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Cleveland Indians change their name: Three observations and an important question

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Cleveland Indians change their name: Three observations and an important question
A woman ties a banner to a tree outside Progressive Field before a baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians, Friday, July 24, 2020, in Cleveland. Known as the Indians since 1915, Cleveland's Major League Baseball team will be called Guardians. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

The Cleveland Indians announced this morning that they are changing their name to the Guardians. The team stated last December that it intended to change its nickname after this season, but it is making the decision now.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, this change comes with significant history.

He notes that the teams at Stanford were known as the Indians until 1972. Washington’s NFL team dropped the Redskins nickname as well. Dartmouth dropped its Indians nickname in 1974; William & Mary did the same in 1977, St. Bonaventure in 1979, and Louisiana-Monroe in 2006. Passan reports that over the past fifty years, no fewer than fifteen colleges in the US have taken this step.

Confucius noted, “If names are not correct, language will not be in accord with the truth of things.” Our names signal our identity. While some people will say, “Hi, my name is Mary,” most in my experience say, “Hi, I’m Mary,” as if they are who they are called.

What Alexander the Great thought of his name

On the positive side, being known by our name encourages us to live in such a way that our lives honor our name and our name is known for that which is honorable.

The story is told of a runaway Greek soldier named Alexander. He was captured and brought before his general, Alexander the Great. The general asked the soldier his name. “Alexander” was his terrified reply. The general roared, “Change your name or change your character.”

Seeking a good reputation is biblical: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1); “A good name is better than precious ointment” (Ecclesiastes 7:1).

Conversely, Scripture warns: “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.”

Who you are is not what you do

On the negative side, names can misname us. None of us chose the names our parents chose for us. Society tends to name us as well, whether by our vocation or our reputation. “Alexander the Great” wasn’t born with “Great” as his last name.

This can be problematic if we allow others to determine our identity.

A man stood on a busy street corner and asked those who passed by, “Who are you?” Every person without exception replied with what they did: “I’m a doctor,” or “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a pastor.”

The next time someone asks you who you are, this should be your reply: “I’m the child of God.” If Jesus is your Lord, this is your unchanging and most essential identity: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). You are the child of God when you succeed and when you fail in this world, while you are alive and when you step from death into eternal life in heaven.

Paradoxically, the more we center our lives in our true identity, the freer we become to live in ways that accomplish our kingdom assignment in life. We can tell people what they need to hear rather than only what they want to hear. We can share God’s love in our compassion with no thought of personal reward.

When we become who we are in Christ, we can help others become who they are in Christ.

A question for pondering

Let’s close with a practical observation and question.

The name “Christian” means “having the manner and spiritual character proper to a follower of Christ.” The name is from the 1590s, continuing a sense of the Middle English word.

Its biblical antecedent, of course, is found in Acts 11:26: “In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Luke doesn’t explain precisely why this was the case, but what comes before this statement offers us a clue: “Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul [Paul the Apostle], and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (vv. 25–26).

It seems that when Barnabas and Paul “taught” and discipled the believers in Antioch, they became so Christ-like as a result that their names corresponded with their character.

Consequently, I’ve been pondering this question: Would those who know me say I have “the manner and spiritual character proper to a follower of Christ”?

Would those who know you say the same of you?