How do you say…?
Over the past number of weeks, as one form of preparations for my travels, I have been using a couple of apps on my iPhone to learn a little bit of French. Geneva, where I’ll be staying from November 2nd to the 13th, is in the French-speaking portion of Switzerland—although, admittedly, it is home to such a panoply of international agencies that I probably won’t have much trouble finding people who speak English. (And for those who are interested in language-learning, I’m quite impressed with both of the apps I’ve been using: Memrise and Duolingo. Check them out!)
Anyway… one of the things that caught my attention early on in this language-learning endeavor is the different ways that different languages express certain things. I don’t mean simply the vocabulary; that part is a given. Rather, there are places where The way you say something in one language is different from how you say it in another at a deeper, more conceptual level.
One example from early in the language learning is around hunger. In English, if I was in the state of needing food, I would say “I am hungry”. But in French, I would say “J’ai faim,” for which the literal translation is “I have hunger.” Catch the difference? In French hunger is a thing I have—a thing, separate from myself, which I possess. My hunger doesn’t define me, it’s just something I have. In our usual English expression, on the other hand, the need for food is something that changes my state of being or perhaps even my identity. What am I? I am hungry. The hunger has become a defining part of me, at least for that moment. These are two rather different ways of thinking about a thing, all due to the way our respective languages allow us to speak.
Now, this may seem like a small (or even insignificant) difference, and perhaps when it comes to hunger it is. I was more struck by the difference when the language-learning app taught the words for “wrong” and “right”: tort and raison. As it turns out, these end up working in French the same way that hunger (faim) does. What we in English would say as “I am wrong” would be expressed in French as “J’ai tort”: I have wrong. Take a moment and think about that… it is very different to think, as we do in English, of ourselves as wrong, that wrongness has somehow changed our state of being and identity, versus thinking of wrong as a thing, separate from ourselves, that we possess. In French, I as a person am not wrong, as a characteristic of my being; wrong is simply something I have (and conceivably, therefore, just as easily not have while still being the same person in my fundamental essence).
I’m sure this may sound like a lot of pedantic hoo-ha to some, but I really was struck by the difference in thinking of “wrong” as something that changes my state of being versus something that I simply possess. These two pathways of thinking about “wrong” could really shape a person’s overall concepts of personhood and identity in very different ways. Given that I’ve been trying on a bit of French language in preparation for going to Geneva, home base of John Calvin, it’s interesting for me to think about the ways that linguistic differences in thought patterns may affect the way someone’s theology is understood and perceived. Calvin and Calvinism has a reputation for a rather dour conception of humanity—“total depravity” is an oft-tossed-about term. But I wonder if it makes a difference whether you read Calvin in his native French, versus hearing him through the ears of his many Germanic-language-speaking theological descendants. I don’t know enough French or, to be honest, enough of Calvin to be able to answer that, but it strikes me as an interesting question.
I first began pondering this question probably close to a month ago, when my language-learning app first got to avoir tort and avoir raison (“to be wrong” and “to be right”, respectively). I was driven back to it this afternoon, though, as I read today’s edition of The New York Times. Today’s excellent cover feature story by Sabrina Tavernise (click to view), titled “A Vandal’s Act, Met with Mercy” in the print edition, digs into a story that’s been playing out in Fort Smith, Arkansas, over the last nine months. It centers around a trio of young adult men and the local mosque they vandalized with drawings of swastikas and curses. The article focuses on one of the young men, Abraham Davis—more of an accomplice than a direct perpetrator, but guilty nonetheless—and his journey of repentance and remorse. The article also focuses on the mosque members’ reaction to being reached-out-to by Davis, and their impulse toward forgiveness and reconciliation. “If one of my kids did something stupid like that I would want them to be forgiven,” mosque-member Anas Bensalah is quoted as having said after Davis’s heart-felt repentant letter was received.
As Davis was brought to court, a mosque leader “made clear that the mosque did not want to press charges and strongly opposed a felony charge” for him. “We did not want to destroy his life,” that mosque leader said. You see, as has been highlighted in discussions about the mass-incarceration crisis, in our nation a felony conviction is a life sentence, even if the time in prison is much shorter. Even after the official punishment (the prison time) has been completed—their “debt,” in theory, has been fully “paid”— persons who have felony convictions on their records are restricted from much of the employment marketplace, numerous government and social services, and more. And the folks in the mosque community knew this. “Hisham [a mosque member who owns a car dealership] also doesn’t like how hard it is to get a second chance in America. You can do a stupid thing and pay for it, but afterward no one will hire you. Hisham has helped two men in this situation. They do odd jobs at his car lot. He went to court with them when no one else would. He helped one buy a washing machine, and paid the other to bury a relative. ‘Someone messes up and it sticks with him all his life,’ Hisham said. ‘Even if he tries to become a good man, the community say to him, “You are a bad man!” They encourage him to be a bad man.’”
In our nation—a nation that certain people want so strongly to assert is a so-called “Christian nation”—do we actually believe in the possibilities of redemption and transformation? And do our ways of structuring the systems of this society embody that? Or do they embody something else entirely?
Does someone have wrong? Or is someone wrong (in their being)? It’s not simply a matter of semantics.
 Calvin was a Frenchman, and spent much of his career as a theologian in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland. In the era of the Reformation, however, the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition got its greatest traction in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and portions of Germany.