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What’s in a Name?

You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.’ “That is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ ~ Matthew 22:37-39

It appears that I will never see a Wilson’s Plover. It would mark the final “Wilson’s” on my life list: Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, and Wilson’s Warbler. My hope was to see all the species named after Alexander Wilson, because I fancy myself a relative of the famous American ornithologist. Like my great-grandfather, he was a Wilson born in Paisley, Scotland. Of course, Wilson seems to be the Scottish equivalent of Smith or Jones, and since Alexander left Scotland in the 18th century, any relationship would be distant. Still, it was one of those side quests of bird listing fun that created secondary motivation. Not only won’t I see the target species, I’ll never see any of the four species again either. Then again, neither will you or anyone else.

Sounds dire, even catastrophic, doesn’t it? Fear not, none of these species are facing extinction, they are all just being renamed, along with somewhere around 150 other species in North America which are named after humans. The reason initiating this action has sparked some controversy, because some of the people lending their names to birds have troubling histories. Already, Thick-billed Longspur was renamed because the previous name honored a Confederate general. Scott’s Oriole is due for renaming. Scott was an army officer involved in the forced relocation of Native Americans in what is known as the Trail of Tears. There are other North American birds named after people who never even set foot on the continent. So rather than sort through the deserving and undeserving, the American Ornithological Society has agreed to name birds for those things that make them who they are, their features, behaviors, and habitats. That means that my potentially distant relative Alexander, though deserving of the honor, will be replaced by names more fitting.

All of this may sound either like a tempest in a teacup or perhaps an injustice, but consider if someone in authority insisted not only in calling you by a name that is not the one you choose, but also made sure everyone else also misnamed you. The right thing to do would be to stop that. I can imagine that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time thought they had him trapped when they insisted that he choose which commandment was greatest. They assumed that he would upset someone with his answer and they would get him. Jesus’ wise reply did not cater to those who today would decry political correctness, nor those who would set themselves up to judge between the just and unjust. Instead he gave a principle that works in any situation: love others they way you love yourself. What could be more fair than that? You deserve to be known by who you present to be not how others choose to describe you.

Prayer: Creator, you gave the first humans the job of naming the animals. Help us see not only the true nature of the animals and call them by their correct names, but even more importantly, help us know our neighbors’ true selves, loving them they way we love ourselves. Amen.


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