Ethics has to do with behavior and practices. Many people think of Christian ethics as a list of do’s and don’ts that God uses as a standard to evaluate us. The motivation to obey is to avoid punishment. At the very beginning of our ethics course, we seek to reframe Christian ethics. Students are invited to think of ethics as gift, a graceful intervention — God providing means to lessen the consequences of our sinful state and to provide the possibility of coming closer to living as the humans God has created us to be. Biblical commands, imperatives, guidance, counsel, wisdom, and teaching are a gift from God given to us to help deal with consequences of sin and live closer to the way God created us to live.
We next seek to reframe our role in giving ethical input to others. We are namers. I borrow this concept from Madeline L’Engle’s novel, A Wind in the Door. After discussing the book and how she portrays naming I ask students in groups to write definitions of naming. Here are some of the definitions:
- “Naming is discovering and valuing God’s designed purposefulness in a person, establishing that core identity of a person in reality.”
- “A person who names is grounded in love and comes alongside of and calls a person out of a limited or false existence into a fully authentic and dynamic existence.”
- “The redemptive act of recognizing and expressing who a person is, and was created to be, through: words, active listening, actions, and loving.”
- “Naming is a loving process of liberation for both the sender and receiver, for by recognizing and affirming another both people can embark upon and continue upon the process of discovering God’s design for them.”
- “Naming has to do with helping others know who they really are, beyond their attempts at posturing or belittling themselves. It has to do with helping people exist and act more authentically as the people they are in their core, rather than as the people that the destructive ‘powers’ in their lives keep encouraging them to be.”
I think naming is a great metaphor for evangelism. It also, however, is a great metaphor for ethics. After a person converts or is born anew one way his or her experience of new life, of salvation, continues to grow is through receiving direction and support in regard to actions and decisions. In Christian ethics we ask, What are practices and behaviors that hinder us from freely living out who God called and created us to be? And, what are practices that would help us to more fully experience shalom--God’s peace and well-being—and be instruments of shalom? So, the starting point and ending point of ethics is not “doing the right thing,” but naming people--helping them to live in freedom from alienation and be more closely the people God created them to be. That might include talking about whether an action is right or wrong, but that is part of this larger goal of living in freedom as authentic humans.
We invite you to see yourself as a namer, and to see interacting with people about ethical decisions as part of what is involved in naming others.
L’Engle gives powerful examples of individuals naming other individuals. Meg names Mr. Jenkins and Calvin names Meg. Yet, naming in related to community. In the latter part of the book she presents an image of a community effort at naming—Meg could not do it on her own. So too in the church, we need each other to become the person God has meant us to be--and part of that is being a person in relation with others. Individual salvation, naming is integral to Christian community, and experiencing authentic community is integral to individuals living as a human created in the image of God. The more we are able to be ourselves--named--the more we will find ourselves loving others, freely--not because we are trying to prove ourselves as super Christians--which gets in the way of true love.
Jorge: A Honduran Story of Naming
Jorge’s story displays both the destructive power of un-naming by his family, village and broader society and the transformative power of naming through Christian community.
It is November. When Meg comes home from school, Charles Wallace tells her he saw dragons in the twin's vegetable garden. That night Meg, Calvin and C.W. go to the vegetable garden to meet the Teacher (Blajeny) who explains that what they are seeing isn't a dragon at all, but a cherubim named Proginoskes. It turns out that C.W. is ill and that Blajeny and Proginoskes are there to make him well - by making him well, they will keep the balance of the universe in check and save it from the evil Echthros.
Meg, Calvin and Mr. Jenkins (grade school principal) must travel inside C.W. to have this battle and save Charles' life as well as the balance of the universe.
Perhaps better than anywhere else, L'Engle develops the idea of naming and artfully shows how speaking words of truth and affirmation can breathe life into others.