after something versus erecting a statue?

Carmen Imes: Yes. One relevant passage that comes to mind is Deuteronomy 12. This is Moses’s last address to the people of Israel before they go into the Promised Land. He's going to die and they're going to move on without him. He tells them to destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills, and under every spreading tree where the nations who are dispossessing worship their gods.

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The key part is to wipe out the gods’ names from those places. People often think of the conquest as a bloody period in Israel's history where God is giving them a very violent job to do when they go into the land, but when you carefully read Exodus 23, Deuteronomy 12, and Deuteronomy 7, that describes what they're supposed to do when they get in the land. There's no blood in the instructions. What they're told to do is dismantle the society that props up the worship of false gods.

The names that they're wiping out are the names of these false gods. The setting up of images and the putting of a god's name on a place are intimately connected so that when you're smashing an idol, you're wiping out the claim that deity would have had to that land. You’re saying this land is my land and no other deity has a claim on it.

In that way, is renaming a place ending the memory of a person or deity?

Carmen Imes: Yes. It's a little bit different than schools in San Francisco, which are not named after deities, but I would say that the same principle applies that a name is a way of honoring someone. If someone is being honored, but they're not honorable, then it's worth having the conversation. Why have we dedicated this school to the memory of somebody who is a complicated figure and has done things that we don't want to emulate?

When sports teams are renamed, for example, there’s an outcry from some members of their fan base. How does the Bible encourage us to work through this feeling that the renaming was unjust or unfair?

Carmen Imes: We need to step back and take a wider angle on how God asks us to interact with someone's memory. At the base of some of the grief is nostalgia. If you change the name, are you cutting yourself off from memories of a sense of teamwork or a sense of buy-in to the mission of the school or the sports team? Here, the Bible is helpful in continually asking us to disconnect from placing our identity in any worldly institutions and to focus instead on bearing God's name and representing Him, not becoming so attached to human leaders or institutions.

My own high school went through a similar dynamic recently. I grew up attending Denver Christian schools and the Denver Christian High School mascot was the Crusader. We had a huge Crusader painted on the side of our gym. We were in a part of town where there was a lot of traffic and people passed by our school every single day. In an increasingly diverse city of Denver, the school was hearing more and more frequently from people lodging complaints about being offended that our school would want to celebrate the legacy of the Crusaders.

I myself was going through high school with a strong sense of call to missions and a heart for Muslim people and feeling like our mascot was actually at odds with the very gospel message. Part of the controversy around that is some people are like, “Oh, you're just trying to be politically correct.” You're letting our culture dictate how you call things or what you say about things. I hate it when people pull out the “politically correct” terminology, when they slap that label on something, it means you're only doing it because it'll make you look good to people or it's more palatable in our culture. That labeling bypasses the deeper and more important conversation about how we can love our neighbor and how we can listen. Just because the name of a team or a school doesn't offend me personally (even if I am able to do the mental gymnastics possible to remember the positive things about this person or the positive reason behind the mascot), I may be completely missing how it's landing with someone else.

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It's not a matter of political correctness. It's a matter of loving our neighbors well enough to listen and say, how does it make you feel when you hear or see this? How can I better represent you?How can I better honor you in the ways that I talk and act? There was quite an outcry in support and against the change of mascot, but I think we sometimes get into trouble with this overemphasis on nostalgia and an under-emphasis on love and truth. Does the name conflict with the school's mission or does the mascot conflict with the school's mission?

In the case of Denver Christian schools, it did conflict. It sent the wrong message. It idolized a period of church history that is not at all something we want to emulate or encourage. It was a good move to change the mascot.

Is there a sense of, Now my old t-shirts aren't right anymore and The old banners and pennants, it's a different name now? Yes, but I would say this is an act of love for our neighbors to consider this. The Bible is calling us to love our neighbor and calling us to justice, truth, and mercy. The statement from the school district in San Francisco said that they specifically were looking at figures linked to “the subjugation and enslavement of human beings.” We should affirm that it’s not a good idea to celebrate the subjugation or enslavement of human beings, those who oppress women, who inhibit societal progress, or whose actions led to genocide, or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We need to be asking, “What is it like for a student of color to walk into this building every day under this name?” What sort of message is it sending to that student? What messages is it sending to white students who are walking under this name and how does it influence our behavior? I would love for Christians to think a whole lot more about the fact that we bear God's name and need to emulate his character, instead of trying to emulate the people that our institutions are named after. The fact is that the names do mean something. They idolize a part of history or a part of someone's story.

It's deeply convicting and uncomfortable to be complicit or maybe perpetuate injustice. Is there a sense of How could we have let it go on for that long?

Carmen Imes: The default approach to reading the Old Testament is looking for biblical heroes. It is very hard to find a biblical hero that's worthy of naming our children after or even our institutions after because the Bible presents people with all their flaws on display because the purpose of the Bible is not to present heroes, but to cultivate a community of faith, which means no matter what, someone's complex. We're not all completely good or completely bad. Every biblical character, as we navigate their story and hear how they respond to God and each other, we learn how to discern the places where they honored God and where they failed.

We treat history the same way we want to find heroes, but in fact, they are lessons for us rather than heroes. I was glad to see that the school board said, “No, we're not going to stop teaching about these people. That's still part of our history lessons.”

When you name a school after someone, it implies that they are a hero worthy of emulation. Given how extraordinarily complex and flawed humans are, it's probably not a great idea to name our institutions after people.

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On the other hand, what would the impact of naming schools and bridges to remember moments of suffering or triumph? For example, how would children feel going to Trail of Tears Elementary?

Carmen Imes: There are plenty of children who suffer enough in school; that that would be an appropriate name for their school. But I certainly think that it would not be a great idea to reinforce suffering in the name of an elementary school. The naming of places and the naming of schools might be slightly different.

I was part of naming a school once when we lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our elementary school was overcrowded and the school board decided to build another elementary school. Our family was going to be part of the new school, so we went to those initial meetings where we tried to decide what we want to call it and what we want our mascot to be. We wrestled with some of these issues and ended up deciding on naming it where it was located. The team that was working the hardest on naming was paying attention to the geographic history and geological history of the area and they proposed the name Rivergate Elementary because it symbolized that the community is a gateway into North Carolina and it's right next to this body of water in a river.

They decided to move away from naming it after a person and focusing more on the geological history. That was a great move. It was interesting to be part of that process.

How much was that seen as pedagogy?

Carmen Imes: I remember there being a lot of thought put into the mascot, what colors were in it, what the colors represented, and how we wanted that to be a pedagogical tool. There were various versions of the mascot that were proposed. I was a little distressed that one of the options seemed like an angry alligator. These are elementary school kids like my kindergartener is going to be afraid of the mascot. This is not a high school.

Going back to the Bible, what is the significance of the text sometimes reflecting name changes and when it does not?

Carmen Imes: I'm wondering if, by the time Jacob is the age that he is when God changes his name, it's just so deeply ingrained to call him Jacob, that he continues to go by Jacob; but there's this acknowledgment by the narrator in certain places, like whose name was Israel so the two names are put together because the narrator wants us to make the association with the people of Israel who become the nation that comes from him.

Maybe it's less important for us to think of him by a new name and more to think of him as the head of this nation. What's interesting about Jacob is his name means deceiver or heel grabber, and his character does match up with that. He is such a deceiver throughout his life, over and over again. Then God beats him at his own game, deceiving him back. Other people deceive him. I shouldn't say God deceives him; He put people in Jacob's life who beat him at his own game. When he changes it to Israel, there's an acknowledgment that his wrestling has turned out good, that God is going to use that wrestling and that persistence in a good direction, so he can begin to lean into a different identity, not a deceiver.

Can you speak to biblical names for children and what the Bible itself would say about it?

Carmen Imes: I would say that the Bible does invite us to think about the significance of names and that's one way among many that we can memorialize the work that He's done for us, the ways that He's revealed Himself to us.

Our first pregnancy ended in miscarriage many years ago and it was a really sad time for us. We felt the sting of loss. When I was able to become pregnant again, we were so thankful. So we named our daughter who was born Eliana, which means God has answered. To us, that was a significant moment of choosing a name, to remember how God met us in our grief and provided us a child when we didn't know if we'd ever be able to bear children. Every time I think about her name, I'm thinking about how God has met us.

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Our youngest son is named Easton, which doesn't have a super significant meaning to it. It just means born in the East; we were living in the Eastern United States at the time in North Carolina; his middle name is Daniel. The idea that came to us as we were thinking about names is that all of us as believers are in a sense, in exile. We're citizens of the kingdom of God, but we don't see that kingdom fully realized around us. We wanted our son to be like Daniel who's in exile in the East, and yet is living faithfully as a covenant member, that he would kind of live into his name and march to the beat of a different drum. That was more of a looking forward than a looking back.

So our oldest was looking back and our youngest is looking forward, challenging him to be like a Bible character like Daniel. Those are two ways we can use names, but I don't think there's any kind of shame if you've chosen a name that you liked the sound of, but it doesn't have a cool meaning or a biblical meaning.

There are lots of ways we can remember. We can remember by sharing testimonies on social media, making family photo albums, setting up a cool rock in our yard to remind us of something that God has done for us. Naming is just one of them.

The Scripture sometimes tells you the name of the person and its literal meaning. What is the significance of that?

Carmen Imes: It's not quite a tight correspondence. It's not like the name actually means that thing that they say it means; there's usually kind of a pun going on or a wordplay that's clever. When Isaac is born and he's named Isaac because you had sounds like the word for laughter. It's basically saying he laughs. Abraham is one example where “father of many nations” isn't quite exactly what it means, but the insertion of the H in the middle hints at the many nations. Usually, it's not like a full statement or sentence, but a nod.

Why is it that we call Daniel , Daniel, keeping his Hebrew name compared to other characters who go by their Babylonian names?

Carmen Imes: It could be that it's more of a church history tradition that we're clinging to those names. It could be the narrator is the one who's bringing up the Babylonian names, again and again, there could be a particular play on words going on, a literary purpose for calling it that.

To use a different example, Mount Sinai is known by another name and that's Horeb. When Moses goes, it's called Horeb, the mountain of God. Later in Exodus 16, it begins to be called Mount Sinai. There've been various proposals for the name change.

Some people say Horeb is the region, Sinai is the mountain, so they're kind of interchangeable. Just like I could refer to Three Hills as the town I'm in, or I could talk about Hill County as the broader area, or I could be more specific and say Prairie College which is in my town.

You can refer to places by different levels of scope, but I think there's a literary reason for the switch. It comes to be called Mount Sinai because Moses encounters weight on the mountain in a snake bush. They memorialize the name of the bush and that encounter and begin to call the mountain Sinai.

Sometimes the choice of names has more to do with wordplays going on in Hebrew that we can't see in English. That's why it switches back and forth.

Very few Protestant churches are named after people in comparison to Catholic churches. Is that an intentional decision to move away from associating our church buildings with people in church history?

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Carmen Imes: My gut feeling is that we could attribute this to the difference between how Protestants and Catholics think about sainthood. Because the Catholic church acknowledges saints and venerates saints, using their names seems natural.

Whereas Protestants seem quicker to want to emphasize original sin and there's no one righteous, not even one. We're hesitant to elevate anybody. I think naming a church after a person, particularly in church history, could bring on the same kind of danger that the schools in San Francisco are facing. That is that later generations can re-look at that person's life and find some egregious problem with them. That was a blind spot of a previous generation. I don't know if it has the staying power that a more generic, topographic name would have.