An Indictment Against Unjust War: An Oracle Against Damascus (Amos 1:3-5)
Yahweh says: “For three transgressions of Damascus, yes, for four, I will not turn away its punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron.” – Amos 1:3 (WEB)
War is simultaneously hailed as the most glorious and reprehensible thing in which mankind has ever engaged. It has been a part of our world since Cain struck down Abel and as nations began to build and compete for land and resources, war became commonplace. Human history is merely the history of war, often written by the winners.
The same was true in the days of Amos. The nations of the Ancient Near East, all of whom are called out in his oracles against the nations in Amos 1-2, were nations known for their warfare. Damascus, the capital city of Aram, was no different. The people of Aram had a long and storied history of war with the nation of Israel, beginning around 1400 BC. Israel’s first judge, Othniel, delivers the nation from the oppression of Cushan-Rishathaim.
King David completely subdues Aram (2 Sam. 8:6) in his day, but after the nation fractures in two, Aram overthrows Israel and begins a continual back and forth that continued into the time of Amos. Aram continually tested its borders with Israel, pushing into the territory of Gilead, which was on the western border of Aram.
It is for this continual aggression that Aram-Damascus finds itself the subject of Yahweh’s impending judgment.
Yahweh’s indictment of Aram is because of their behavior in warfare. They have “threshed Gilead with threshing instruments of iron.” Some commentators have taken this phrase metaphorically, understanding it to mean a word picture of brutal and horrendous oppression of the people of Gilead. Quite frankly, when you read a sentence like this, you hope that it is only a metaphor!
By most indications, however, we should take Amos’s words at face value. This particular type of torture is well-attested in the Ancient Near East and was, in fact, employed by Gideon in Judges 8, when he uses briars and thorns to “thresh” the leaders of Sukkoth. What Gideon did with sticks, the Arameans of the Iron Age do with iron sledges, laying the people of Gilead on the ground and literally plowing their bodies over, raking the iron spikes across them.
This instrument would be a wooden board with iron teeth underneath that a person would stand upon as it was dragged across grain or, in the case of Amos, across the bodies of those captured in war.
To those left alive, it portrayed a very clear image. We stand over your broken bodies and we have conquered. Aram systematically used torture and engaged the civilian populace, two wartime activities that Yahweh definitely stands against the unequivocally says he will judge.
When Amos calls out these sins—what we today would consider war crimes—he is not simply stating what was known as a universal standard, a breach in the etiquette of warfare. This type of activity was expected and even celebrated in that ancient culture. Yahweh does not indict Damascus for something she knew to be wrong, but an activity that she celebrated as a sign of national strength.
Amos’s message reminds us that, especially in this realm of warfare, what we are doing might be effective, it might be legal, it might even be celebrated, but Yahweh will still condemn us for it.
A Nation that Tortures in War
Any nation that engages in the systemic use of torture will incur the wrath of God. It is universally, morally wrong to torture human beings. To torture a human made in the image of God is to torture God himself. Even fallen and evil human beings are sacred creations of an almighty God and should be treated as such.
But even with that in mind, our nation’s history—like nearly every nation’s history—is pockmarked with instances of torture. In a nation nearing 240 years old, we have been at war for most of them. Our opportunities for waging it unjustly have abounded and we have indeed taken advantage.
From the stocks in the middle of Puritan towns to the lynching trees of the Deep South, from the military to our prison system, torture has become an integrated part of American culture—whether we realize it or not.
9/11 brought military use of torture into the limelight, although these methods of torture began and were perfected during the 1900s in our series of Asian wars in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam. We have begun to see torture as a declaration of strength, just like the ancient Arameans. Yahweh’s words to Aram roar down to us today: Your war might be justified. Your methods are not. To fight evil is a noble thing. To fight evil with evil brings destruction. Instead, overcome evil with good.
As Christians in America, we must stand up and condemn these practices, whether they are committed by some rogue element within the military or approved by the president of the United States himself. Human beings have been made in the image of God and deserve to be treated as such. To torture another human being is to torture a sacred creation of Almighty God and God stands against it.
A Nation that Kills Civilians in War
Aram is not only indicted for its use of torture, it is indicted for its unethical involvement of civilians in war. Aram does not appear to be engaging in legitimate warfare when it runs its sledges over the populace. Instead, it is terrorizing the innocent civilians who live on the borderland of Gilead.
Yahweh is clear. A just war is to be waged between armies. To involve the civilian populace is to incur the wrath and judgment of God. This too should raise significant alarm to our nation’s leaders. Technology has allowed war to become distant. Drone strikes have taken the place of face-to-face combat. The lines between civilian and combatant have become blurred in the eyes of many.
Civilian fatalities in wartime climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century, to 15 per cent during World War I, to 65 per cent by the end of World War II, to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.
The United States has found itself caught up in this statistic, as it engages heavily in drone warfare, which killed at least 117 civilians during the Obama administration.
And yet the United States continues to be the nation most lenient and favorable toward this sort of collateral damage—the killing of innocent lives. A Gallup poll found that 49%—nearly half—of Americans believed that civilian casualties could be justified.
It’s an easy position to hold when the civilian casualties are those from another nation. Our history is a heavy legacy of sin and death, justified by Christians and non-Christians alike, Republicans and Democrats the same. And yet God is clear: the nation that engages in these practices will find themselves engaged with his wrath.
What We Can Do
Our nation’s unjust practices in war are all around us, and yet simultaneously far removed from us. It happens over there. It isn’t a part of our daily reality. And we see it or hear about it, it becomes something easily justified or minimized.
Well, the terrorists were hiding among civilians.
Well, if they were innocent, why were they around terrorists?
But we had to torture them for the information.
We had to do it for American security.
Aram didn’t recognize their sin either. They didn’t consider what they were doing to be wrong. They didn’t consider it a sin. And Yahweh did not hold the same opinion. We cannot justify our sin either. We cannot plead ignorance. The sin of Aram is our own.
We are complicit, even if we have never taken part. We are complicit in our silence. We think we can’t affect this. We can’t change this. It’s too big for us. So we say nothing. Perhaps we even secretly cheer on the government doing the dirty work we evangelicals cannot do, quoting Romans 13 and whispering that the government does not bear the sword in vain.
The government cannot be our scapegoat. We cannot support a leader or a system that advocates torture. As evangelicals, we are first obligated to be faithful to Christ and his teaching. We are to be Kingdom people, disciples who think biblically about all things, and in all things attempt to reform our empires to fit the model of the Kingdom.
We live in democracy where we have the right to shape the government in the way we so desire. We can elect, we can protest, we can advocate, we can lobby, and we can speak out. Amos’s indictment of Damascus and its subsequent destruction should drive the Church to action. We must reform our policies of war to be in alignment with God’s kingdom.