Let's talk about a sin that’s been around for a very long time.
I have always had a sensitivity to the unity of the human race. When I wrote my first book cover for True Girl, I wanted diversity reflected on the cover and have always sought to have a team of women on stage that reflect all different types of girls. And then when I adopted my Asian daughter, I became even more concerned about how we interact with honor and respect. (I guess you need a front row seat to see the sad emotional impact of prejudice to know just how much it hurts.)
But something new began to happen in my heart in late 2019. As I studied the book of Habakkuk to write my first Bible study, the Lord flooded me with a love for the “nations” and a desire to repent of my own sense that my nation or people group is superior.
That’s how most people reacted when I shared my thoughts. Racial and national unity is not the thesis of Habakkuk by any means. And though it was not my primary takeaway from the pages of this oft-overlooked book, it was—for me—a significant one. When people asked me what I was learning in my studies, it was difficult to verbalize that one thing I was learning about was God’s distaste for division in the human race.
So, I would just say, “I’m learning to love the nations.”
May I share with you the four things Habakkuk has taught me?
First: a disclaimer!
These thoughts are coming from a woman who is no expert on the topic, but I’m trying to hear both from God and from those wounded in this battle. What I’m about to share may be old ideas to you if you’ve been more in touch with the pain of racism, but I’m hoping they might be useful thoughts for those who—like me—admit they are still learning and recognize a need to grow.
Be kind to me, but feel free to let me know where I have blinders on.
Here we go—the four things I’ve learned about racism from studying just one book of the Bible.
The Bible references the sin of racism quite often, and it’s uglier than we think.
One thing I could not help but notice is how very often the Bible confronts the issue of ethnic superiority. This is an important observation to fully understand the book of Habakkuk. The tentacles of the prophet’s writing took me to view the racism of the Egyptians, which led to Israel’s enslavement. And eventually to the banks of the Chebar River, where Daniel would write his book under the captivity of the Babylonians who also embraced the sin of ethnic pride.
We tend to make mental cartoons of these stories. That’s unfortunate. They were horrific oppressions. I discovered this in, of all things, the poetry of Habakkuk which references just how gory it could get. At one point, the prophet writes about men being “like fish of the sea” and being brought up “with a hook.” (Habakkuk 1:14,15) What did that mean? Well, let me show you what I discovered in documents and art that were created parallel to the writing of Habakkuk.
First, ancient documents taught me that victorious kings of the ancient world would march captives off in long lines. They were strung together with hooks in their lips tethering them to one another. Just like fish!
Now, check out this archeological discovery found in the ruins of Ancient Assyria.[i]
It’s a sketch of a king blinding a captive while holding his head still by using a hook in his lips. The others await the same fate. Is it possible that Daniel and the other captives were carted off in this manner which was as common as handcuffs are today? It would seem so based on the poetry of Habakkuk.
This kind of treatment not only confronts the white-washed view we sometimes embrace of Daniel and his lion’s den, but it also sounds completely barbaric to us. As I considered this, I lost my flannel graph vision and became mindful that every time I was reading about slavery in the Bible, I was witness to the sin of racism.
Racism—which is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed at an individual or group of people of different ethnicity based on the belief that your own ethnicity is superior—is sin in light of God’s image being planted in each human being.
It’s not that I did not see this sin before, I just did not realize the extent to which God communicates to us about ethnic division and racism.
But my sisters of color have been aware of it. One of them, Kim Cash Tate,—who helped me examine my own heart and writing as I was putting this blog together—wrote these words that both built me up . . . and gently tore down what needed to be dismantled in my mind:
"I was smiling at the fact that you were seeing so much about the “nations” that hadn’t struck you before. When you’re a person of color, things like that tend to jump out at you. I was so encouraged by the fact that you were not only seeing these things but allowing them to shape how you see our current world. God is truly working—that was evident in your post!"
Her gentle confrontation—along with others like it—have been fruitful in my heart. We need more kind but direct communication like this. Because God is issuing us an invitation! That's another thing I recognized in the book of Habakkuk.
God invites us to see the sin of racism and speak up.
The book of Habakkuk opens up early with an invitation to “look and see the nations.”[ii]
I decided to do just that. So began my journey to study the people groups that would have been considered significant political forces during that time, including the Neo-Assyrian Empire (912-612 B.C.). According to many historians, it was the first true domain of the world. Nineveh, the great capital of the empire, had a massive defensive wall with fifteen gates, aqueducts and irrigation ditches and public places, a palace with eighty rooms, and a lot of parks and gardens. There is even sufficient argument that one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—The Hanging Gardens of Babylon—was actually The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh.[iii]
That made me wonder why Jonah was so loath to give the people in that city a message of warning.
So, I kept digging.
It turns out that the Assyrian Empire may have been a site for ancient tourists to see, but the polytheistic people were ruthlessly driven by selfish ambition and greed. The warriors were cruel and reveled in the art that displayed their handiwork. (Such as the one above.) Ancient scenes of soldiers ripping the tongues from captives, flaying their enemies alive, beheading opposing leaders, and forcing prisoners of war to grind up the bones of their fallen comrades adorn the British Museum’s recreation of Assyrian art.[iv] They were the bullies on the proverbial ancient block of the Near East.
One historian, Simon Anglim wrote that “though the Assyrian armies were respected and feared . . . they were most of all hated.”[v]
In short, the Assyrians were fueled by racism and hatred[vi]. They’d hurt enough people, so God invited a prophet to go speak up on behalf of the oppressed and to warn the Queen Bee of Nineveh that God would not tolerate their assault on His image-bearers any longer.
Jonah cannot imagine why God would want to warn these barbarians. If judgment were actually coming, it would be well-deserved!
But God’s message of judgment was a second chance for people who were entrenched in sin!
It goes without saying that Jonah lost no love on the people of Nineveh. He jumps in a boat with some soft-hearted sailors and heads the other way.
The prophet was just like some of us. We want to bury our head in the sand when it comes to the complicated, messy conversations God is inviting us to be a part of when it comes to racial division. I believe we are at a time in history where many of us are unwilling to enter into the work God wants us to do in order to bring many people—ourselves included— the second chance at life He wants to give them. Many people are jumping in a boat to set sail in the opposite direction of this critical discourse.
Don’t do it. Don’t run from God if He’s giving you an opportunity to speak up for the oppressed.
And make no mistake—the work He wants to do involves our own hearts!
Let me explain.
God loves all people…and gives each of us “second chances” to love like He does.
Running from God never works. And it did not for Jonah. God chased him with the wind. The prophet tells the sailors that his God is mad at him and promises that if they throw him overboard the storm will stop. They do it and a big fish swallows him and three days later spits him out.
God tells the soggy prophet the same thing He’d told him before: Go to Nineveh!
In spite of having disdain for the people of Nineveh, Jonah cries “uncle.” He gets himself to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, but his attitude smells about as bad as the inside of that big fish he’d been in. He delivers an epic five-word Hebrew sermon.
In English it comes out as six words and basically means, “In forty days, you’ll be destroyed!”
He certainly does not wax eloquent. No mention of what Nineveh has done wrong or how to make it right. Not even a mention of God. He delivers a minimal amount of information. Even so, the presence of God is so thick on this reluctant minister that the whole city—including its cows—repents! So, God does not destroy them.
All’s well that ends well, right? Not exactly. Jonah is ticked.
What a bummer! Poor Jonah actually serves a merciful God full of compassion. (He wasn’t complaining about that when the fish spat him out, was he?) In fact, Yahweh is so compassionate that He grows a leafy plant to shelter the worn-out prophet while he recovers from his ordeal. Jonah turns into a plant lover, but he has no green thumb. His vine dies. And he is sad. And, maybe, a bit embarrassed. After all, the way the story panned out sort of discredited him.
That’s about the time I got overwhelmed by God’s love for all people groups. He was forgiving toward both the Assyrians whose sin, in part, included racism and the prophet who was demonstrating the same sin but in a “nicer” way.
Let’s review the definition of racism. It is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed at an individual or group of people of a different ethnicity based on the belief that your own ethnicity is superior.
Can you see that God was giving both the people of Nineveh and Jonah a second chance to love as He does?
My heart was doing jumping jacks at the realization that way back in the day my God “was patient” towards all of us “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (II Peter 3:9) And it was simply “flooded” with a love of the “nations.” I’m not sure those words make sense without a deeper dive into Habakkuk, but it’s what my heart has been experiencing.
I wonder: as we enter into this critical conversation, are we making room for our hearts to see our own sin? And are we making room to forgive those who’ve hurt us? And those who’ve stood by and watched it happen?
Do we want to learn to see like He does and to love?
Righteous people who live by faith do not accept, embrace, or embody racism which is rooted in pride.
Habakkuk invited me to take a deep dive into the racial, national, and political unrest found in the books of Exodus, Jonah, and Daniel; but I was surprised to discover that this Old Testament writer provided Paul with the backbone of the New Testament. I think this will sound familiar.
Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
Several times in the New Testament, Habakkuk is quoted. He is there each time we’re called to live by faith, walk by faith, be saved by faith as a result of being made righteous by faith. There’s not a good work you or I can to do make this epidemic of hate roll on any faster or be any easier.
But we can walk through it righteously as we live by faith.
And we must.
If the second part of Habakkuk 2:4 is still relevant, shouldn’t we understand the first part of it?
Let me personalize and paraphrase it for you since Habakkuk is a fancy poet:
If your soul is full of pride like Nineveh, it’s not right,
but if you are righteous you will live by faith.
The strong contrast is this: walking in faith is the anti-thesis of walking in pride. And pride is the root sin of racism.
Perhaps it is not a mistake that God allows it to explode in our nation so we are forced to respond to it.
Maybe He wants us cleansed.
Maybe He wants me cleansed.
I’m coming to understand that I have much prejudice in my heart when someone is different from me. When someone is different, my pride rises up to defend “self” and I’m prone to selfish thoughts if not actions. At times, I’ve played nice like Jonah, but God is giving you and me a chance to look and see with His eyes and to walk with His love.
Let’s not go for comfortable. (Right now I’m seeing Jonah under that big leaf taking a snooze and resting off the aftermath of the stormy season in his life.) Let’s press into prayers that examine our hearts, conversations that take the scales from our eyes, and humility that projects and projects the unity of a God who loves us all.
I leaned heavily on the wisdom of several of my friends as I wrote this blog. Many of them were women of color who have been so gentle in helping me take the scales from my own eyes. I personally challenged when one of them, Danet Fuller, wrote this to me, bringing Nineveh close to home. I leave you with this:
Some of our “Nineveh's” are close by, like someone who owes you rent but is flaunting the life on Facebook. It would be hard to bring the message of Jesus to them but that just may be the assignment.
Some may be far away like the people who blew up the world trade center. Does that “Nineveh” deserve to hear the message of salvation?
“Nineveh” may be a white police officer, who killed a black man, and who needs to hear about the love of Jesus and be offered salvation. Who will carry the message? Who will go to this “Nineveh”?
God's will is that ALL . . . ALL should come to repentance. All may not, but our assignment is to deliver the message and let God worry about the outcome.
May the first “Nineveh” to hear the message of repentance be the one residing in my own heart. So that I may be entrusted to bring the message of God’s Truth . . . and His love . . . because I live by faith --- free from being “puffed up.”
Lord, make my soul right within me.
The book of Habakkuk was an invitation for me to courageously look at my own heart regarding the way that I look at “the nations.” But it is by far not the main theme or takeaway from the book. It’s mostly about learning to believe that God is good and maintains control even when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world around us. Though this book is often overlooked during times of peace and prosperity, it has tended to be studied when believers needed to learn how to talk to God during epic events.
If you’re having trouble remembering that God is good and that He is in control, I invite you to study the book of Habakkuk. I've created videos and a podcast to make it easy for your to do it with a friend or a group.
[ii] God is literally inviting Habakkuk to stop whining about his person pain and that of his own people group, and to look to see how God was at work to use another people group to bring a much-needed message of correction.
[v] Ancient History Encyclopedia
[vi] Racism—that is prejudice against all the people in other nations surrounding them—was not the only sin of the Assyrians. They were guilty of gluttony, sexual perversion, greed, pride, idolatry, and so much more. But I cannot help but see their superiority as I studied this book.