An Indictment Against Racism (Amos 1:11-12)

Pastor and author Josh Olds opens the book of Amos to compare Yahweh's indictment against Edom in Amos 1:11-12 for their longstanding racism against Israel with our own long and sordid history of racism and racist ideology.

An Indictment Against Racism: An Oracle Against Edom (Amos 1:11-12)

This is what the Lord says: “Because Edom has committed three crimes—make that four!—I will not revoke my decree of judgment. He chased his brother with a sword; he wiped out his allies. In his anger he tore them apart without stopping to rest; in his fury he relentlessly attacked them. – Amos 1:11 (NET) 

The indictments of Yahweh’s oracles against the nations in Amos seem to reach a fever pitch, all pointing toward the ultimate indictment of the nation of Edom. Edom lies in the background of two of the previous three oracles, facilitating and spurring on the sinfulness of these other nations. Edom provides the opportunity for sin by being the consumers of Gaza and Tyre’s exploitation. 

This judgment of Edom goes further, saying that not only was Edom relying on these nations to enslave the Israelites, they were personally invading, murdering, and looting the Promised Land. Unlike the sins of Gaza and Tyre, which were primarily motivated by economic factors, Edom’s sin appears to have been motivated by a pure and unadulterated hatred for the people of Israel. 

This animosity goes all the way back to the nation’s progenitors, all the way back to their strife within the womb of Rebekah. Nearly a thousand years after the fact, the descendents of Esau are continuing the conflict between their fathers with their violence and their hatred toward Israel. One verse just reads simply.

For again the Edomites had come and struck Judah, and carried away captives. (2 Chron. 28:17) 

This phrasing denotes a repeated and continual pattern of activity. This is, in all likelihood, what the nation of Edom is being judged for. They have come in, they have stolen the people, they have plundered the wealth of the nation, they have taken it as their own possession, and they have used the violence of the sword to accomplish it all. 

Notice that for Edom all four sins are put on display. For the previous oracles only one sin is given. For Edom, their “three crimes, make that four!” are listed in two sets of couplets. 

He chased his brother with a sword; 

He wiped out his allies. 

In anger, he tore them apart. 

In fury, he relentlessly attacked them. 

You don’t have to go very far to see the sin of Edom paralleled in so many nations and peoples throughout history. Racism has existed since melanin, and even before that. Ever since the world became spread out after Babel, people have hated other people for their ethnicity, their geography, their culture, their language, their bloodline, whatever. And quite often, such hatred and racism has resulted in this type of violence.  

Violent Racism and Colonialism 

An American cartoonist in 1888 depicted John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent.

Most racism throughout history has had to do with competing boundaries and often similar bloodlines. But as the age of exploration dawned, racism changed its locus from “those just different enough” to “those wildly different from me.”

Columbus sails to a new land and claims to discovered it, despite the fact that people are already living there. He calls these people Indians because he believes he has landed in India. He claims the whole nation for Spain, again despite the fact people are already living there. And this jump starts centuries of European colonialism from the Americas to Africa to Asia.  

As the age of European exploration continued, it became a sort of competition between the European powers to see who could have more colonies. With the case of Africa especially, Europe and then the US began to export the natural resources—including its people—leaving behind a catastrophic mess.

Most of Africa, much of Asia and South America are filled with, “third world nations” because it was plundered by first world nations.

Why are you so poor Africa? Why are you so corrupt Southeast Asia? Why are you so underdeveloped? Because the natural wealth and resources of those nations were stripped for colonial gain just a couple centuries ago. And the United States doesn’t get off just because its nation is a relatively recent invention. Our nation was built on the land of Natives by the work of Africans.  

In the United States, slavery soon became codified as white plantation owners enslaving African people. Meanwhile, in Africa, there were continual attempts to civilize the savage populace. Sometimes even well-meaning missionaries would bring in the gospel of the European culture Jesus rather than the actual Jesus of the Gospels.  

They have come in, they have stolen the people, they have plundered the wealth of the nation, they have taken it as their own possession, and they have used the violence of the sword to accomplish it all. It is Edom writ all over again. 

Systemic Racism and Passive Silence

And can be very easy to say that all of this happened in the past. Never mind that the oppression of Native peoples continue. Never mind that there are individuals alive today who were middle aged when the Civil Rights Act was signed.  

We can always point to a previous time or a different place and say “Well, at least we are better than…” But that’s not the standard we’ve been called to. We are not called to just be better than genocide, to be better than slavemasters, or even to be better than the “separate but equal” mentality that was pervasive just a generation ago and still continues today. 

Racism is our national sin and as individuals living in the United States, we have to acknowledge our history of ethnic and racial violence if we are going to move forward.

Because the truth is, yes, we are a lot better than we used to be as a nation. Violence against someone for their race is still a thing, but we are no longer systemically and overtly enslave and promote violence. And so there can be a tendency to become complacent, to simply accept where we are as good. 

According to FBI statistics, there were 4,216 victims of a hate crime that involved their race. And to be honest my first thought was…that’s actually pretty good. It’s 4,216 too many, but hey, it’s much better than enslaving a whole people group and driving another whole people group out. Police violence toward minorities, especially, Latino and Black, are still a problem, but we are improving. Awareness is growing. We are improving as a nation, but we don’t get a sticker for basic human decency. It’s not really an accomplishment.  

Violence is still a real thing. Look at Charlottesville, just from August of 2017. Thirty people injured and one person dead after a White nationalism protest turned ugly. The protest itself was racist. The people involved were racist. But here’s the thing. Until fists started flying and that car drove into the crowd, it was still a level of racism that our nation was willing to accept. We have to accept that there were not very fine people on all sides, because violence was not the issue, it was an overflow of the heart issue of racism. 

Jesus preaches on this quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.  

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 7:21-22)

It’s not about the violence, Jesus says, it’s the heart issue that underlies it.

The absence of violence is not peace. Peace is not a neutral sentiment.

The Hebrew word shalom is usually translated in English as peace, and it’s through understanding shalom that we can begin to understand what biblical peace actually is. The verb form of shalom is shalam. 116 times in Scripture it is used to reference paying back, making amends, providing restitution, or righting wrongs.  

The peace of shalom is about wholeness. It isn’t just ceasing to do wrong, it’s beginning to do right and starting with making amends for the wrong. It’s not just about ending violence, about being separate but equal, it’s about joining together as one humanity. It is about allying yourself with those that are being persecuted. 

Silencing the Allies 

After Edom attacks Israel, he next comes after Israel’s allies. Anytime you stand up for an oppressed person or people group, you will soon find yourself the target as well. In May 2017, a man killed two men and injured a third on a Portland train. 

The man had targeted two young girls on a train, a 17 year old Muslim and a 16 year old African-American, and begun shouting racial slurs at them, insisting that quote, “colored people are ruining this city” and that the girls should “go back to Saudi Arabia.”  

Three men on the train placed themselves between the man and the girls and asked him to stop. He responded by stabbing and killing two of them and injuring a third. Standing up for what is right will inevitably put yourselves in harm’s way.  

It was true for the early abolitionists. Reverend Elijah Lovejoy had his printing presses destroyed four times so that he could not print his abolitionist newspaper and was eventually killed by a pro-slavery mob. William Lloyd Garrison was dragged by a mob around Boston for his work to free Black slaves.

If you stand up against oppression, you will have your position vilified, mischaracterized, and demonized. It may lead to loss of opportunities, loss of friends, loss of relationships. Evangelical author Jen Hatmaker has received death threats from Christians who are opposed to her emphasis on social justice. She had a speaking tour canceled. People burned her books and mailed her the ashes. 

You will pay a price if you stand against racism, if you stand against injustice of any sort. But silence is not an option. Silence in the face of another’s oppression is to be complicit in that oppression. Justice will not be served until those unaffected are as outraged as those who are. 

Harboring Hatred 

Look at the description of Edom’s actions in that final couplet. In anger. In fury. There is an irrational emotionalism behind Edom’s attacks. Other nations have come to war against Israel and received no condemnation like this one. Yahweh condemns Edom, not because of what they have done to the covenant people of Israel but because of their treatment of others period. Edom’s indictment would be true and accurate whether it was of Israel or any other nation. 

I don’t want to paint the picture that the Israelites, especially through the time of the divided kingdom, were perfect. Undoubtedly, some of the tension between Edom and Israel is legitimate. Undoubtedly, Israel has its own flaws and sins that will be addressed as well. There were probably legitimate reasons to dislike Israel, but Edom’s reasons for their actions were not based on legitimate reasons and, regardless of their reasons, their behavior was not an appropriate response. 

Racism today tends to be less based on skin color and more based on a stereotype of what that skin color means.

In the past, you had individuals and even churches saying that black skin was the mark of Cain, which made them inferior on the basis of skin color. Today, the attitudes of racism seem to lie less in the race than in what they presume of that race. That is, their racism is not based on a fear or a hatred or a disapproval based on what could be seen as legitimate concerns, but—just like Edom—the product of irrational emotionalism.  

Assumptions are made about someone because of the color of their skin or their nation of origin and judgments are made from that, rather than from knowing and understanding the individual as a human being made in the image of God. Today’s racism is less overt and more insidious. It has crept into our institutions and into our language and into our entertainment. 

Today’s racism finds itself in our marketing and our movies—whether it’s Dove’s lotion for “normal to dark skin” or Hollywood’s continual whitewashing or stereotyping of minority roles. Racism today can consist of gentrification, systematically raising the cost of living in traditionally low-cost and usually minority neighborhoods so that they can be taken over by rich, primarily white people. 

From small to big, from violent to just passive-aggressive, from ignorant to purposeful, racism still exists and it is still a sin and it must still be reckoned with.  

What We Can Do  

So what can we do? Since much of modern racism is due to primarily ignorance, rather than malice, there is a great need to speak out against racism and educate people. Other times, racism transcends race and manifests itself in either a “me first” or “America first” policy that puts the rights and the wants of me—whatever sex, religion, socio-economic status or race I might be—ahead of anyone else. 

But this sentiment is patently unbiblical and Amos says that any nation that dares to hate or oppress another people group for the color of their skin or the heritage of their bloodline will incur his wrath.  Any nation that takes a “me first” mentality, be it America or Israel, will find themselves under the judgment of God. Paul writes to the Philippians, 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil. 2:3-4)

If we lived out those verses, racism would cease to exist. Hatred would cease to exist. It would have to. Only by acknowledging our systemic sin and working toward correcting it can we ever find true peace. And it must begin with the church. The church must be on the forefront of racial conciliation. It must put itself out there and speak up when our politicians use offensive language to describe other nations, when they go against the biblical policies to welcome the immigrant and the refugee.  

Outside of the church, humanity is naturally divided. Age, race, sex, socio-economics, whatever. You would expect this to be the case. For the secular mind, if mankind evolved, then of course there are lower and higher forms of humans. Survival of the fittest, of course some people groups are more fit than others, more human than others.  

But inside the church, those artificial barriers are torn down.  

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28) 

Now Paul is not saying that these distinctions do not exist. Ethnicity is to be celebrated. Gender is to be celebrated. The church is not supposed to be colorblind, it’s supposed to be inclusive and celebrate the diversity of God’s creation.  This needs to be unequivocally stated. There is no place for racist words or actions in the church of Jesus Christ. Paul, in his great sermon to the Greeks in Acts 17, writes this:  

And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth (Acts 17:26, KJV) 

We are all brothers and sisters. Not just in Christ, but by blood. We may have to go all the way back to Noah to get there, but we are related, you and I. And therefore we must relate to one another in a certain way. Amos’s warning to Edom rings straight to heart of our nation and our lives today. We must not just seek an uneasy neutral tension, we must actively work to restore peace and shalom, or else find God’s judgment upon us. 

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