What’s in a Name?

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In last year’s Systematic Theology II class, one of our assignments was to explore and evaluate forgiveness as we see it displayed in the 1998 movie version of Les Miserables.  During our class discussion, some of us took a point of view that the relentless law enforcement official, Javert, represented the devil and a certain aspect of humanity. 

The devil, the one who is the accuser, calls us out by our sin.  “For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down (Revelation 12:10b).”  God, on the other hand, calls us out by who He created us to be.  Jesus is our Advocate with the Father, “But if anybody does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (I John 2:1b).”

Similarly, our class deduced that Javert is continually calling Jean Valjean and Fantine by their past mistakes.  Sometimes we can do the same thing, labeling ourselves in our own minds, according to our mistakes and our failures.  Earlier in Les Miserables, Fantine calls her daughter, Cosette, “an innocent”.  Yet, Fantine does not use those same words to describe herself.  Instead, it is Jean Valjean who acknowledges to Fantine that not only is Cosette an image bearer of God, but that Fantine is, as well: “She (Cosette) has the Lord.  He is her Father.  And you’re (Fantine) His creation.  In His eyes, you have never been anything but an innocent and…beautiful woman.”

Language is important and helps form our thoughts. Therefore, as a point of grace in Safe Church Ministry, we try not to refer to a person as, “an abuser” or “a perpetrator.” I am so thankful for the guidance and wisdom of Bonnie Nicholas, director of Safe Church Ministry.  Bonnie frequently reminds us that, “A person is a person first, so it's a person who abuses rather than an abuser. Similarly, we say, "a person who has experienced abuse" and try not to refer to someone who has experienced abuse as a victim even though they have been victimized. And though survivor is more of a positive label, and may also be true, a person is much more than their experience. We don't want to base someone’s identity on the worst thing they’ve done, or on something awful that they’ve experienced. That’s not the source of a person’s identity.”    

What language and labels are we using in our churches?  By our words, do we extend grace and mercy to all people, seeing them as image bearers of God?  Or do we label them by what they have done?

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Participant

Les Mis is one of my favorite stories...however, this is making me go hmmm... I get the concept and it sounds nice and very politically correct, so we aren't "sinners" anymore, instead people who make poor choices/mistakes sometimes...  and yes, sometimes the scripture lists it as those who do certain sinful things....  ie those who are greedy or see Galatians 5:19-21 for a list of sins.

also, I do struggle when people quote that all our deeds are filthy rags, and every intent of our heart is evil, instead of giving Jesus the glory for giving us, as believers, a new heart and making us a new creation in Him, and through His blood, cleansing those filthy rags into fine linen worthy of His Bride (Rev 19:8).. absolutely, we have a new identity in Christ.

but Apostle Paul uses all kinds of labels (I Cor 5:9-13)... Jesus did too...  "brood of vipers" =( ouch! not exactly PC... He didn't say "oh you people who act like snakes sometimes"...  and "blind guides" - not, "these people who don't see clearly all the time"...  He called Judas a "devil"...  He called people wicked and perverse... definitely not "nice" or politically correct, it's part of what got Him killed...

I know it seems harsh in our politically correct culture, but unless we have been translating the Word of God wrong, there is biblical precedent for "labeling" in scripture... it seems, particularly for those who were expected to be spiritual, but were actually walking in sin and un-repentance.

Participant

What a challenging assessment, Bev.  Thank you, for helping us to think deeper about this subject.  I would add, though, that the theme of the blogpost was not about political correctness; rather, it was about extending grace to others.  Also, in the passages you mentioned, Paul’s and Jesus’ words were advocating for, and a message for, change.  That labeling was part of the teaching, part of the correction.  I intended for my blogpost to make the distinction between correcting and condemning.

Conversely, the movie antagonist I referenced, Javert, and as I said, sometimes represents certain sections of society, used labeling as a way to shame and condemn Fantine and Jean Valjean.  Javert offered no hope, no message of redemption.  To Javert, what they (Fantine and Jean Valjean) were, was all they would ever be.  That is why Javert pursued Jean Valjean so doggedly, right?  Javert wanted to continually hold Jean Valjean under the banner of the sin he had committed.  That is what people do when they do not have the hope of the Gospel.  But, we have that hope, right?

Therefore, the impetus of the labeling is from a place of loving correction and is a precedent for change.  And, you are right, Jesus does refer to Judas as “a devil” in John 6:70.  In Matthew 26:50, Jesus also calls Judas “friend”.

Community Builder

There is a difference between acknowledging sin and holding someone accountable, which I believe is something that we need to do much more than we do currently in our churches - and offering grace and forgiveness. Offering grace and forgiveness does not mean that there are not consequences for sin, there may still be consequences. And we are called to be holy, so we don't have permission to continue in our sin. Yet our sin does not define who we are. We are defined by our relationship with our Father, who pronounces us his own, blessed and loved. And as Robin points out his grace is meant to lead to a change of heart, we are in the process of being sanctified, a process that will not end until we dwell in heaven with him. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Rom 8:1) Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). We need to reflect that as his people.

There is also the problem of putting people into harm's way aka temptation. I one talked to a person who said he would not object to having a repentant thief as his church treasurer. Why would a person who knows he is tempted to steal want to be a church treasurer? Neither would I want a "reformed" porn addict working with children.  

Community Builder

You're right Bill. That's what I meant when I said that there are consequences for sin. Safe Church would recommend, for example, that one of the consequences of having a criminal sexual offense on your record is that as a result, you are unable to serve the congregation in a position of responsibility with children and youth. There are many other ways to serve that would be more appropriate. We need to be wise and also diligent in our responsibility to protect those who are most vulnerable among us. The Lord has entrusted them to our care. Safe Church Ministry has resources on our website that address returning citizens who have a criminal sexual history. They can be found here.