[published in Purpose: Stories of Faith and Promise, 43.11 (November 2010), 28.]
As a young teen, I attended Sunday School at the Elkton (Oregon) Christian Church. As we kids gathered to sing, we would be asked for requests. I vied with my friends, waving my hand wanting to be the one to get us to sing our favorite, “As a Volunteer.”
I hadn’t thought of this song for about 40 years when it came to mind recently. But the words and tune came back vividly. Through the internet, I tracked down a recording of the song and confirmed the accuracy of my memory—and understood why I never heard Mennonites sing the song.
“As a Volunteer” was written in 1907 by W. S. Davis. It’s a typical gospel song, lively and catchy enough to gain the affection of a 12-year old boy—and to stick in said boy’s memory. This is the chorus: “A volunteer for Jesus, a soldier true! Others have enlisted, why not you? Jesus is the Captain, we will never fear. Will you be enlisted, as a volunteer?”
About this same time, I learned another memorable song—“The Ballad of the Green Berets.” “Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die…”
These images I associated with “volunteering” to invest one’s life in something bigger than oneself, the excitement of making a difference in the world: “A soldier true!” “Fearless men who jump and die!”
The tragedy here is that the impulse to so volunteer easily gets co-opted and turned in a militaristic direction—especially for young boys.
About the time W. S. Davis penned the words for “As a Volunteer,” the great American philosopher William James wrote a powerful essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” James recognized the normality of the urge to volunteer our lives for making a difference in the world—and how powerfully the military life appeals to such urges. But he also recognized (and surely this truth is even more obvious now a century later) that putting our idealism to work in service of military ends actually serves death, not life.
So, William James called for putting our best creative energies into finding ways to act on our idealism, to live as “volunteers” on behalf of exciting, challenging, even life-risking causes—but causes that indeed serve life and not death. His insights remain a powerful challenge.