The Common Good

What's in a Name?

Whether we realize it or not, names matter. Ask Barack Hussein Obama, whose infamous middle name has led xenophobic adversaries to question his citizenship. Would Brock Henry Olson get the same treatment? Would Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, be as warmly embraced by the tea party if she publicly used her Sikh birth name of Nimrata Nikki Randhawa?

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I try to give well-meaning folks who mess up my name the benefit of the doubt. Yet when these folks choose to disregard that pesky hyphen and impose conformity on me by dropping the middle "Weldon," they deny a core aspect of my identity. Whether intentionally or not, these folks neglect a part of me by neglecting part of my name.

Some Christians like to pretend that the dominant practice in the United States of a wife taking on her husband's last name is universal. This simply is not the case. Last names as we know them did not even exist before the Middle Ages. Before that, most people (at least in the Western world) were known by where they were from -- Mary Magdalene is Mary from Magdala, and scripture often calls the second person of the Trinity, "Jesus of Nazareth." Additionally, many cultures worldwide diverge from the naming practice in the United States: Korean women keep their surname, Icelandic women have a surname that is actually the first name of their parent (admittedly often the father), and Latin-American women have various traditions of combining surnames.

Our current practice in the U.S. actually reflects the earlier legal reality of coverture: In the process of the "two becoming one flesh," the wife lost her rights to property, legal representation in court, and even her public identity as her husband became the sole representative for the family. This combination of identities (or, rather, the wife becoming lost in her husband's identity) led to wives taking their husbands' last names. For me, losing my surname would have represented silent assent to this oppressive practice.

Just as I deliberately chose to hyphenate, however, some women deliberately take their husband's last name. For some, they see taking their husband's surname as a witness to unity or to a new reality. I honor their reasons for their new appellations, and I know they may see this practice very differently than I do. I also respect that some couples take each other's last names, combine last names, or keep their original names.

Though many engaged women understand the deep implications of whatever decision they make regarding their name, the politics of changing names is not limited to marriage. Some people from single-parent households may take the surname of the parent who raised them. An adopted child may choose to keep her birth name, or take the name from her adopted family.

We see in the Bible that naming can also be extremely political: name changing can signify an act of transformation, assimilation, or oppression. When the Lord changes Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, or Saul to Paul, there is an outward manifestation of an inward change of character and loyalties. God is essentially saying that these folks with new appellations are new people. They are new creations who have chosen to identify with God's redemptive plan.

Yet naming can also represent oppression or forced assimilation. Just ask Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. In Daniel 1:7, the Babylonians tried to impose other names on them. I imagine these new, shiny Babylonian monikers were not only easier for the Babylonian tongue to pronounce, but they also came from the names of Babylonian gods. The oppressors wanted to strip these three heroes of their Jewish identity and loyalties.

As people of faith all know and celebrate, however, the Book of Daniel is a book of resistance to coercion. Not only did these guys face lions and fiery furnaces because of their refusal to bow before another god, but they also kept their Jewish names. Except for a couple of exceptions, the Book of Daniel refers to them with their names of birth and choice.

Daniel chose not to conform to what he saw as forced assimilation, and we honor him when we call him by the name of his choice. My prayer for the church in the 21st century is that we can also honor others by calling them by their chosen name (especially when those names are not familiar or conventional). Scripture reassures us that God knows our names and calls us by them (Isaiah 43:1). May we do likewise.

portrait-melanie-weldon-soisetMelanie Weldon-Soiset is a former policy and organizing associate at Sojourners, and currently works at a church in Washington, D.C.

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