Walter Brueggemann: The Peculiar Dialect of Faith

It is a primary task of church leadership, in the face of the language of commoditized instrumentalism, to keep alive the peculiar relational, covenantal language of faith. That is, to assure that our peculiar rhetoric remains available and compelling. Given that task, I was somewhat “woke” by this remarkable statement:

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

(The statement is attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Max Weinreich by Soner Cagaptay, Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East 121). The statement is a recognition of the force of Realpolitik. It is an acknowledgement that a hegemonic power can impose its language on other populations in order to advance commercial, military, and cultural domination. A result of such imposition is that vulnerable local and indigenous languages (and cultures) are made marginal for social interaction. The gain is that local populations with different languages are able to communicate with each other in the language of the imposing power, but most often to the benefit of the hegemonic power.

The tag-word for such hegemonic language is i a phrase fashioned in the Middle Ages in the wake of the hegemonic power of Charlemagne. The phrase recognizes that with domination by French power, French became the language of trade and international governance and commerce. But of course the phrase has remained useful when the hegemonic language was no longer French with the waning of French domination.

In more recent time, of course, English has been the lingua franca, first of the British Empire and then with the hegemonic force of the United States. In all of these several variations, the lingua franca has served well for commerce and the production of wealth for the governing power and its allies. The imposition of such a dominant language has come along with “an army and a navy” to assure domination.

At the same time, perhaps inevitably, the dominant language has run roughshod over local language and therefore local culture and local custom.

We are most immediately aware of such domination of hegemonic power by the way in which English-speaking nationalism has been intolerant of other languages and cultures in the United States, so that white nationalism has insisted that various immigrant communities must speak English and eschew their mother tongues. In Canada, the force of English speaking, with the shameful collusion of the church, has suppressed local language and culture in the most abusive ways.

In the Bible, the great narrative of hegemonic language is the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). In that narrative the creator God is alarmed at the imposition of a single language:

And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (v. 6)

Evidently, the domination of a single language (and therefore a single culture) generates limitless possibility for economic aggrandizement and political domination. God’s response to that hegemonic ambition is to “scatter” and to break up the imposed unity:

“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. (vv. 7-8)

Bernhard Anderson has rightly seen the implication of the action of the creator in the narrative:

The Babel story has profound significance for a biblical theology of pluralism. First, God’s will for his creation is diversity rather than homogeneity. We should welcome ethnic pluralism as a divine blessing … they are driven, like the builders of Babel, by a creative desire for material glory and fame and a corresponding fear of becoming restless, rootless wanderers (From Creation to New Creation: Old Testament Perspectives 177).

The outcome of the narrative is refusal of hegemonic power and an affirmation of local variation in language and culture. That outcome, of course, is often linked as an anticipation of the narrative of Pentecost that celebrates linguistic pluralism:

At this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each … All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6, 12)

Beyond this foundational narrative of Babel, we might consider as well the remarkable interaction between King Hezekiah and the Assyrian ambassador (Rebshakeh) who threatens the king and his city. The Assyrian ambassador (sustained by a mighty military force!) mocks the weak power of King Hezekiah and anticipates the defeat of Hezekiah:

On what do you base this confidence of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me? See, you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king Egypt to all who rely on him. But if you say to me, “We rely on the Lord our God, is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed? (II Kings 18:19-22)

Neither Egypt nor YHWH is seen by the Assyrian as a reliable resource for the king. Neither is a match for Assyria, its army, and its gods. The ambassador claims, moreover, that it is none other than YHWH, the God of Israel, who has dispatched the Assyrian army against the city (v. 25). The king can make no substantive response to the Assyrian mocking. Instead, he asks that their parley be conducted in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time, a language not understood by the populace of Jerusalem. The king does not want his subjects to be intimidated by the threat of Assyria:

Please speak to your servants is the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall. (v. 26)

But the ambassador refuses and continues in Hebrew, the language of the populace:

Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah. (v. 28)

This is a remarkable case in which the hegemonic power dares to utilize local language and refuses the lingua franca precisely in order to intimidate more effectively the populace of Jerusalem. Imperial Assyria is not against use of the local language and will use it in its own way to its own advantage.

We may add a wee note from the New Testament. In Matthew’s account of the trial of Jesus, Peter is a bystander and a witness, but he wants to remain safe and unrecognized. But his dialect gives him away:

Another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” (Matthew 26:71-73)

The exchange is between Jews in Jerusalem and Peter from Galilee so the encounter does not pertain immediately to the Roman Empire and its imperial language. But even the linguistic distinction between a Jerusalem Jew and a Galilean Jew is enough to put Peter at risk. Jerusalem is in the zone of the Roman “army and navy,” whereas Galilee, with its rustic dialect, is a back-water territory.

The dialect is enough to jeopardize Peter!

This matter of “dialect with an army and a navy” is of intense interest to us currently in the midst of white nationalism.

Such nationalism is impatient with difference and intolerant of “deviant” language or culture. The president’s rhetoric of “Mexicans” as “rapists” is enough of a signal to appeal to white nationalists and to all those who want to make white America “great again.” Furthermore, the incitement of these “very special people” by the president of the most powerful nation in the world emboldens and legitimizes their violent, exclusivist claims. That impatient, intolerant exclusivism is at the moment backed by “an army and a navy,” to run unchecked in the capitol, the verifiable seat of the lingua franca.

Lingua franca makes possible international commerce and workable international scientific research and technological advances. It is at the same time, however, a threat to all that is local. It is deeply enmeshed in power that is connected to a system of wealth that is generous in its rewards and savage in its punishments.

The notion of “a dialect with an army and a navy” is an invitation for us to reflect on the peculiar idiom of faith that is relentless in its local specificity that is resolvedly different from the lingua franca, and that is resolutely without “an army and a navy.” Whereas the lingua franca deals in quotas, formulae, sweeping generalizations, and syllogisms, our peculiar dialect patiently works its way via narratives of specificity.

This peculiar language of our faith comes...

...With a memory of specific stories that are fully occupied by a God who with active verbs performs acts of creation, judgment, and rescue. Those stories bear imaginative retelling (see Psalm 136).

...With a vision of a new world that is hospitable to the weak, vulnerable, and left behind.

...With a discipline (disciples!) that is an “easy burden” but that entails the daily enactment of the vision.

This peculiar, distinctive dialect that is a “manger” for the truth (Luther)...

...Refuses tales of wealth or victory,

...Refuses visions of private security and power,

...Refuses disciplines that are based in fear, scarcity, and greed.

This is a language that tends to contradict in every way the lingua franca because it traffics in neighbors and not commodities, because it affirms that relationships constitute the alternative currency of the future, and because it summons to passionate self-giving and not self-protection. In all its parts, language shows us how not to be “rich in things and poor in soul,” but to be “rich in soul even if poor in things.”

We may learn a great deal from the work of James C. Scott (Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts), a sociologist who exhibits no direct interest in matters theological, but much that may be inferred. It is the large thesis of Scott that communities of vulnerability survive and prosper because they have “hidden transcripts” that articulate the world differently outside the purview of the managers of wealth and power.

That transcript must be kept hidden and out of reach of the powerful in order that it not be either co-opted by or exterminated by the force of the dominant narrative. The carriers of this sub-version of reality characteristically have no leverage or visible muscle, no “silver or gold” (Acts 3:6), only the joy and freedom of this different world stitched together by this odd dialect.

Thus it is my thought that the church, in order to maintain its identity and its effective missional life, must have leaders that keep that distinctive dialect alive, available, and credible in the most imaginative ways. Church leaders equip the community for a sub-version of reality that is inherently sub-versive in relation to the dominant dialect with its army and navy. We do so with intentionality through education, liturgy, and missional action. Effective leadership requires that we be situated and at home in a distinctive dialect that does not lust after a life secured by an army and navy or any of the other tools of domination.

I suggest that there are two seductions that put our mother tongue at risk.

On the one hand, we may be tempted to imagine that our dialect can become the dominant dialect in the public domain. This is the temptation of radical right-wingers (who style themselves as “evangelicals”). In the United States such folk, in the pursuit of control and certitude, seek to establish a gospel dialect as the lingua franca in the public square. Such an effort transforms the speech of relational covenanting into control and domination. The inevitable outcome of such an effort is to blunt the radical relationality of the gospel and of the community that performs the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a temptation to let the language of the public domain seep into the rhetoric of the church so that the church becomes an echo of public discourse or, more specifically, an echo of i. This is the seduction of progressives in their pursuit of respectability among the “cultured despisers of religion.” The effect of such accommodation is the loss of the sharp, critical edge of the missional life of the church in its capacity to challenge dominant culture in significant ways.

Both of these seductions, one greedily ambitious and the other hopelessly accommodating, cause serious gospel identity to be eroded.

In both instances, the gospel is seriously distorted. Church leaders may usefully reflect on how urgent is the peculiar relational insistence of our faith amid a society that wants to reduce everything and everyone to a tradable commodity. Our relational dialect is a bold counter-insistence that our common life cannot be reduced to such transactions because God has intended from the outset that we be a community of neighbors, a claim definitional for both our talk and our walk. We are familiar with the shorthand mantras that mark our talk, for example:

Full of grace and truth,
Faiths, hope, and love, these three,
Justice and righteousness,
Trust and obey,
Grace and glory.

The work is to show how these familiar phrasings are stitched together into a credible coherence that gives us a place to stand, with freedom and courage, amid a larger language dependent on army and navy that can never be the parlance of the coming Kingdom of God.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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