In Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, there is a phrase nestled away in verse 5 that is not a straight-forward translation. The Greek reads: οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν. Various translations handle this phrase differently:
KJV: “charity… thinketh no evil”
NASB: “love… does not take into account a wrong suffered“
NIV: “it keeps no record of wrongs”
CEB: “love… doesn’t keep a record of complaints”
NRSV/ESV/NET: “love… is not… resentful”
However, asides from the KJV, there is a particular problem with these translsations. Each of these translations seem to regard λογίζεται as semantically describing an accounting of what has happened. Even the more idiomatic translations in the NRSV, ESV, and NET assume that Paul is talking about people’s responses to some wrong that has been done. Yet, λογίζομαι is not exclusively used refer to some sort of counting, but it is one of the more general terms used for thinking and percieving. For instance, just 6 verses later, Paul uses λογίζομαι to describe the way people think as children and as adults. Earlier in 1 Cor. 4.1, λογίζομαι is used to describe the way the Corinthians should percieve Paul and Apollos, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
There seems to be multiple related uses of λογίζομαι that are subtly differentiated from each other. It can be used to describe a form of thinking that is about record keeping. We see this in Romans 4.4, 4.8, and 2 Timothy 4.16. It can also be used to categorize or label someone or something. 1 Corinthians 4.1 is one example of this. Romans 14.14 is another good example. It can also describe the process of thinking that can be used to lead to a specific accounting or labeling, as in 2 Corinthians 10.7. At the heart of the word is a thinking that determines who or what something is.
So, how should it be understood in 1 Corinthians 13.5? I tend towards the categorizing/labeling option for one primary reason. The competitive nature of the Corinthians would make it such that they would have been highly inclined to label the moral wrongs that they percieved being done by others. This is especially the case for those influenced by a Stoic line of reasoning who would have employed the ethical categories of Stoic philosophy to address percieved wrongs. λογίζομαι use to describe categorizing/labeling is consistent with the philosophial themes present in 1 Corinthians, as philosophy often attaches labels to people and things. With this in mind, perhaps οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν may be best understood as “love… does not label the wrong.”
What exactly does this mean and why would this be a problem? To give an example, imagine a person named Joe arrives at work a little bit hungover from drinking the night before. He did something that was unwise, but it is not his usual character. He was having a rough time and he went out with a couple friends to try to get over it. However, a person recognizes they are hungover and starts telling everyone “Joe got drunk last night.” Suddenly, the gossip spreads across the office and everyone starts labelling Joe as a drunkard or alcoholic. Suddenly, what was a one time offense starts become a label for Joe. Joe is labeled an alcoholic.
Labels are very powerful. They can control the way we understand and treat other people. Consequently, when we are in conflicts with others, we are readily inclined to reach for labels for other people’s bad behavior in order to try to mitigate and control them. Labels are a discurive form of power that we use which favors the parties who have the most social capital to persuade people of their labeling. At the social level, labels become damaging stereotypes of whole people groups. For instance, African-Americans have been given the stereotyping label as potential criminals because of the label of criminality and other similar labels that kept being associated with African-Americans in the media. Muslims have been stereotyped as terrorists because of the label of terrorism that has been used against many terrorists of Muslim origins. Labels are a form of power and control that are often used to justify punishment and exclusion of people.
Now, sometimes we need to label patterns of behaviors. A person who repeatedly gets drunk at bad times is an alcoholic. However, Paul’s language is directed towards a singular thing, “the wrong” (τὸ κακόν) and not referring to a patterns of behaviors. Yet, more often than not, the labels we use are rather premature and based upon single incidents, particuarly when there is emotional conflict already in the mix. For the Corinthians, they would have been tempted to label each other various moral derisive terms. For instance, it appears that those who had moral scruples about eating food were labeled as “weak.” While Paul recognizes it is a wrong thinking to regarding certain foods off-limits, to start labeling the wrong of moral scruples about food as being “weak” is a way of punishing and excluding people.
The effect of this translation is to go against how the translation is often taken in such a way to suggest that love forgets the wrongs that have been done. Certainly, the forgiveness that comes with love does not keep harping past failures and sins. However, translating this passage as referring to not keeping account of wrongs done has a way of diminishing people who try to address sins and harms that have been done that a person feels has not been satisfactorily addressed. For instance, you can imagine in a marriage gone sour that one partner may have a series of irresponsibilities that the other person tries to bring up and the irresponsible partner might say “if you love me, you wouldn’t keep bringing up the past.” How readily can “love keeps no records of wrongs” can be used to justify not address repeated irresponsibilities and injustices? When the problems have been addressed and remedied, love would not keep bringing up the past failures and sins due to forgiveness and possibility reconciliation on the matter. However, such usage about the language of love is a form of avoidance and control to not deal with the deep issues going on at hand.
To see that our associating love with not addressing problems is a real problem in our society, we need to go no further than the bending a knee protest by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His protest was taken as tantamount to hating the United States and he was treated as vile figure. However, Kaepernick was using a subtle means of action to protest racial injustice. People couldn’t hear that and they took Kaepernick’s actions as tantamount to treason. A view has develop around patriotism that one can not take any real measures to speak towards national injustices. To love the United States is essentially “move on past race” and “to not keep a record of the wrongs.”
Imagine how differently things would be if we understood love as not labeling wrong behaviors? Imagine how our conversations via social media would be filled with much more grace? Imagine how much less vicious stereotyping would take place if people were much more reticent to categorize and label things we didn’t like? Not only would Kaepernick’s protest not been so harshly rejected, but it is likely that the injustice that motivated Kaepernick would not have been so egregious by the wider reduction in harmful stereotyping and labels.
Of course, its needs to be made clear that there is a difference between describing and labeling. We don’t need to suddenly become mute in describing people’s wrongful behaviors. However, descriptions are focused on the specific actions, whereas labels are often focused on characterizing. However, that we are foten unfamiliar with the differences is a reflection of how much labeling is a source of power and control we attempt to make use of that we see it simply as being an objective description.
Love does not label the wrong. It speaks to what did happen, it may provide needed correction and discipline, and so on, but it does not label.