“Language, power, and empire” – Ryan Koch – May 15, 2016

In 1492, in Salmanca, Spain, Antonio de Nebrija presented his latest book to Queen Isabella. Nebrija had just written the first textbook on the grammar of the Spanish language – a grammar of the vernacular, the ordinary language of the people spoken in markets and in the fields, at home and on the streets. At that time, no other European country had a textbook for their common language. No textbook of German grammar. None for French or Dutch or English. There were plenty of textbooks on the classical languages, like Latin and Greek. But, at that time, no one wrote textbooks on how to learn common languages. Everyone assumed that would be a total waste of time.

When Antonio de Nebrija presented his textbook on Spanish to Queen Isabella, the Queen was confused, puzzled. She did not understand what use a grammar of a vernacular language could possibly have. The bishop had to speak up to explain the significance of the book. The bishop said to the queen, “After your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conquerer imposes, among them will be our language.”

The bishop’s explanation made sense to the Queen. Her mind was set on conquest. Of course the Spaniards would need to impose their language on the barbarians in her conquered lands. In the preface of Nebrija’s grammar book, he emphasized the connection between colonialism and language. He wrote, “I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire, both have always commenced, grown and flourished together.” Nebrija understood the power of a unified language. It is a unifying force which strips others of their identity. Language and empire. Colonialism involved imperial control through language, through a common vocabulary, a single tongue.


What Antonio de Nabrija understood better than most is that human beings are communicative creatures. Language is what separates us from all the other wild animals. We are not simply instinctual creatures of nature. We are the animal that “can express the world and express itself symbolically,” and the animal that “to some extent stands over against nature and stands over against even its own nature” (Hebert McCabe). We see this point vividly in the creation story. Here Adam is the animal which names all the other animals.

We are at our core, communicative creatures. However, I don’t believe that we have ever really come to terms with the extraordinary revolution of language which has brought us into being. For instead of seeing language as a way of sharing life through and in symbols; as a way of searching for friendship, for communion; we have turned language into the primary way we control and dominate other people. Language is how we subjugate others into acting, thinking, being like us. Language is how we unify people into adopting our beliefs and values; it is how we import ourselves onto others. Language is how we silence those who are different than us so that we don’t have to listen to strange tongues and different ways of being. The gift of language is one which we abuse again and again. Instead of seeing it as a blessing which allows for difference, we have perverted it into a weapon for mastery: “I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire.”

This week, as I was dwelling upon the interconnectivity between language and mastery, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.


“’When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it          means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’


‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’


‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all’.


Our Old Testament text this morning is the ultimate example of how language, power, and empire are intricately connected. It is the story of Babel, when the people of God resist to heed God’s command to spread out, to scatter and fill the land. And instead the people all wanted to live in one place so that everyone and everything can be alike.

Jacques Derrida once insisted that the story of Babel is one of the most misunderstood stories in all the Scriptures. Often we pay so much attention to the giant tower that the people attempt to build to the heavens. We think the principle reason that God punishes the Shemites is because they long to accede to God in the heavens. But as Derrida points out, this story is ultimately about language and empire. It is a story about how one people longs to establish an empire by trying to enforce its universality by imposing its tongue upon the world. Derrida goes on to insist that ultimately, they are punished not because of the tower but because: “They wanted … to make a name for themselves, to give themselves the name, to construct for and by themselves their own name, to gather themselves there (‘that we may no longer be scattered’), as in the unity of a place which is at once a tongue and a tower, the one as well as the other, the one as the other. [God] punishes them for having thus wanted to assure themselves, by themselves, a unique and universal genealogy.”


After all, in our text God is most worried about the peoples having only one language: “If as one people speaking the same language, then nothing will be impossible for them.” God understands that imposing language is a means of controlling the whole earth. It’s a perversion of the gift of communication. That means it is also a perversion of our humanity. So God confuses their language. God course corrects so that humanity can be put back on the right track. God scatters us to restore God’s original plan which was for a multiplicity of cultures and languages to exist simultaneously so that uniformity isn’t enforced. The story of Babel reminds us that God’s desire for the world is a plethora of different tongues, for God longs for diversity and multiplicity.


You would think that our world by now would have evolved from repeating the mistakes of Babel and Antonio de Nebrija. That one day we would learn how disastrous it is for other peoples when we try to impose our language, our identities, ourselves onto others. But we see this linguistic game being played whenever one group of people longs to pacify and subjugate another peoples.

Do you know what was one of the first committees which Israel created when it desired to build a Jewish state in Palestine? The naming committee. The Zionist project smartly understood the politics of language. They knew that if they could occupy words they could occupy reality. Language is how they stripped the Palestinians of their ancient heritage. And language was how Zionists attempted to control how the rest of the world perceived them.

One of the first acts which the Zionists did after 1948 was to rename almost every Palestinian village and land formation. By changing all these names they longed to purge these people from the Western consciousness, declaring: “There are no such thing as Palestinians. They do not exist.” But the Zionists didn’t stop there. They also changed their own names. Instead of having Russian or American sounding names, they adopted names from the Scriptures so that they sounded more ancient and Jewish.

The Zionists even revived the Hebrew language, recreating a modern language from the ashes of a dead one. And this was done so that these Jews could displace the Palestinians not only of their homeland but of their vernacular as well. They famously proclaimed that a people without a language is a people without a history. What the Zionists understand so well is how empire, power, and language are intricately intertwined. Weaponry can never usurp an entire country, complete with its customs, religious practices, foods, and traditions. Only the cold-blooded grammar of language can accomplish that. The Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” has always been really a conflict over speech, over the language of discourse and not over the identity of the speakers. Even the fact that we call it a “conflict” shows us the power which language has to shape reality. Because conflict conjures a sense of parity, of two equal parties who disagree. The gross imbalance of power between Israel and the native Palestinian population should preclude an intelligent use of this word. However, the victors are controlling the grammar and thus, are controlling how history is narrated.

This is why the Zionists put so much time and energy to occupy words, because language is power. Language is how they are crafting a narrative of belonging and legitimacy. As scholar, Julie Peteet points out: “The Zionist project of forging a link between the contemporary Jewish community and the land of Palestine was a project of extraordinary remarking: of language, of place and relation to it, and of selves and identities. Naming, a form of symbolic intervention, points to a cultural politics of landscape and competing nationalism.”


By now, I hope you grasp how interconnected language, power, and empire are in our world. As humans, we have continually abused this gift of language which differentiates us from the other animals in the world. We control language so that we can disempower and subjugate others who have differing opinions and beliefs. We use it to force others to fit into our familiar patterns of living. And this impulse appears to be primordial. It goes back to Babel itself. Ever since, the world seems caught in the mimetic trap of repeating this fatal mistake.

This is why Pentecost is so important. Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. It is the opposite of what Nebrija and Queen Isabella imagined. For Pentecost is the act of God which beckons us away from all the insidious forms of language which try to control others. At Pentecost we see a world of many tongues; we see how God affirms the native languages of all the peoples. “The crowd…was bewildered,” it says, “because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” For God, there is no imperial tongue. Instead, at Pentecost we see God affirm a diversity of tongues. The Holy Spirit speaks through all languages. Every language is holy. None is more holy than another. God speaks in a variety of tongues.

Pentecost invites us to imagine a different way of understanding language. It invites us into a new way of engaging with difference, not just with different languages, but all ways we are marked as different from one another. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit speaks through the differences, without converting them into sameness. People aren’t invited to give up their languages, their cultures, and convert to the same way of speaking, the same way of thinking.

The miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks through all the native languages, not that God speaks in a single language, a universal language, that is translated into other dialects. Set ablaze by the Holy Spirit, people are able to hear the message of God in their own languages. This is a whole bunch of people who are able to maintain their difference, able to maintain their particularity and uniqueness, and yet through the Spirit, communicate together. At Pentecost, difference is made holy, through the Sprit. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” It says all flesh. Not some, but all. Not in order to make everyone the same, but to affirm all flesh, to affirm where they came from, to bless who they are, to announce that what makes them different is good, is holy.


We are still trying to live into what happened at Pentecost. We are still trying to understand how to speak in other tongues, not just our own, not just in the familiar. And we are still trying to understand the God who speaks with other tongues, the God who speaks through the mouths of others, the God who speaks in ways that are unfamiliar to us, that are strange — the voice of God that sounds so different that we find ourselves sometimes unable to understand, unable to recognize another’s voice as good news. We may find ourselves with the people on the streets of Jerusalem at Pentecost who are perplexed, who sneer and say to themselves, “They are filled with new wine” (2:13) — they are drunk, what they are saying is nonsense, irrational, absurd.

The history of the church is filled with stories of people who refuse to listen to strange tongues, Christians who refuse to learn from different forms of life. The story of Nebrija and the Queen of Spain is one such story. Christians who support the Zionist project is another. These Christians tend to see the people in distant lands as barbaric, irrational, in need of a true language and civilized culture, in need of God’s law.

But Pentecost offers us a different way, where the Spirit affirms our differences, speaking in ways that each of us can understand, yet drawing us together, around the same table, into communion — that’s how the day of Pentecost ends, with all these strangers eating together. “So those who welcomed [the] message were baptized, [and] they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.”


Praying and eating, two ways we use communication to make companions. Two ways in which we vulnerably share the depths, the joys and pains of our lives. In these acts, we learn to embrace the other as other. In these acts, we hear each other’s stories, we taste each other’s cultures. When we pray and when we eat together, especially when we do so with strangers, God shows us a new way in which humanity can be together, a new way in which we can be free to be ourselves, a way to use language free from the insidious desire to control others.


Our world desperately needs Pentecost again. It needs to see people working to free language from the ways in which we try to control others. It needs people searching for new ways of engaging with difference that refuses to convert it into sameness. People who come together to use language in ways that affirm difference, particularity, and uniqueness. Who refuse to fall into the trap of making all things the same.

This is our calling as a church. This is why we gather together each week. To be reminded of the God who refuses to speak in a universal language. But instead, a God who blesses all flesh, who affirms people where they came from, and announces that it is our differences which make us holy. We gather here each week so that we can learn from different forms of life, different ways of being. Difference gathers together at the same table to let Jesus stretch us into relationships with one another, with people who are the same and different, as we struggle to understand God, as we struggle to understand each other.

May we live into the communion made possible by Pentecost. Holy Spirit, come and plunge us again into this wild difference. Come and baptize us into strange languages and peoples so that we enter into communion with all flesh.

(This sermon is influenced by and borrows from Isaac Villegas’ 2013          Pentecost sermon “Pentecost, language, and difference”)