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  • Writer's pictureDiana Wright

Naming ourselves


27 August 2017

What is in a name? At birth names are given to us, usually by our parents. I have never changed my name in my 65 years of existence. My daughter was given a name by her birth mother, another one by her foster mother, and a third name when I adopted her. All this was in the first four months of her life!! Naming is important; it says much about who or what we are expected to be and most, if not all, societies have strong notions about how names are chosen. The use of surnames, or last names, is actually fairly recent in western European history and I would guess part of the reason was paternity and inheritance.

Names, or name calling, is often used as a poison. How many of us have used labels instead of names when we address people we prefer to keep at a distance? I suspect all of us; I am guilty to name calling and pigeon holing. We label folks by gender in what may be at best unflattering terms and in its worst form insulting and demeaning. We do it by ethnicity. I have heard most all of the derogatory names one could apply to someone not of northern European descent. You have likely heard them as well. Some names are not worth repeating. But nothing in this nation compares to the names we use in expressing our deeply held beliefs about race. Ironically race as we identify it has NO basis in biology, yet race is the determining factor in what will determine your ability to live the American dream. Born with sub Saharan African heritage? There are two strikes against you before you even get to the batter’s box. Born “white”? Then you have a set of privileges you most likely don’t even realize are yours, especially if you are poor and white.

Names are crucial; they are to a certain extent a measure of who we are or who others think we are. Jacob becomes Israel. Jorge Mario Bergoglio becomes Pope Francis. We describe ourselves, often with names made up for the occasion. Maybe you are a Buddapalian. Whether I like it or not, I am a WASP. I am also a self-described radical lesbian feminist. I am lots of things and so are you.

Are there people you wish did not exist? I am not referring in this case to individuals, but to groups. To Israel, Egypt became the enemy. To this day there is a thread of the ancient enmity between the modern states of Israel and Egypt. Yet think about it: it was Pharaoh’s daughter who saved Moses. The name of Moses himself is an Egyptian one, meaning to draw out of the water, or the one who draws out, which is a way of naming Moses as the one who will draw the Israelites out of Egypt. The social subversion does not end there: Pharaoh’s daughter listens to Moses’ sister, a female slave and a child. She accepts the plan the child sets forth. Are we as willing to listen to those whom we consider less than ourselves in so many ways? These are the hallmarks of civil disobedience and they are the hallmarks of God! The work of God is justice and mercy, not power and privilege.

Yet we often blithely say “in the name of God” and we have no idea what we mean by the name of God. Today Jesus asks his closest followers point blank: who do you say that I am? What is my name?

What would your answer to that question be? Are you reaching for a theology book, or even the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer? If you turn to page 849 you will see two questions about Jesus, with the answers that Jesus shows us the nature of God and the nature of God is love. Not terribly complicated!! Yet each of us must find our own answer to that question. For Jesus, to admit he was the Son of God and the Messiah, was to take an enormous risk. He already knew that by acknowledging his true self to the world was tantamount to a death sentence. The world, it seems, could not handle perfect love, could not handle the idea that we are all, each and every one of us, children of God, made in God’s image, and of paradoxically equal value and infinite value to God. We still don’t get it.

We clearly don’t get it when people who call themselves Christians don robes and hoods and march through the streets of Charlottesville, along with white separatists and so called alt right members. White supremacy is a sin and we need to call it just that. The Episcopal Church grew rich, both in the north and south, on the slave trade and we need to recognize our role in the proliferation of that institution. Fortunately, as a church, we have acknowledged that role and are turning to the next step. All of us sitting here benefit to this day from the grim legacy of slavery and white supremacy and white privilege.

Name the sin, that is the first step. The second step is repentance. That means the need to turn around, do a “180”. It means learning about the legacy of racism and our role as Episcopalians in that evil. It means working towards racial justice. It means denouncing in no uncertain terms events like Charlottesville. I believe our president utterly failed in his moral duty when he did not wholly condemn the white supremists.

We need to care for one another. Over the years I have provided care as a physician to many people with whom I had major differences of opinion or who had perpetrated evil on other people. So also must we be willing to provide pastoral care not only to those whom we find it easy to love, but to those with whom we vehemently disagree. The fact that even this small group is divergent in its politics and beliefs, yet comes together to worship and care for one another, gives me great hope.

White supremacy is an uncomfortable truth, but it is a truth that underlies everything upon which this nation runs. We can be prophets and we can be true followers of Jesus, but only when we squarely face this truth and act. Are you willing to confront the policies that continue to feed this system? I believe that the current administration, specifically the Department of Justice, is working through voter suppression aimed particularly at non whites but at anyone who is not well off, and through failure to reform a criminal justice system which continues to preferentially incarcerate young black men, is working to ensure there will be no progress on racial justice.

Who do you say that I am?

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