There’s something very special about bestowing something or someone new with its very own name. Naming a new baby especially is a huge responsibility, and an exciting and grounding experience for every parent – will the name I love now 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?
Then, having given them a name we practically plucked from the air, we proceed to marry it together with this other, more substantial entity – the family name. Thus, our children take with them all their lives the product of both of our our memory, and of our imagination.
People change their names sometimes, for many reasons. Sometimes it’s 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. This can be bittersweet. Giving up a name is a kind of surrender, as in marriage, but it can also be a way of empowering ourselves. We might choose to change the name given to us at our birth in preference for a new name 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, there must be a kind of death 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. There is the name someone tries to force on you against your will. Ignoring someone’s given name and calling them something else, or by profanity instead, is a particularly insidious kind of power-play. It’s meant to dehumanise and degrade, like giving a prisoner a number instead of a name. 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”. This first female human was actually named by the first male human (Genesis 2:23). He (not named Adam just yet) 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 was in itself a thing of beauty – as was the first woman – derivative, but not unequal, taken from, but not lesser than.
An interesting point – 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 was just the two of them and the community of God in the world, this no further form of personal identity was needed. But after their human eyes were irrevocably opened to the knowledge of good and evil, they received names into 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 became 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 will never be any reason to become confused about the new balances – or perhaps, 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.
Guys, when God invented the whole naming-giving thing, somehow I don’t think this is what he had in mind.
Men shove names like slut and whore towards women’s faces all soaked in gall and vinegar, goading us hey, suck on that. But rather than being the great equalisers men hope they will turn out to be, 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. For many men this is okay because *apparently* God Himself created an order which dictates every woman must give over to the men around her, or else have it taken from her by any methods necessary. But even 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. I see a nod to the beauty of the past, the lost wonder of unbroken communion between God and humans, and a gentle resignation to the sadder, more difficult future where work and pain and birth and death would now be the joint human – and also the Divines – reality. The past and the future. Together, but apart. The same, but different. Memory, and imagination.
The demeaning, sexist, verbal assaults alluded to previously have no place in the dialogue between men and women, theological or otherwise. And whilst men may join the conversation on what women may or may not do with women’s bodies, they may never confuse concession with acquiescence. God certainly derived us from men’s bodies, but since then, much more than mere skin has come to separate the genders, and this divide cannot be bridged simply from the woman’s side. In fact, if there is division, men must be prepared to bear equal responsibility to bridge it, particularly if they also wish to benefit from the unity that will result – and benefit from it they certainly will. Men know this, or they would not demand so vehemently women give so much to procure it for them. However, to pretend that all disharmony and uncommunion between men and women and God can be blamed wholly on the unwillingness of one gender to lay down the power which helps her survive the world in which she find herself – a world where much of the hostility she must navigate is perpetuated by men for men’s sake – is a great folly.
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, because all women were first named woman – prised apart from the stuff of men, and then Eve – mother of all the living. Secondly it disregards what we have done, which is survive this hostile world, beside and besides the man and sometimes even despite him, that we men and women – let’s not forget – created together. Any downfall this world and our society may or may not have suffered was an equal opportunity job. When it comes to gender politics, our slander and our blasphemy of the other does us all no good. In all our 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 grace is.
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