Learning New Names

There is an assumption that one’s name is not difficult to pronounce. My name is Muoki, and for the first twelve years of existence, I never had to pronounce it for someone else, or find approximate words to aid my acquaintance in not making a mistake. I was afforded this blessing because I lived in Kenya, where I was born. It wasn’t until I came to the States that I was bequeathed with the anxiety of first encounters where I had to always be mindful of the trouble American/Western thinking beings had in pronouncing my name.

In school, at church, at high school soccer games when they announce the starters–I developed an anxiety whenever my name was to be called because I knew that no one knew how to pronounce it. I became accustomed to prefaced remarks like, “I’m going to butcher this, so forgive me…” “Umm…” “Oh my goodness, how do I say this…” followed by (if the person was in close proximity, an investigative scan to see if anyone likes like a “Muoki.”

American and Western people have always struggled to pronounce my name, but I rarely encounter an American or Westerner who has considered that people outside their context struggle with their names. English is the lingua franca or the world, and as English speakers we (may) take for granted that this dialect of human language does not come easily for many. The other day I was at a dinner gathering at a friend’s house, and a Ghanaian friend of mine was sharing about his life, and although I had no problem comprehending his English, I was surprised by how much my American friends did not understand. This isn’t to denigrate anyone, but to point out that speaking English is not easy for everyone.

There are Christian scholars who point out (and, I’m sure, thoughtful citizens who are becoming more aware) that, in America, we as Christian leaders are yet to develop (in a friend’s words) a “cohesive vision about how to navigate a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, globalized world.” There are readily available reactionary options available, but none which witness to the shalom ethic of the Kingdom of God. The cohesive vision will have to include Jesus’s charge to his disciples in Mark 10: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave of all.” The Christian community is a reality of quiet force, of perpetual discipleship to Christ and to each other.

The Gemeinde is a community of humility. Humility is one of the most important characteristics of learning/discipleship. Another one is courage, the resolve to take a risk. What greater risk is there in a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, globalized Western world than pronouncing a non-Western name! The basileia theou is God’s “Yes!” to the world, the affirmation of Gen 1:31. One way to say “Yes” as a Western Christian is to offer the invitation for correction, allowing the Other to be my instructor, my mentor, opening myself to experience God’s blessed creation in a new way through the experience of learning a new name. [1]

One of the key elements of a Christian vision of community and fellowship is a mutuality in learning, a willingness to be taught. That posture is one which is humble and courageous: in the same way that we expect our Western/Catholic names to be pronounced with ease, so, too, we venture to say people’s names and stand corrected when we are wrong. Being wrong is not a virtue, I don’t think, but it is an opportunity to learn. The Christian community must be a space where those who have received the short end of life’s stick can be welcomed in as disciples and as fellow teachers.

Christianity is not a project of domination or triumph in the way the world understands victory. Our victory is already won in and by Christ; ours is ministry, in the reality of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is wholly other, described in the gospels as a seed and as yeast. It is a “stealth kingdom,” which witnesses to Christ’s resurrection and the Spirit’s work in the world.

For Christians, our “Yes!” to the world is the invitation into the kingdom we offer with our words and deeds. Our “Yes!” is an active word, a verbal noun, so to speak, which speaks in doing. It is progressive in that it not stagnant or defensive; it is dynamic and active. It is an affirmation of the good creation, of the goodness of creation; it is the affirmation of the goodness of human life, of the imago dei in all its hues, origins, and expressions. It is a powerful word, for in the proclamation (Luther comes to mind here), our “Yes” to the Kingdom of God is the simultaneous “NO” to the Kingdom of darkness and the enemy of God.


[1] The tradition and meaning of naming is almost completely lost/obscured in American dominant culture. One of the beauties of blesséd global/pluralistic community is that we can keep the tradition of naming alive by being in proximity to those for whom it is alive and well. Here in America, we don’t have to look far: our Native Indian communities have a rich history of naming, a profound sense of tradition and spiritual connection to nature and land, which all culminate in the naming ritual. I am no Native scholar or descendant, but from what I can gather from some previous conversations is that names are not arbitrary, but are infused with meaning, prophetic meaning.

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