When I read Isaiah, I think of people like Nadia. Along with more than a million Iraqis, Nadia and her family became refugees following the the U.S. invasion that resulted from the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction in warehouses in his country. In his 2003 speech to the people of the United States, former President George W. Bush had promised Iraqis “the day of your liberation is near.”
But my friend Peter Dula told a different story: While working with Mennonite Central Committee in Iraq during the height of the U.S. invasion, Peter met people like Nadia, whose son slept by the window each night, waiting in terror for the arrival of U.S. soldiers. When they arrived, the soldiers stood by as powerful gangs looted their city and trash overflowed in the streets. Nadia’s neighbors were kidnapped for ransom. “Why did they come here?” Nadia asked Peter. Eventually, Nadia and her family fled to Jordan after she was threatened with abduction.
I can imagine Nadia and her family reading Isaiah in the rubble. And I can imagine the people of Afghanistan seeing their own lives echoed back in the ancient people written about in this prophecy. In Isaiah, we read how safety and security has evaporated for the people. King Uzziah is dead. Israel lived for a short period of time under the safety and security of this king who ran the country well and provided military protection for his people. Judah flourished. But now that security is gone.
During this moment of terror and fear, God calls the prophet (Isaiah 6). In an eruption of burning coals, smoke, and incense, voices cry “holy, holy, holy.” Terrifying seraphs take flight and Isaiah whispers into the din, “here am I; send me!”
President Joe Biden was apparently inspired by this prophecy as he spoke to the U.S. people following a devastating suicide attack outside the Kabul airport last week. Biden vowed America “will not forgive and we will not forget.” Instead, just as Isaiah once responded to the call of God, so too would U.S.troops, ready to enact bloody vengeance upon those who attacked U.S. citizens.
As a pastor and a student of the Bible, I always find it jarring to see Isaiah’s profession of faith — “Here I am, send me” — show up on graduation cards, inspirational posters, and military paraphernalia. But I felt a unique horror at hearing the words of Isaiah in the mouth of the United States’ commander in chief. The U.S. bears little resemblance to the people who receive Isaiah’s prophecy — people who belong to a vulnerable state, batted around by the powerful forces of Assyria and Babylon, and eventually driven into exile.
In this section of Isaiah, the people of Israel anticipate the invasion of the massive military complex of Assyria. The army moves from the south crushing and conquering everything in its path. Isaiah’s role is to call people to trust in God and to once again follow God’s path.
The United States has long believed we are the inheritors of the promise of Israel, the “city on a hill,” as Ronald Reagan famously described the U.S., taking up the words of Jesus from Matthew 5. This impulse is embedded in our nation’s founding, inherited from Europeans who used their belief in divine right to exploit and conquer Indigenous peoples and lands in the name of Jesus. Our exceptionalism does not spring from merit; rather, it is rooted in the soil of our nation, arriving with Puritans’ claims that the land on which they established the first colonies was a new Israel. John Winthrop was picked for this work by “the provident hand of the most high.” United States history became sacred history.
If the United States is to take up any metaphoric role in this period of Israel’s history represented in Isaiah 6, we are the Assyrians, content to blast our way into any country we like, leaving wreckage and destruction in our wake. Like the Assyrians, my country shows no concern for how its vengeance turns the lives of ordinary people to ash.
The Assyrian armies were known for conscripting defeated peoples and ordinary people, especially farmers to enact the ruthless campaigns of their wealthy superiors. Today, those who bear the brunt of our endless wars are often Black and brown soldiers, many who join the armed services to access opportunities denied them by systemic and structural barriers to their flourishing. Once in the armed forces they report fierce, deeply embedded racial discrimination.
I thought about Nadia as I heard the president threaten once more to enact powerful military revenge on our nation’s enemies. I thought about the families of soldiers, grappling with the death of their loved ones as they watch Afghanistan return to the hands of the Taliban. Our memories are short. The clear absurdity of the endless, hopeless loop of war dissolves in the heat of vengeance.
I do not know where Nadia is today; I hope that now, almost two decades later, she has found a place in this world where she can thrive. But I know this: God is with Nadia. Beyond the power of the New Assyria, vowing to wipe the earth clean of our enemies, is a God who will not be found on fighter jets or drones. This God comes to us in the body of a child huddled by a window in Afghanistan, waiting for the bombs to fall.