Dangerous Act: The Power of a Name

Every time we order the world around us we enter into the complex territory of naming…Whatever we believe, think and feel emerges from and then shapes who and how we name. Each time we name, whether in word or deed, we reveal our perception of what we think matters…Misnaming creates the verbal landscape that contributes to the rife injustice or our world. All of the “isms” are examples of the damage that naming contributes: racism, classism, sexism (pg. 125).

The Dangerous Act of Loving Your NeighborI remember attending a spiritual retreat last year where the Spiritual Director told attendees that, “We manipulate the world with our words.” Our words have power. We can use our words to edify or tear down. We can also use our words to craft history and shape realities. We use our words to label or name and assign value to those things which are important to use. I recall reading that rice is a very popular dish in India, which is why they have so many different names for the dish. Americans don’t value rice as much. Rice is normally a “side” item on the American plate, but is rarely the main dish. On the other hand, many Americans still enjoy eating meat, and pork in particular. When we serve pork for breakfast, we call it bacon, sausage, or ham. As a snack or lunch, pork becomes crackling, jerky, or BBQ. For dinner, we consider ham or chops as pork products. It’s all pork but Americans assign different labels to pork because pork is something that we value.

Likewise, mislabeling or misnaming something is a clear indication that we do not value it. When we misname a woman by calling her a “prostitute,” instead of communicating that she is stolen, oppressed, victimized, or trafficked, we are in fact saying that she is an object to be bought and sold and her life has no value. When we wrongfully name others in this way, we trivialize “who [they] really are and therefore how [they] deserve to be known and treated [in the world] (pg. 127).” By misnaming, we participate in the acts of injustice.

“As human beings we unavoidably name. Everywhere we go, we name. Everything we encounter, we name. Responding to the world around us means we will frame what we see in certain ways, and when we do so, we will be implicitly or explicitly naming whatever or whomever we encounter by attention, attitude, words, responses and actions (pg. 128).” This is why it is fundamentally important that we “see” and “name” all human beings as God’s image bearers. Seeing others through this lens helps us to immediately see the good in them. It also helps us respond with a level of compassion, humility, and self-reflection when the flaws do reveal themselves. It cautions us from “blithely [ascribing] analysis, blame, responsibility, failure, disdain, [or] worth (pg. 129),” when we don’t know the whole story (and we rarely do).

Therefore, naming is a powerful act. “By our names we are defined and shaped, for good and for bad, with justice and injustice. By naming we grant and take away life (pg. 129).” Therefore, what we really need is not an improved system of labeling, but rather a changed heart when we ascribe names to ourselves and others. There is a redemptive quality to seeing ourselves from God’s lens as known, loved, sons and daughters, blessed, royalty, etc. and there is a redemptive quality to naming seeing others as God’s image bearers and neighbors.

Reflections: Recall one of the most significant experiences of misnaming in your life or that of someone else (known to you personally or whom you have known of in some way). What happened? What was the impact? Why? How do you fell about that experience? What does it lead you to conclude about the power of misnaming (pg. 129)?

© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2013

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