The Name God Gave UsCulture, Essays, Featured, Social Justice — By Jo Hilder on April 4, 2012 at 9:57 am
There’s something very special about giving something a name. Naming a new baby especially is a huge responsibility, and an exciting and grounding experience for every parent. Will the name I love for my baby still be okay when they have grown up? Should I use a cherished family name, or the weird one I absolutely adore? What if everyone else criticises what I choose? What if my child turns out to hate the name I give them? Having given our child a name we virtually plucked from the air, we proceed to marry it together with another, more substantial entity – the family name. Thus, our children take with them all their lives the product of both of our memory, and our imagination.
People change their names sometimes. It can be as simple and as noble as taking the name of the person we love in order to recreate and affirm the beginning of a new family history. Giving up a name is a kind of surrender, as in marriage, but it can be empowering. We might choose to change the name given to us at birth as a way of breaking the ties with our family of origin, or simply making a new identity for ourselves. In either case, taking a new name can be like being born again, and this may be exactly what is intended. But to be born again a kind of death must take place, and the loss of a name, intentional or not, is like instating a deliberate episode of mourning and of grief, perhaps to force the bringing about of a process of change and transformation.
There is another kind of name – the name someone tries to force on you against your will. Ignoring someone’s given name and calling them something else, particularly a profanity, is a particularly insidious kind of power-play. It’s meant to dehumanise and degrade, like giving a prisoner a number. It is intended to remove identity, personhood and dignity. To take or replace someone’s name by force is equivalent to an act of extreme violence.
The first name ever given to a woman was “woman”, and she was named by the first man (Genesis 2:23). He named her “woman” because she was derived from himself – not an amputation, but an entity all unto herself, prised apart from his flesh and his bone. The name he gave her – Eve – was a thing of beauty , as was she – derivative, but not unequal, taken from, but not lesser than.
But neither the first man nor the first woman had proper names at all until something in the garden went wrong (Genesis 3:17). Before that they were simply known as – “the man” and “the woman”. When there were just the two people and the community of God in the world, no further form of personal identification was needed. But after their human eyes were irrevocably opened to the knowledge of good and evil, they received names as part of the bargain. After the fact, God tells the man that as a result of what he did the earth will therefore be cursed and he will always work hard to eat. He comes to be known as Adam – meaning the human-kind, the earth, the ground, the blood. God tells the woman she will bring forth children out of her own body with great pain, and be subject to her husband always. Adam thus takes it upon himself to name his wife Eve – meaning the mother of all human life. Their names become in essence a lasting legacy, with both their identities forever intrinsically linked to both their sacred origin, and the foolish thing they did. But, provided the close communion between them remains somehow, there need never be any reason to become confused about the new balances – or imbalances – of power that circle between them……
We all know how much weight a name bears. If we did not know, we would not use them like we do to wound, to brand and to disempower. When we call someone a name other than the one they were given, or the one they chose themselves, we are entering into a power-play we hope to win. Now, name-calling can certainly be a sign of endearment. Baby. Sweetheart. Mister. Honey. But in a different context, those same names can be used as subtle – or unsubtle – acts of hostility. Or patronisation. And there are other more visceral names that we use, absolutely intended to stand in for acts of unbridled and violent hatred, absolutely intended to oppress and ravage and hurt.
Strange how there are no exclusively male gendered equivalents to these words.
Unless you count these.
Mother-fucker. Son of a bitch.
Listen people, when God invented the whole naming-giving thing, somehow I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
Names like slut and whore are shoved towards women’s faces all soaked in gall and vinegar, and the antagonists goad us braying hey baby, suck on that. But rather than being the great equalisers men hope they will turn out to be, these misogynist slurs are nothing more than a feeble attempt to subvert the perceived power of women, and an effort to force us to surrender to sheer brute force rather than logic or reason or sense, or even grace. Even some professing Christian men feel this is somehow okay, because *apparently* God Himself created an order which dictates every woman must give over to the men around her, or else have her strength taken from her by any methods necessary. But in the original nest of gender politics, in that gentle power-play of the name-giving exchange between Adam and Eve and God, I see none of this spirit of violence, bitterness or oppression. In that particular power-play, I see a nod to the poignancy of the past, the lost wonder of unbroken communion between God and humans, and a gentle resignation to a sadder, more difficult future where work and pain and birth and death would now be the human reality. God, and human creation. The past and the future. Together and apart. The same but different. Memory, and imagination.
In the discourse of social imagining for our collective future, demeaning, sexist, verbal assaults have no place in dialogue between men and women, be that conversation political, theological or otherwise. And whilst men may certainly join the conversation on what women may or may not do with their bodies, men may never confuse this concession with acquiescence to patriarchy or male control over them. God certainly derived us from men’s bodies, but since then, so much more than mere skin has come to separate the genders, and this divide cannot be bridged solely from the woman’s side. In fact, if there is division, men must be prepared to bear equal responsibility to repair it, particularly if they wish to benefit from the unity that will result – and benefit from it they certainly will. Men know this, or some would not demand so vehemently women give so much to procure that unity for them.
To call a woman a slut or a whore in an argument – political or otherwise – is a form of feminine mutilation, an act of unGodly violence and a sign of intrinsic weakness. Firstly, it forgets and dishonours who we are. All women were first named woman - prised apart from the stuff of men, then Eve - mother of all the living. Secondly, such language disregards what we have had to do – which is to survive a hostile world alongside and sometimes even despite the men who are at least as responsible for its degraded state as we are. When it comes to gender politics, our slander and our blasphemy of the other does us all no good. In all these conversations about the inequities of power in this world, what we need is memory – the grace and the grown-up-edness to honour what has gone before, politically, theologically, experientially and sociologically. We also need room to develop a brand new imagination – giving all the ability and freedom to see a world where power is balanced far more broadly, freely and equally…perhaps even as broad, free and equal as God’s good grace.