On Tuesday, April 4, 2017, the government of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, whose capital is Damascus, conducted a chemical attack against opposition forces that caused the death of men, women, and children. According to reports, the chemical bombing of the rebel forces probably was one of the worst uses of chemical weapons in a war that has lasted almost six years.
A report published in the New York Times describes the results of this attack against innocent civilians:
Dozens of people, including children, died – some writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth – after breathing in poison that possibly contained a nerve agent or other banned chemicals, according to witnesses, doctors and rescue workers. They said the toxic substance spread after warplanes dropped bombs in the early morning hours. Some rescue workers grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead.
The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib Province, where the attack took place, said 69 people had died, providing a list of their names. The dead were still being identified, and some humanitarian groups said as many as 100 had died.
Numerous photographs and graphic videos posted online by activists and residents showed children and older adults gasping and struggling to breathe, or lying motionless in the mud as rescue workers ripped off victims’ clothes and hosed them down. The bodies of at least 10 children lay lined up on the ground or under a quilt.
This heinous act perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad is an inhumane crime, a crime that can be classified as “a crime against humanity.” Crimes against humanity are deliberate actions committed by nations or by individuals against civilians or against innocent people not directly involved in the conflict between nations and individuals.
In short, “crimes against humanity can be committed during peace or war. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, military use of children, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, rape, and political or racial repression may reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.” (Wikipedia).
Bashar al-Assad and Damascus have committed “crimes against humanity.” The murder of thousands of people, the displacement of millions of Syrians to other parts of the world, and the chemical attacks that have caused much pain and suffering on hundreds, if not thousands, of people are crimes against humanity.
However, this is not the first time that Damascus has been accused of crimes against humanity. In the eighth century B.C., the prophet Amos proclaimed an oracle against Damascus because of their inhumanity during their war against the people of Israel. Amos said:
Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron. So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate bars of Damascus, and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir, says the LORD (Amos 1:3-5).
According to the prophet Amos, the leaders of Syria are accused of barbaric atrocities against the people of Gilead. Damascus is accused of cruel and inhumane treatment of war prisoners. War prisoners were raked with threshing sledges of iron across the land as though they were grain on the threshing floor. Damascus turned studded sledges of iron into weapons of war, torturing prisoners by chopping and grinding them like harvested grain.
Amos’ severe criticism of Damascus reflects the biblical view that Yahweh exercises his sovereignty over all the nations of the world. With his words of judgment against Damascus, Amos was affirming the universal sovereignty of Yahweh over the nations.
What is so peculiar about Amos is that he condemned the atrocities committed by Damascus because it was violence committed against defenseless people. These violations of human dignity brought the severe judgment of God upon Damascus. Syria (or the Arameans) was a nation under God’s judgment. Damascus was a nation without special revelation but it was a nation not without moral responsibility; the Aramean people were without direct knowledge of God, but not without accountability to God; they were without the law written upon tablets of stone, but not without the law written on their conscience.
God is a gracious and compassionate God: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). Yet, this merciful and gracious God is also a God of justice, a God who punishes iniquity: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7).
When an individual commits a crime, that individual is punished by the civil authorities charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order in the community. “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). People who steal will be punished by the law with several years of incarceration. “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). People who murder may go to prison for a lifetime or even be sentenced to die by the hands of the state.
But who punishes a nation when that nation commits “crimes against humanity”? Not the United Nations because the UN can only impose sanctions against a member nation. Generally, justice will come from the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Tribunal. But a final resolution may take years, and most times, little is done to bring the perpetrator to justice.
In the case of Amos, the punishment of Damascus would come through war. A foreign nation would come against Damascus and set the palace of the king on fire, destroy the strongholds of the nation, “cut off the one who holds the scepter,” take the people of Aram into exile to Kir.
The word used by Amos to describe the transgressions of Damascus refers to the action of a nation against innocent people. The sentence that would come upon Damascus would be in the form of fire. The judgment also included other forms of punishment, such as the destruction of cities and deportation. God was using other nations as instruments of his justice in the same way he used the Assyrians and Babylonians against Israel. What Amos is saying was that the punishment against Damascus would come in the form of war.
According to the prophet Isaiah, the judgment of Damascus would come through an Assyrian invasion. He said: “The Lord is bringing up against [Damascus] the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory” (Isaiah 8:7). A few years later, what Amos had predicted, became reality: “The king of Assyria marched up against [Damascus], and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir; then he killed Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9).
By condemning the horrific crimes of Damascus and by proclaiming divine judgment upon a cruel nation, Amos emphasized the universal lordship of Yahweh over the nations. Syria is guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Syria needs to give an account for its inhumane treatment of its citizens. The bombing of Syria last week could be understood as a punishment for the nation’s crime against humanity. If God does not clear the guilty, where will justice for this crime against humanity come from?
The bombing of Syria does not imply that the United States is God’s instrument to punish Syria. Rather, what the bombing of Syria reveals is that crimes against humanity require the vindication of the victims through the judgment upon the nation who committed these inhumane atrocities. War is evil and for all practical purposes should be abolished: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” (Micah 4:3). However, in certain critical situations, war can be seen as the instrument of a nation to punish another nation for the crimes against humanity perpetrated against its own people.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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