What is in a name?

(Photo: Unsplash/Anomaly)

Her first name was Minty. Her second name: Harriet Tubman. Her third: Moses. Her first slave master forced the name Minty on her. After she secured her freedom by escaping from her master's plantation, she named herself Harriet Tubman.

So where did her name Moses come from?

Slave stories were awash with how Harriet created the Underground Railroad. This was not the case. It was established in the late eighteenth century by Black and white abolitionists. What is true is Tubman benefited from the network of escape routes and safe houses in 1849, when she and her two brothers escaped to the north.

Tubman returned several times to the South and helped countless numbers of enslaved people find freedom up north. Her success led slave owners to post a $40,000 reward for the 'capture or death of the Black Moses'.

It was no coincidence that this enslaved African female had three name changes in her lifetime. Her first name would have had a devastating impact on her self-esteem. With its obvious associations to indignity and enslavement, the name Minty would have reinforced her inhumanity and chattel status, in contrast to Harriet Tubman and the Black Moses, which both signify a radical change in circumstances and her personal movement towards liberation and autonomy.

Names have power. I am aware, as in the case of Minty, names can also dispossess people of power. With a commitment to highlight the former and a determination to prevent the latter, certain traditional cultures go to great lengths to centre names and amplify their importance.

The Yoruba culture, the culture of my parents, love naming ceremonies which swiftly follow the birth of a Yoruba child. The ceremonies have a dual purpose: celebration is etched into their DNA - rightly so, as God has gifted the parents and the community with a child.

In addition, the ceremonies are also packed with symbolism and theological significance. They are a reminder to the community that the named child should never have to experience isolation. As the Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in community, so the new child is invited to live in the Divine and human community formed by gentle love and gracious communication.

Within this community, or as some might say, family, the child's name givers have become the metaphorical parents of the child. As name givers, just like the child's biological parents, they too commit to walking in the moccasins of the child until separated by death.

Vowels may not be explicit in the ceremony, they are inferred. 'To death do us part' is essentially what the name giver is communicating to the child in the presence of a cloud of witnesses.

Each naming ceremony is undergirded by Ubuntu: 'I am because we are.' Ubuntu rejects individualism. It embraces collective responsibility and is intentional in building relationships that spotlight the beauty and potential of others in the community of love.

Ubuntu relationships respect and affirm the image of God in all people. They are also on a quest to constantly platform personhood and potential.

A wise friend said, 'God whispers the names of our children to us.' She maintains that parents, metaphorical or otherwise, hear the whisper of God and name the child accordingly.

This may not happen on all occasions but for many parents the whisper of God is reflected in the naming of their child. There are many examples of this in the Bible: Adam, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel and Lo -Ruhamah.

Another more widely known prophet named by God was John the Baptist: 'But the angel said to him, fear not Zacharias for your prayer is heard and your wife Elisabeth shall bear you a son and you shall call his name John.'

The most significant and well-known naming by God in the scriptures was of his own son, Jesus Christ.

In this sense the Jews have it right. The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, shin and mem make the word shem, Hebrew for 'name.' Your name, Jewish tradition suggests, is the key to your soul.

The Midrash teaches us that although prophecy no longer exists after the close of the Bible, there is one small area in which we are still granted a glimpse of Divine wisdom. It comes to us when we struggle to find the name for our offspring.

The names of our children are the result of a partnership between our effort and God's response. That is why the Hebrew for 'name' has the same numerical value as the word for 'book.' Our names are a book. They tell a narrative about the named person.

How should the theology of names influence our relationships with God, our self and others?

Beginning with God, in our contemporary world, Christians can lack reverence when addressing the name of God. Of course, God is our friend, but God is also enigmatic, mysterious, challenging, 'other than'. The name of God deserves to be treated with utmost respect and sacredness.

Call me old fashioned, but I sometimes wonder if our prayers reveal an informality with God, a banter replacing a holy sacredness which deserves to be front and centre in our relationship with God.

Again, call me old fashioned, but spontaneous worship, should in my opinion, be juxtaposed with a liturgical approach to God. Through His many names, God portrays His character.

The names of God throw light on His ability to informally interact with His children. Many of God's names illuminate his majesty, omnipresence, mystery and sometimes hiddenness.

Names, secondly, also impact our psychology. The frequent imbibing of our names must surely mean we can inadvertently become our names. But if our names have no meaning whatsoever, theologically or otherwise, how might this impact on our identity? That does not sound positive.

Conversely, if our names are full of meaning and rich symbolism the possibility of embodying its meaning is high. Choosing names carefully is important.

Listening to the 'whisper of God' and partnering with God in the name finding process is crucial. Knowing that a name can be instrumental in influencing our futures, listening to the 'whisper of God' during the naming exercise is possibly more important than we realise.

Finally, others. There is a reason why I recoil when people address me as 'Wally' – which has its own negative connotations – and not my birth name Wale which means: 'King welcome home or welcome home king.'

With the disparity in meanings for all to see, embracing Wale over Wally should require no explanation whatsoever. That said, I have often reflected on what my identity and self-esteem would be like if I daily absorbed the name Wally. I am guessing I would be a different person. A stark reminder not to replace a person's name if we can't pronounce it accurately but rather to learn to pronounce it, for in doing so, we may be breathing life into the person's soul.

What is in a name? Minty might say, the power of death; Harriet Tubman, the power of life.

Wale Hudson-Roberts is Justice Enabler at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the pastor of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Cowley, Oxford.