April 13, 2007
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.
"Behold, all things are new." Indeed.
As pastors and leaders, ours is a vocation of naming. By God's grace, our calling is to live into our own real names as we help others discover theirs, so that in turn they can so live and name the people and the world around them that what has been lost is found, that those who are blind may see. When we live this way, we participate in "doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly before our God."
Mark Labberton is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California.