Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Naming names: What Kenny Archey taught me in one providential moment about respect & racism

Head’s up! Two warnings before you read this post:

[1] This post contains strong for-mature-audiences-only language and words that some may find offensive. I know I do and don’t employ them lightly. But please understand the context of the overall message and avoid reacting to isolated words.

[2] This is also a longer than usual post and may seem a little meandering. But each rabbit trail is relevant. It’s important to read to the end to get the full message.

Recently I’ve been thinking about an old high school friend who taught me a priceless lesson related to bigotry, name-calling, respect, and racism.

Actually, as I think back on the relationship I have to be honest in that he was more of an acquaintance, but a friendly and sincere one. That’s kind of the way most school-centric friendships were. At least for me.

I never went to his house. He never came to mine. If he had, I would have welcomed him in. But it didn’t happen because, well, for the same reason a lot of my school friends and I never visited each others’ homes. Many of us were transportation-challenged and walking averse. Plus, being an introvert, once school was over, my preference was to recharge alone in my room.

Anyway, most of what he and I knew of each other came from our time spent in chorale. The guy had a good voice and a pleasant personality. He was funny, charming, and smart.

Kenny Archey was the only black guy in chorale, but not the only black kid in our school. The last time I saw Kenny was at my 20 year high school reunion in 1990. We chatted briefly. Then just weeks later the news came that he had died.

I never told Kenny how he had taught me a critically valuable life lesson. But I’ll tell you.

What’s in a name? A lot!

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but it will be insulted if you call it stinkweed.

Names, what our parents give us, what we call ourselves, how we are called by others, are important.

Throughout the Bible, there are episodes where a person is renamed after having their life mission redirected following a significant spiritual encounter.

In the Old Testament, Jacob tended toward deception. In fact, his name meant “supplanter” which is defined as “to usurp especially through intrigue or underhanded tactics.” After wrestling with God and being commissioned for greatness, Jacob was rechristened Israel, or “one who wrestles with God” or “God perseveres” (Genesis 32:28).

In the New Testament, Jesus encounters a crusty fisherman named Simon and soon after gives him the new name of Peter, “the rock,” that better represented his new destiny (John 1:42).

In fact, those of us who make it to heaven will all be renamed to honor the occasion: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17, ESV).

We give care to naming our children to ensure the names are meaningful, connecting our children to the family lineage, or giving them a name of someone significant and inspirational. It’s said  Martin King, Jr. was rechristened Martin Luther King, Jr. by his father who was inspired by Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

If someone twists our name or the names of our children into something mocking, we cringe. We understand the impact of such personally targeted disrespect.

Name-calling dehumanizes and wounds.

Renaming a person with labels by calling them cracker, whore, retard, stupid, bitch, bastard, lazy, pig, fatty, swine, smelly, and on and on is intended to minimize, ridicule, and marginalize.

Bigotry is not just about skin color and is akin to bullying. Racism encompasses both bigotry and bullying.

We don’t like when it’s done to us, so should abstain from doing it to others. 

I was not born on a bayou

The town I grew up in was and is relatively small. It didn’t feel so small while I was growing up there. It was filled with the typical Midwestern hustle and bustle. The overarching topic of conversation was always basketball, so it seemed. After all, this was Indiana, and I was a Hoosier, whatever the heck a Hoosier is.

Even though I was tall and perfect fodder for the sport, it held no attraction. I was gawky on the court and didn’t understand the game because I really wasn’t that interested. As soon as I learned to read, my nose was in a book. Others carried around their ball of choice, while I went everywhere with a book in my back pocket. Down time was always reading time.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s.

When all hell was beginning to break loose in Selma, I was a preteen and not really deeply aware of the hubbub. What little about race that broke through my fledgling consciousness didn’t make a whole lot of sense. After all, we were all human beings, right?

I vaguely remember while on some summer family vacations seeing signs here and there saying something about “colored only” but didn’t grasp what they meant. I was happy to drink from any water fountain when thirsty and allow anyone else to do the same.

While there weren’t a lot of discussions about race in our family, I cannot recall any real overt prejudice or bigotry. My parents spoke respectfully of all people, for the most part. If my dad criticized anyone for being lazy or “of no account” it had to do with their character or lack thereof, skin color being irrelevant.

Still, I must admit, I didn’t spend a lot of time around people who were not white. It wasn’t by choice, that’s just the circumstance I was in.

Although, there was this one black girl in high school I had a crush on for awhile. I never acted on it just as I didn’t act on most of my crushes. When it came to girls, I was a tad intimidated and backward.

You ain’t nothin’ but a hayseed hillbilly holy roller!

During my teen years, it wasn’t unusual to hear my buddies telling jokes that by today’s standards would be viewed as ultra-non-PC. Many of these jokes would start out something like, “Did you hear about the spic who....?” Or, “A wetback walked into a room....” Or, “You know she’s blonde when...”

A major sub-category of these jokes of the day involved polacks. These were common and often hilarious, so we thought. They could be given new life merely by swapping out polack for any other stereotype slang term du jour, such as injuns, hillbilly, wop, jap, chinks, redneck, kraut....

You get the idea.

Sometimes, the subjects of the humor were Jewish, Irish, Catholic, Dutch, English, Pentecostals, Baptists, or people from Kentucky. Or someone who lived in that part of town.

Of course now I get the irony in that I came from a Pentecostal religious tradition, born of parents who had many relatives in Kentucky, with an American Indian heritage, as well as a good dose of English and some Dutch and Irish in our lineage.

This meant that often I was the butt of the very jokes I heard and told without even being aware.

So it goes. Ignorance is bliss until it’s not.

In our current holier-than-thou-absurdly-politically-corrected age, while you likely won’t hear too many jokes poking fun at an ethnic group, you will readily hear vehement name-calling as the labels idiot, jerk, asshole, nut job, dumbass, fool, psycho, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigot, dickhead, moron, nitwit, and obscenely worse are attached to those with whom we disagree or dislike.

These are mostly aimed at those whose differences make us uncomfortable because, well, they’re different from us, which of course is really bad logic and totally irrational.

Add to this illogic that if we overheard one of our kids use these words we’d have heart attacks.

There’s no one here by that name

Even though we freely name-call others, we don’t like to be called names and we don’t like to have our given names butchered.

When a telemarketer calls asking for “Stefan” I bristle and end the call brusquely. When someone calls me “Steve” I correct them saying, “Stephen.”

I am Stephen, with a ph. Not Steven, even though that’s how it sounds. And definitely not Stefan, although it appears that it could be pronounced that way.

And if you call me stupid, the conversation is done, you moron.

I mean, who likes to be called stupid? And yet we toss that and worse around with impunity. Some couples will even wear “I’m with stupid” T-shirts underscored with arrows pointing at their mate.

It isn’t funny. It’s demeaning.

Facebook and social media in general are awash with insulting memes related to making fun of and insulting this or that person or group as stupid, idiots, or worse. And we “like”, laugh, and share.

Most of this name-calling has nothing to do with the attacked’s intellectual capacities.

Rather, it’s usually based on them being differently educated, differently informed, differently encultured, differently experienced, differently believing, differently read, differently preferenced, or differently perspectived.

Being differently minded about something does not equate to being wrong or stupid about something.

We all bring differences to the party, which is what makes a party fun and interesting.

Labeling someone as stupid or worse is incredibly demeaning to them and arrogant on our part.

Even Jesus warned, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22, ESV).

The term raca translated as “you fool” literally means “senseless, empty headed.”

Insulting each other does not facilitate conversation, let alone understanding, among us.

Up against the wall

Kenny Archey taught me that name calling, whether done passively as through a joke, or overtly, is not a good thing.

Just as polack jokes were popular back in the day, so were nigger jokes. I told my share of them all, repeating them mindlessly as I heard them, aiming to get a laugh and thus approval from my like-minded chums.

Of course, I never told them to my parents so I had a faint sense that there was something off-color about them. But at school, for inexplicable reasons, it was different.

One day, I was headed down the steps near the chorale room, walking with a couple of friends who were going the same way, and I was telling a nigger joke I’d just heard. I was oblivious to all others but my friends around me. One to whom I was oblivious was Kenny.

He was nearby and heard me.

In an instant, he was in my face, my shirt collar in one of his hands as he put me up against the wall, his other hand drawn back in a fist.

“What did you just say?” he demanded.

To say I was caught off guard would be a proverbial understatement. This was completely uncharacteristic of the Kenny I knew. And for several moments I was totally confused.

“What did you just say?” he repeated.

I don’t remember if my friends abandoned me. I don’t remember if there were any onlookers. At that moment, as best as I can recall, it was essentially just me and Kenny.

“What was that word you used?” he demanded a little more specifically.

It took me a few moments to sort through what I’d said and match it up with who Kenny was and what was happening before the light began to dawn.

“N-n-n-nigger?” I mumbled fearfully.

Looking into Kenny’s eyes, caring about him as a friend and a fellow human being, I began to understand that words, especially when they are naming words, make a difference. Him overhearing me tell what I wrongly viewed as an innocent joke had stabbed him through the heart.

“I don’t want to ever hear you use that word again,” he counseled emphatically as he loosened his grip on my shirt and unclenched his fist.

Kenny made it unequivocally clear to me in those few tense moments that “nigger” was never an acceptable label for a person. Ever.

The encounter ended with me sincerely apologizing for my, what I can only identify as, racist joking. Kenny apologized for his outburst and threat. We talked a bit more, shook hands, and went on to our classes. And we remained friends.

I’ve never forgotten that moment and, except in telling this story, as far as I’m aware, have never used the “n” word since. I have never begrudged Kenny his anger or action in that moment.

Over time, I’ve stopped telling any kind of joke that mocks ethnic, racial, or religious groups, including blonde jokes.

And today I cringe when I hear others, thinking themselves clever and funny, toss around epithets of stupid, idiot, moron, and the like. I especially cringe when it’s me tossing these around, whether in idle conversation or thought.

In fact, that high school stairwell encounter was the impetus for a reshaping of a lot of my thinking that continues. I owe Kenny Archey a huge debt of gratitude for that redirection.

Kids can be cruel & I was

Actually, a few years prior to my providential run-in with Kenny, an uncle tried to get this concept through my thick skull. Uncle Floyd was the Sunday school teacher for us preteen to early teen boys. Most of us were 10, 11, or 12 at the time.

There was a newer kid that showed up one Sunday. He was a little smaller than most, had a sweet disposition, and always -- I mean always -- wore a red blazer with gold buttons and a faux coat of arms embroidered on the left breast pocket. This was just too much for the rest of us.

The poor kid, I think his name was Billy, endured endless ribbing from us. We eventually began calling him Cherry because of his jacket. He abhorred the nickname and our teasing, tearing up more than once.

I was genuinely too naive to realize the more, shall we say earthy, meanings of the name Cherry. My uncle was not. When he learned of our cruel christening, he lost no time letting us know that we were out of bounds. And then he did something that was really personal.

To get his point across about the harm mean nicknames can cause, he began giving each of us new names.

My hair, back when I had more of it, was my mother’s pride and my horror. It was naturally curly and I hated it. My uncle knew this.

When he got to me, his nephew, he gave me the only nickname that stuck: Cotton Top.

I was boiling inside but there was little I could do. Except ratchet up the teasing of Billy to draw attention away from myself. This is not a good strategy and is seldom effective in the long run. It just made me look cruel, which I was.

As best as I can remember Billy and his family stopped coming to our church. Can’t say that I blame them at all.

Wherever you are, Billy, I am truly sorry.

Tell me your name again?

It wasn’t long after my reeducation from Kenny that I encountered the writings of Francis Schaeffer.  In his slim yet significant book titled The Mark of the Christian, he states:

“All men bear the image of God. They have value, not because they are redeemed, but because they are God’s creation in God’s image. Modern man, who has rejected this, has no clue as to who he is, and because of this he can find no real value for himself or for other men. Hence, he downgrades the value of other men and produces the horrible thing we face today — a sick culture in which men treat men as inhuman, as machines. As Christians, however, we know the value of men.”

As a kid, when I mindlessly told those jokes, I was denying the image of God in the people being ridiculed. The same thing happens when we name-call.

A few years ago, during a small group Bible study, a friend talked about how he knew some Christians who were real assholes.

I was stunned by his use of such a derogatory term to describe fellow believers. Yes, there are people, believers and unbelievers, who are annoying, but labeling them in such a descriptively obscene way is to deface the image of God in them. It’s demeaning and flat out wrong. Especially among Christians.

When we get into debates over race, police behavior, politics, theology, sports, or anything else that gets our dander up, and we slip into name calling, our intent is to diminish the value of those we see as opponents.

In our minds, we draw them as enemies and less-than-human (and less-than-us), mentally defacing God’s image in them. We put them down, think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and so arbitrarily declare the ground we stand on as uneven. And ultimately we devalue ourselves.

It doesn’t matter “who started it.” This is not loving or mature. This is not the way to approach reconciliation. This is not the way to accomplish anything good or true or just.

The solution is to go another direction.

Youre a conservatively liberal left-looking fundamentalizing middle-of-the road non-moderate convultionary provocateurist!

More than once I’ve tried to have conversations with a person who was very bigoted in ways they couldn’t even begin to acknowledge. Often the conversation had to do with how others were horrible bigots.

You know, the “others” who are crazy liberals, ignorant conservatives, misguided religious fanatics, wrong-headed atheists, backwards creationists, God-hating evolutionists, faithless scientists, or whatever group they’re ranting about.

The problem in these kinds of conversations is twofold: First, the other person can never envision themselves as being wrong. Second, they insist on applying labels and thus judgments to everyone. Including me.

Once they get you in a box they feel they have you. They know exactly what you are thinking. They know what you will say in response to various ideas. And whatever they believe you are going to say they have already decided you are wrong.

The way they will try to profile me is by asking if I go to church or not, what TV news shows I watch, what I think about various movies, who I voted for in certain elections, am I pro or con on a particular issue, and similar questions.

When they feel they’ve got me pegged, I’m labeled, rubber-stamped, and told what I’m thinking. At that point, any hope of a real discussion or conversation is lost.

Anything I say that doesn’t fit their prejudiced idea of who I am is disbelieved.

If you believe all cops are pigs, then that’s how you’ll think of them and relate to them. If you believe all Christians are hypocrites, or all from France are rude, or all CEOs are greedy, or all whites are racists, or all blacks are lazy, or all teens are irresponsible, or all Millennials are self-centered, or all Republicans are oppressors of the poor, or all Democrats are socialists, and so forth, then that’s how you’ll think of them and relate to them, with your bigoted mindset.

You will interpret everything any group does through your preconceived ideas of what and who you believe they are, accurate or not. In other words, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

That’s bigotry which makes us all bigots. It forces everyone into an “us” against “them” stance. Common ground is eliminated under a barrage of wrong-headed presuppositions.

Everyone ends up lobbing epithets at the other side. It’s just another form of name-calling and bullying.

This isn’t the way to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).

Hot coals to warm the soul

There’s an interesting passage in Romans where Paul suggests random and intentional acts of kindness toward enemies are like heaping hot coals on their heads. The whole passage is worth reading to get the full context:

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21, ESV; see also Proverbs 25:21-22 and Luke 6:27).

On the surface, the idea of putting hot coals on someone’s head is puzzling to say the least. Often, I’ve heard it weakly explained that by doing good to one’s enemies their consciences will be “burned” into recognizing the errors of their ways. In other words, doing good to our enemies is a backhanded way of getting at them somehow.

That explanation never sat well with me.

There’s a better, more contextually appropriate explanation. When I first heard it a some years ago, it was an “Aha!” moment.

Essentially, in Bible times, if the fire went out in your home, this was a big problem. When this happened, women would go out in the community seeking hot coals from their neighbor’s fires to restart their own. They would carry these coals in clay jars on their heads. Getting one or two coals was a good thing, but having coals “heaped on their heads” was a guarantee of renewed warmth and the ability to cook in their own homes.

In other words, it’s like humbly asking to borrow a cup of milk and receiving the gift of a gallon as well as loaf of bread and a dozen eggs.

Martin Luther King, Jr. explains the impact of this kind of “heaping coals love” this way:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

So, how do we begin to love our enemies? To love our very different neighbors? To begin to see each other as vulnerable God-imaged human beings instead of skin-bags of battling political agendas?

The same way we already love our friends.

Instead of throwing hot coals of insult and disrespect at each other we must offer heaping coals of warmth, service, and caring to each other.

We can start by calling people only by the name they choose to go by. And then listening to their unique stories, thoughts, and feelings.

In a God-ordained epiphany moment on those high school steps years ago, Kenny Archey taught me this.

It’s that simple. And it’s a good start.

Thanks, Kenny.


Relevant links:
Again, I apologize to those who were offended by my use of certain words, but I felt it was the best way to be clear. What do you think? How do you think of those you disagree with? Do you speak respectfully to them face-to-face and then insult them behind their backs or in your thoughts? Do you wish them well or harm? Have you had moments like mine with Kenny where you gained special insight? Please share your thoughts in the comments


  1. Good text for a Sunday School class.

  2. How do you define " racist"?

    What does "nigger" mean? What is its etymology?

  3. Great blog!
    Your brother, Gus


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