Forbidden Name

What’s in a name?

JimCoffinBy James Coffin

Keziah. Josiah. Messiah. They all have a sonorous ring. But sonorous isn’t enough, according to Tennessee judge Lu Ann Ballew.

If Judge Ballew had her way, no child would be given the name Messiah. And even if one is so labelled, she’ll rename him, given half a chance. And that’s just what she did in the case of Messiah Deshawn Martin.

It seems that Messiah’s parents weren’t married. So his mother put her surname–Martin–on the kid’s birth certificate. But his father thought it should have been his surname–McCullough. Ultimately the matter landed in Judge Ballew’s inbox.

The issue–for the parents, at least–was never the first name. It was the last name. But Judge Ballew saw it differently: “The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.” That left the judge just one option (as she saw it): change the kid’s first name.

Judge Ballew said she’d tried to look forward to the name’s future impact on the child. Granted that Cocke County, Tennessee, has a large Christian population, the kid was sure to face trouble. The implication of her words is that he’d be mocked, harassed, bullied, picked on, persecuted, you name it.

Although a judge’s solicitude for the welfare of a child is commendable, there’s also a lot of irony here.

Judge Ballew claims that Jesus of Nazareth is the only being who could legitimately lay claim to the title Messiah. But there’s more to this story.

You see, Jesus–also called the Prince of Peace–was an advocate of love, of peace, of turning the other cheek, of treating everyone in the way you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. In fact, he advocated treating even one’s enemies–the bad guys–with kindness. It’s impressive moral teaching.

So does it not seem incongruous that a Christian judge would be so certain that any kid named Messiah who associates with youthful followers of Jesus is all but guaranteed to be treated badly? Or am I the only Christian who cringes at her (perhaps unrecognized) confession that Jesus’ teachings are often so radically different from the common-place behavior of those who promote his brand? It’s an indictment I wish my faith tradition could deny.

The child formerly known as Messiah Deshawn Martin is now legally Martin Deshawn McCullough–despite his mother’s protestations. So she’s appealing the ruling. I hope the appellate judge recognizes that Judge Ballew was guilty of judicial overreach.

However, what concerns me even more, as a Christian, is that there may have been no overreach in Judge Ballew’s confident predictions about how a predominantly Christian community would treat a youngster whose parents–just like some 700 other sets of parents in the United States during 2012 alone!–chose the sonorous (but probably ill-advised) name Messiah for their child.

Indeed, that troubles me.

James Coffin, a pastor for nearly 36 years, is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.