In the nearly twenty years since a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, more than two thousand American troops and more than one hundred thousand Afghans have died. There are few things that are not tragic about this war as it comes to an end, but it was especially sad to add dozens more to that death toll on Thursday, when ISIS suicide bombers attacked Kabul airport amid the withdrawal of US forces and a few Afghans fleeing the return of the Taliban.
So even like he accepted the responsibility “Because basically everything that’s happened recently” in the chaotic final days of the US war in Afghanistan, Joe Biden also assumed the presidential role of chief mourner. Paying tribute to the thirteen American servicemen who died Thursday, our second Catholic president quoted from the Old Testament:
Those who have served through the ages were inspired by the book of Isaiah, when the Lord said, “Whom shall I send … who will go for us?” And the US military has long replied, “Here I am, Lord. Send me. “” I am here. Send me.”
No one has disputed that “these women and men in our armed forces are heirs to this tradition of sacrifice of volunteering to run into danger,” but many have criticized his use of the scriptures in this way.
Fair is fair. If I saw that coming out of Trump’s mouth I would call him #ChristianNationalism. Relating military service and sacrifice to the service of God is a nice manual. I am grateful to those who serve, but such statements proudly imply that they are representatives of God. https://t.co/UPclSTZ2kL
– Samuel Perry (@sosofthesacred) August 26, 2021
But at Conservative commentator Mark Tooley, Biden’s quote from Isaiah 6: 8 was just another example of an American president using biblical language in the practice of civil religion, which he distinguished from Christian nationalism.
For my part, I cannot hear this verse without thinking about my favorite reflection on the Christian vocation. “To Isaiah the voice said, ‘Go,'” preached Frederick Buechner in 1969,
and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which will we obey with our life, which of the voices that call will be the one we will answer. No one can say it, of course, except every man for himself, but I believe it is possible to say at least this in general to all of us: we have to go with our lives where we need to go the most and where we are needed most.
If Buechner is right, then not only the prophets, but the singers, statisticians and surgeons can answer, “Here I am, send me”.
Soldiers and sailors too. But it’s hard not to use this verse as a praise of the ultimate sacrifice of this particular calling without giving the impression that such work is specially ordained by God – or without echoing themes of American exceptionalism.
In any case, Joe Biden is not the first American leader to make this rhetorical gesture. Religious journalist Jack Jenkins underline two previous examples. In 1996, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry quoted Isaiah 6: 8 as a conclusion. his start address to West Point: “At this critical moment in our history, your nation asked, ‘Who shall I send? Who will go for us? ‘ And today you said, “Here I am. Send me.” Seven years later, one of Perry’s successors, Donald Rumsfeld, reportedly added this verse and others intelligence reports during the Iraq war.
All of this made me wonder at what age this is a tradition, to understand Isaiah’s description of divine calling in explicitly military terms. With classes starting on Monday, I don’t have time for something like in-depth research, but I dug a bit yesterday, using some simple digital tools.
First, Lincoln Mullen’s wonderful resource, The American Public Bible, which lists quotes from the King James version in journals scanned at the Library of Congress’ Chronicle of America project. Isaiah 6: 8 occurs 183 times between 1840 and 1921 – not as often as a more famous 8th verse from a Hebrew prophet’s 6th chapter, but not uncommon either. For a long time, it seems that there was no military involvement. The first case is quite typical: a call for confession and the awakening of the Oberlin Evangelist (as reprinted in a Vermont newspaper). There are none from the Civil War period, but then I found an October 1898 sermon in which Episcopal Bishop Thomas F. Gailor preached on Isaiah 6: 8 in the context of the Spanish-American War:
It was a vision of duty and responsibility, and [Isaiah] answered his God: “Here I am, send me to carry the message that you wish to send …” The revelation of God and its acceptance seem to me to be the sum and the substance of all heroism.
But if Gailor saw this heroism “in the recognition of their duty as heroes of our country in the charges of Santiago”, he also discerned it in the work of the nurses of the Crimean War, in that “of the young man who accepts the call. to a lonely parish, ”and in the lives of early Christian leaders like Bernard of Clairvaux and William Wilberforce.
It took World War I, I think, to suggest more distinctly militaristic readings of Isaiah 6: 8. And not just among Christians. In May 1918, a Editorialized Reformed Jewish magazine that “Judaism in action is expressed in sacrifice and service. Our young men sacrifice and serve at the front… Shall we answer, according to the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am; send me'[?]”
Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, the International Sunday School Association has asked its 18 million members to observe July 1, 1917 as “Patriotic Sunday,” with each school responsible for soliciting donations for the army or war relief and “to encourage young men to enlist. for active service in the war and young women for the nursing service of the Red Cross… ”The“ golden text ”of the day? “And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who shall go for us? So I said, “Here I am; send me.'”
A teaching plan for Patriotic Sunday asked Sunday School teachers to compare Isaiah’s “true heroism” to the “true bravery” of a War of Independence soldier who volunteered to deliver an important message to through a forest infested with red coats. Comparing Kaiser Wilhelm to King Uzziah (who “had desecrated the temple” at the time of Isaiah’s call), EF Daugherty turned Isaiah 6 into an anti-Prussian parable in the Sunday School section of the June 21, 1917 issue of The Christian Century, “Isaiah was not a lazy person,” he warned any young Christian trying to withdraw from a civilizational struggle. “The puny reasons he could have ‘asked for exemption’ was nothing but a spider’s web before the call of necessity. The slacker … is despised in a land of freedom – and no more than a dry blemish in the church of the living God.
Yet other readings of the text have persisted, even in the heat of war. In the published Sunday school insert in many American newspapers In the last week of June 1917, EO Sellers concluded their overview of Isaiah 6 with an application proposal that was both less overtly militaristic and more explicitly (Christian) nationalist:
We are a Christian nation, but there are many degrees and types of Christians; those who sincerely try to follow Jesus; those who live under Christian government and are unaffected by Christian influences. There is only one way to save this nation to take the road to Nineveh and Tire; that is, righteousness and righteousness will be the fruit of regenerated lives. The cry is for a better social environment and a more just social position.
The salespeople worked for the Moody Bible Institute. In another part of Chicago in this first week of July 1917, Bishop HB Parks paid homage to the pastor of St. Mary’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, recalling how Reverend Floyd Grant Snelson also “said, ‘Here I am, send me’” – not in France or Belgium as a military chaplain, but in Africa, where a young Snelson had served as a missionary and built two churches.
This kind of application of the passage also appeared towards the end of World War II. In August 1945, as war raged in the Pacific, the Marion (NC) Progress placed Isaiah 6: 8 on its first page. Along with photos of three local brothers in uniform, there was an article about a Baptist pastor who transformed “Here I am, send me” into a call to missionaries in Africa and China.
While the character of Shia LaBeouf in Fury invokes Isaiah 6: 8 to explain his service, I don’t know how popular this verse was during WWII. I have found it cited only twenty times in Chronicle of America for 1941-1945, and only one of these cases linked spiritual and military matters. Two weeks after the surrender of Japan, another article from North Carolina published a prayer asking: “At every call of a national duty, let our response be prompt: ‘Here I am, send me.’ Thus, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, we would serve our time and our generation. But the service the writer emphasized was no longer combat, but the work of caring for those “who have offered their bodies in combat” and “all those who suffer will, are lonely and discouraged.”
So much for my uneven and idiosyncratic research … I’d be interested to know more about other historical examples of this theme, or to hear from readers who have served in the military: Was the message “Here I am, send me” invoked during your service? Has it become more common recently, or was it part of the military-religious culture of the Gulf War, Vietnam or before?