To Be Specific


Neither heights nor depths—nor anything else in all creation—will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior. ~Romans 8:39

Binomial nomenclature, if not invented by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, was at least codified by him. It is a system of classifying flora and fauna by genus and species. Those are the two parts of the name (thus binomial). There are agreed international codes to assure that regardless of common name, we can be certain that we speaking about the same species. As humans of different cultures experienced the same species, they gave them different names, which at times has led to confusion. When Europeans began settling in North America, they saw hawks in the genus Buteo which resembled birds they were familiar with from Europe and referred to them as buzzards, even though they are not related. To add to the confusion, some folks call vultures buzzards, plus “new world” and “old world” vultures, though similar in appearance and behavior, are not related. In an effort to be helpful, the American Ornithological Union is seen as the authority when it comes to “official” common names of birds in North America. When science leads to new understandings of species and subspecies, they publish new lists with “lumps” and “splits” with corresponding name changes. In my years of keeping lists, Green Heron has gone from Green Heron to Green-backed Heron to Green Heron. Clear as mud, huh? Recently, there has been a justified concern about the ethical implications of some names. Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) is the new name for Oldsquaw. That name came from comparing the sounds the ducks make to a very racist opinion of the sounds of older native American women talking. Clearly, that was a much needed change. Difficult conversations are happening about the practice of naming species after the people who “discovered” them. Some of these people have troubling histories such as owning slaves and serving as a Confederate general in the Civil War. Even Audubon’s practice of shooting birds in order to examine them (a common practice for ornithologists prior to advances in optics) has led to calls to remove his name from species.

There is no denying that the urge to identify is strong. There is comfort in organizing by moving from the generic to the specific (not coincidentally related to the words genus and species). But establish naming protocols too easily becomes a tool of division. If naming is labeling, then we can separate us and them. It is challenging enough to avoid that between people. It requires changes in language. A child is not autistic, rather, the child has autism. While inconvenient, it says something about your understanding of our oneness to refer to homeless people rather than the homeless. Likewise, it says something about your understanding of God when you avoid gendered language for the divine (or even being so careful of taking G-d’s name in vain by not using the “full” name in writing as some observant Jews will do).

Think about how it feels when someone takes the time to learn about your name and makes the effort to call you what you choose to be called. That sort of affirmation of true identity is connecting not divisive. It is a reflection of the love that God has for each of us and every creature. Truly, God knows your name as well as the tiniest organism at the bottom of the deepest ocean and would remind you that that makes us all family since we are all God’s children.

Prayer: Holy name above all names, thank you for naming us your children. May we be as caring as we learn the true names of all our siblings. Amen.

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