Thursday’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport was the deadliest attack on US forces in Afghanistan since 2011. In his remarks on the attack, President Biden paid tribute to fallen soldiers citing the Hebrew Bible. “The United States military has long been responding. ‘Here am I, Lord. Send me,'” Biden said, in an allusion to Isaiah 6:8. tradition of sacrifice, of volunteering to put ourselves in danger, to risk everything; not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love.”
Biden’s point was that the Marines and other personnel overseeing the evacuation knew they were in danger from precisely the type of attack that occurred, but continued their duties anyway. In this regard, it was a fitting effort to honor their courage.
But the Bible verse he used was a poor choice to make this point. Jews read Isaiah 6 as describing God‘s call to serve as prophet to the chosen people. For many Christians, it is seen as prefiguring the vocation of missionaries to promote the Gospel. In both interpretations, the phrase “Here I am” expresses the will to participate in the accomplishment of divine purposes.
The confusion between foreign policy and religious vocation is a recurring trend in American history. It’s also dangerous, because it turns agonizing calculations of risk and reward into a contest between good and evil. Biden is leading US forces out of Afghanistan and appealed to national interests elsewhere in his remarks. Yet the crusading attitude expressed by the biblical quote is part of the reason we have failed to secure these interests over the past two decades. To avoid similar disasters in the future, we must remember that presidents are not prophets and the US military is not God’s army.