Our pastor opened his sermon yesterday by talking about the importance of names. Most Tanzanian names have some kind of meaning. Sometimes these meanings are positive e.g. Amani (peace) or Furaha (joy). Sometimes they’re neutral, for example, you can be named after the day on which you were born. And they can also be negative, for example, Majuto (regret), Mateso (affliction), or Taabu (distress) are common. In African traditional religions, these negative names can act like a curse that you are unable to escape from.
Pastor Dondo said, when we are born again, these powers and curses of our old religion no longer have any hold over us. Nevertheless, names remind us of things; they set the tone and direction of our lives. Names are not meaningless, and they have an effect on us. He advised that parents consider this when naming their children. We have friends who have named their daughter Blessing for example, because they want her to be a blessing to others.
He went on to speak about the names of Jesus in Luke 1-2. Apparently there are 10 or so. He chose three, which nicely sum up Tanzanian theology (more on this to come.)
After church Pastor Dondo and I were discussing sin in the Christian life. He did not like the idea of calling yourself a sinner.
In my Christian tradition, identifying as a sinner is vital. You admit your sin before God as an exercise in truth telling. It is a recognition of the reality of your life and His holiness, and you come before him for forgiveness and release from your guilt. Admitting your sin is a pre-cursor to receiving forgiveness, and it’s not something that you ever move on from. It’s not a surprise that confession also figures strongly. We will always be sinners in need of grace until the return of Christ.
But for Pastor Dondo, to identify as a sinner is to give yourself a title to live into. It defines you, and you have no reason to be anything but. That’s what names and labels do. They describe us and they set the direction for our lives. So a Christian who speaks about themselves as a sinner is someone who continues to let sin define them, and therefore to continue to be in its grasp.
Here are two exchanges I had with Pastor Dondo:
Me: “Is there ever a point at which you stop being a sinner?”
Pastor Dondo: “Yes, of course! When you become born again!”
Me: “Is there a point in your life where you stop sinning?”
Pastor Dondo: “No, of course not. We will not be perfected until Jesus returns.”
This beautifully illustrates how when he’s speaking about calling yourself a sinner, he is not speaking in descriptive terms about your actions; he’s speaking in identity terms, as words speak reality into existence. Who do you want to be? What story will you tell yourself and live into? This is why aspirational statements are so important in Tanzanian theology, and why verbally acknowledging negative elements is dangerous and to be avoided.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.