Calling People Names

The current presidential campaign has been notable for its puerility. It sometimes feels more like a playground brawl than the process for selecting the leader of the free world. Much of the blame, but not all, goes to Donald Trump. For example, he has found success by calling his opponents names—”Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” being two of his favorites. Trump’s name calling illustrates an aspect of identity that is, believe it or not, deeply rooted in the nature of God. Yes, I am calling Mr. Trump godlike—but not in a good way. Let me explain. In my previous post, I told you the story behind my unusual name to begin a larger discussion this month about identity. Our culture wants us to believe that identity is something we choose; that it is constructed by each individual in isolation from both history and community. I suggested just the opposite—that identity originates outside of the individual and must be received. We see this at work in the opening narrative of Scripture. In Genesis 1, we encounter a God who not only creates the various features of the cosmos, he also names them. “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night…God called the expanse Heaven…God called the dry land Earth…” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 10). Naming is a creative act. and it is a power that he bestowed upon humanity who alone carry his image. “The Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would name them” (Genesis 2:19). The Genesis story carries a few important lessons. First, in the creation story, identity is not self-determined. It is declared by God or by those who represent God. Simply put, naming is a divine activity. When we name things or people we are acting like God. That is a remarkable thought and a heavy responsibility. Second, in a cosmos with a Creator, no one may define their own identity and those who believe our culture’s narrative of self-identification are grasping at an illusion. The only person who can legitimately declare his own name is God who alone is eternal and uncreated. “I Am Who I Am,” he said to Moses (Exodus 3:14). The rest of us, however, are whatever someone else—and ultimately God—says we are. That is why name calling, in both the negative and positive sense, is so powerful. In the Ancient Near East, the culture in which the Hebrew Bible was written, there was a profound link between one’s name and one’s identity. This applied to both people and deities. So, when people are given the authority to name it was understood that this was linked to their authority to rule (Genesis 1:28). There is real power in naming because in the ancient world a name = identity = destiny. For example, Jacob’s parents gave him a name that meant “grasps the heel” because he was holding the foot of his older twin brother at birth. But the name also implies a deceptive character. Imagine grasping the heel of your opponent in a race to trip him and take the lead. True to his name, Jacob grew up to be a scoundrel and liar who cheated his way through life. Did his name prophetically foreshadow his character, or did being called “Cheater” a hundred times a day result in the man living up to his name? Either way, for Jacob his name = his identity = his destiny. But that’s not the end of his name or the story. When Jacob’s lies finally caught up with him, he spent a restless night literally fighting with God. As dawn broke, the Lord gave Jacob a new name. “No longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10). Israel means “wrestles with God.” The Lord was doing more that giving him a new title for his business card. He was declaring a new identity and a new destiny. God was saying, The world has called you ‘Cheater,’ but that is not what you are. I see your truer identity. Jacob’s story illustrates both the creative and destructive power of name calling. When we give another person a name, which we have the God-given authority to do as those made in his image, we are engaging in an identity-shaping and destiny-directing action. That is why name calling is powerful and why it must never be undertaken lightly. When engaged correctly, naming is a cooperative act done in deep communion with God. It means to see another person through God’s eyes and then to pronounce God’s name over them. This kind of naming, as Jacob discovered after wrestling with God, can bring freedom and life to a hurting soul. With God’s Spirit, we can declare over another, “You are not called ‘Victim.’ Your true name is ‘Beloved.’” Or, “You are not ‘Criminal.’ You are ‘Redeemed.’” Or, “You are not ‘Worthless.’ You are ‘Welcomed.’” We see the Lord to this repeatedly in Scripture. Sometimes he takes what the world has labeled unclean and declares it blessed, and other times he literally renames a person and redirects their destiny as he did with Jacob experienced. When we call others names that flow from God, it too can reshape their identity and redirect their destiny. Think of a time when a teacher, a parent, or a mentor declared affirming words of identity over you. It probably isn’t hard to recall because most of us find such words so nourishing, so life-giving, that we cherish them long after they are spoken. This is because our inner being longs to receive its true identity from another, and more than anything we want our Creator to speak our true name so we may shed the false identities the world has burdened us with. Our culture, however, has largely removed the Creator from our vision of the world. Instead, it has said that you are responsible for constructing your own identity and for determining your own name. While this may be framed in the rhetoric of “freedom” and “progress,” it does not answer the deeper longing of our souls. If we have the courage, we will admit that we are mere children in this cosmos longing to feel safe in the embrace of a family community that both accepts us as we are and gives us a name to direct our path. That is what godly name calling offers us. Sadly, the divine power to name can also bring terrible destruction. When we are not aligned with God, when our soul and our sight are twisted, we can declare names that dehumanize others and distort their true identities. Such names are used to exclude and inflict harm rather than healing. This is how the n-word has been employed against African-Americans for centuries. It is how abusive parents belittle their children, how demagogues maintain their appearance of supremacy, and how fearful presidential candidates try to appear tough. The fact that Mr. Trump feels the need to emblazon skyscrapers with his name while belittling the names of his opponents shows how twisted his soul really is. You have been created in the image of God, and you have the power to bless or curse with the names you give to others. Consider carefully how you will use that power. It can either bring life to the vulnerable or take it from them. Check back next week for another discussion on identity.

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