What’s in a name? I think back to the ways we refer to various people at various times. I can think of some of the more confronting and abusive names I have used for people in moments of hurt or anger or deep frustration. I have called out at faces on the TV screen as I have heard them speak trash and their words have angered me. I know that I have been called many things, some derogatory aimed at getting beneath my skin and causing me hurt and to help me understand how lowly I am thought of by the person or group. Other names have been a blessing and lifted me up as someone has valued who I am and named it in me.
Names have power and often power is expressed over a person through naming them. We use names to define people and place them in a ‘box’ where we can deal with them. The abusive processes of consecutive federal governments have used blanket terms for asylum seekers, such as ‘illegals’, ‘boat people’ and so on. The whole rhetoric around asylum seekers treats them as criminals who need to be detained in detention centres lest they inflict their brand of terrorism or anti-social behaviour upon our ‘free and lovely society’. Of course, the policies are wrong. They are unjust and contravene international human rights agreements but language, names, are used to define these people and imply they are evil (or potentially evil!).
Whilst these people remain anonymous and described by labels, it is easier for us to deny who they are and ignore them. Then, occasionally, a person is revealed, and we have a face, a true name and identity and it becomes harder to deny the reality. Tharunicaa is a 2-year old Sri Lankan child. She and her family were removed from their home in Biloela in Queensland, in an early morning police raid, when they were 1 day over their visa. Tharunicaa has spent her first 2 birthdays in a Melbourne detention centre. Her sister is 4. She has a name as well – it is Kopika. Tharunicaa has serious dental issues arising from lack of sunshine in the first year of detention and has been denied proper treatment. The injustices and lack of compassion confound and yet, in all the government reports they are referred to in anonymous ways, generally ‘detainees’, that imply criminality or danger.
When we begin to provide a true name for people and therefore situations, we might begin to break through falsehood, injustice and abusive practices that limit people and keep them bound in the chains of discrimination, racism, sexism, and all the other forms of prejudice that control people. Using the true name of a person can liberate them from the bonds that form around them, in reality or in their self-image, and bring freedom that allows them to be drawn back into relationships and ordinary life.
This week I have been contemplating a wonderfully complex and enigmatic story from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8:26-39). It tells of a man who is deeply lost and wounded. He cries out in the day and night. He beats himself with rocks and stones. The townspeople fear him and lock him away with chains to keep him away from others and perhaps safe from himself. He is the weird, strange, crazy man who lives amongst the tombs, the place of the dead. Immediately my mind goes to the strange, crazy people I have encountered, especially the ones who engender fear and caution. There are the people who stumble down the city footpath shouting abusive comments or those who look angry and are dressed in strange clothes… I think of people addicted to drugs or alcohol or plagued with mental illness out of control who feel threatening, people I don’t understand because they are different – and nameless. They are anonymous and I want to keep to my own safe, contained way.
This man is completely lost. Like the Indigenous people one of the cultural guides in an Aboriginal Cultural Centre out from Darwin described. He spoke of the sad people who dwelt in the city, lost from home and culture and drowning their pain and alienation with alcohol. There are so many lost people all around us. They are anonymous and helpless – yes, some appear and act in dangerous and anti-social ways! The place where the man was, Gerasa, was in every way across the sea – it was in every way ‘over there’. Galilee was the place of life and hope and truth. Gerasa was across the Sea of Galilee in pagan territory. He lived in the cemetery and his life was filled with everything that would defile and corrupt a good Jewish person. This is the place Jesus journeyed into! He asked the man for his name and the ‘daemons’ within him answered with the derogatory labels that were applied to him – ‘demon-possessed’… In the story he wasn’t even called a person, simply a generic term for ‘male’. He was ‘non-person’ and didn’t rate any compassion, care, or real understanding – like so many anonymous people locked away in the chains and bonds of cultural rejection and prejudice – detention centres, for example.
Jesus would not accept an anonymous, impersonal, ‘untrue’ name and he acts to engage the person within, the hidden, lost soul within the body and mind that are out of control. Jesus engages the ‘male’ and crashes through the labels (that may be diagnoses, categorisations, definitions, abusive names…) to discover the true human being at the heart of the man. In contrast to the ‘city’ that this man lives in (a ‘city’ that needs a victim, a scapegoat to set themselves over and against), Jesus embraces this man into the Reign of Love that is the heart of God. This Reign is gracious, inclusive, accepting and refuses to define, scapegoat or categorise and isolate. This Reign recognises the person, the human within and seeks to give expression to this unique human being.
David Lose says: “I find it devastating that he has no name, no identity left, except for what he is captive to… He has been completely defined by what assails him, by what robs him of joy and health, by what hinders him and keeps him bound…” It is this same sense of captivity that assails so many people within our world. It comes through health crises or disabilities (psychological and physical), addictions, abuse, and the myriad forms of discrimination grounded in power abuse, fear, need to control, being different…
Finally, in our story, the man is called a human being, a man and he lives into this recognition and grace. He becomes that which he is named. Jesus’ expectation is that this human being of unique ability and expression will become who he is created and called to be – he is effectively ‘called into being’ through the love and acceptance of Jesus who reached out into the unknown dangerous and chaotic places and brought liberation and life. We are invited to embrace this same way and be people who call forth love, hope and life in each other and those captive and lost.