Throughout U.S. history, politicians have misquoted or misused the Bible. This mixing of Christian theology and American nationalism can diminish and even co-opt our faith.
It was, therefore, jarring for me and other Christians to hear Isaiah 6:8 used by President Biden on Aug. 26:
“Those who have served through the ages and have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah, when the Lord says: ‘Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?’ The American military has been answering for a long time. ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me. Here I am, send me.’ ”
Christianity is a sending faith, one that goes out into the world to bring the message of Jesus to those who are hurting, oppressed and confused. Few texts have been as important in this regard as Isaiah 6:8. The verse is foundational for Christian mission.
I understand the desire to turn to Scripture to make sense of tragedy. Biden quoted Isaiah after 13 U.S. service members and 170 civilians were killed by explosions in Kabul, Afghanistan. However, while these U.S. military men and women were sent on a mission, it was not the mission we read about in Isaiah.
It is never appropriate to take the mission of God in Scripture and apply it to the U.S. military, the American dream or the American way of life. They are not interchangeable. The kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms are not one and the same, nor does the kingdom of God depend on the success of earthly governments, movements, campaigns or wars.
The temptation to conflate earthly kingdoms with the kingdom of God is bipartisan. In the weeks following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, many evangelical leaders spoke out against the idol of Christian nationalism. Biden’s comments reveal the subtle ways Christian nationalism can gain a foothold in liberal circles as well.
The use of Isaiah 6:8 in the context of military engagement demonstrates a misunderstanding of the text.
Written the year King Uzziah died (around 740 B.C.E.), Isaiah’s words address a time of political instability and division. Subjugated, terrorized and powerless, the people of Judah feared imminent destruction.
Against this backdrop of futility and oppression, Isaiah encounters the living God. Suddenly the nations of the world seem weak and insignificant. After Isaiah confesses his sin, God asks who he can send to the nations with his message. Without hesitation, Isaiah shouts, “Here I am. Send me!”
Isaiah’s words exemplify the proper response of any person who encounters the Holy God: a life surrendered to fulfilling God’s mission.
As the Christian church looks to respond to the situation in Afghanistan, it is important to take hold of this text in the correct light. Throughout Scripture, God is a seeking and sending God. It is to this mission — not military campaigns, political allegiances or earthly power — that God calls us.
Ed Stetzer is a professor and dean at Wheaton College.