Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Change the Name, Change the Game

By Charles Moncrief

Since the beginning of human history a person’s name has said something about him or her, maybe even more than physical attributes such as height or hair color. I wouldn’t want, for example, to be around Mack the Knife or Jack the Ripper. On the other hand, I’d trust “Whirlaway” to win the Triple Crown. (“Speedy” can help me with acid indigestion, as long as he’s pronto!)

Ancient literature provides abundant examples of the way a name -- or more accurately, name-calling -- was used to commemorate events, to set expectations, to manage destinies, and to oppress. Moses, whose name relates to an Egyptian term for pulling someone out of a river, wanted God’s name so that he could tell the Hebrew slaves something about their divine deliverer. Jacob (“Heel-grabber”) was given the name “Israel” because he fought with God -- or God’s angel -- all night. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were three men whose names contain glorious references to God. But since they lived in exile, the conquering nation’s president had them called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to honor ancient Babylon’s devil-gods.

In modern times our society has equally destructive game-changers in the hurtful use of names. As a child we have all heard such names as “Crybaby,” “Chicken,” and “Four Eyes.” Every one of us can fill a page with names we’ve heard people use when they wanted to inflict pain or cruelty. Some of the names we’ve heard directed at us, and some of them we may have caught ourselves directing toward others. And did it really help when someone said “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you”? The awful truth is that some people in our lives have the power to make a hurtful name stick with us for a long time. Even when hurtful names come from those we can shrug off, we still have to do some reckoning with whatever grain of truth we believe may be lurking in there.

For my part, I’m bothered most when someone well-meaning uses a name in a hurtful way. In the movie “Almost an Angel” some men in a bar try to do something for a young man in a wheelchair by saying “You’re a cripple.” Sadly, this does him no favors.

But we have a sinister word that all of us use from time to time, and we too often forget its destructive effect. That word is “victim,” and it is spoken all too readily to comfort, console, or even compliment when its purpose is to advance some sort of social agenda. In the mid-1990s Time Magazine showed a picture of a criminal punished in an Asian country, and they captioned it “Caning Victim” even though he knew the punishment (no matter how barbaric) before he committed his criminal act.

Many of the contributing writers to this blog encourage readers to move past the name “victim” toward some more positive term. This is not to ignore the pain and woundedness of anybody; if anything, the purpose is to honor everyone’s wounds without celebrating them. While the subtitle refers to “victims of crime,” it puts its emphasis on the search for solutions. That is, a person can be a victim, but the desire is for a person not to stay a victim. No one wants to dishonor the time a person must take to lick his or her wounds, any more than anyone wants to short-circuit the solid path to healing and recovery. But everyone here wants to provide this site as one of (hopefully) many that a hurting person can take toward that end.

What’s in a name? Power, control, pain, fear, and intimidation when held over you. But maybe you have a support base, a group of champions who will get under you with some encouraging and uplifting names. I’ve used the term “survivor” in the past, and other terms that are as personal as the wounds each person is recovering from. Possibly you will have occasions to gravitate toward those who will give you support that will more than offset all the negative bombardment you receive every day. Possibly you already have several supportive terms in your bag of tricks that you’ve found helpful to others in their journeys. And possibly you will continue to be open to new encouraging names to give in your outreach.

I’ll close with these words from a song by D. J. Butler, a reminder that the name God gives to us is really the only one that ultimately makes any difference. You can hear several versions on YouTube, most of which have some spectacular and relevant slide shows. This link is my preference:

I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, Outcast, Lonely, or Afraid
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One
Faithfulness, Friend of God
One who seeks my Face
One who seeks my Face.

Grace and Peace,

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