Juneteenth: Listening, Learning and Loving

We like to celebrate special days. This summer, after over a year of not being able to be with others, there will be birthday celebrations, 4th of July gatherings, family reunions, weddings and many other celebrations.

In the Christian calendar, we also celebrate special days. Think of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost Sunday followed by Trinity Sunday. Through these days we remember redemptive history as unfolded in the Scriptures, with God the Father’s great redemptive acts in and through God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and applied by God the Holy Spirit.

Living in America, we also have special days we commemorate. For example, our summer generally begins with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day, and in between we have Independence Day, the 4th of July. These are federal holidays, meaning they are commemorated by having the day off from work to remember and celebrate the significance of what those days mean.

The end of slavery is something we should all celebrate, something for which we all should give thanks.
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Earlier this week, a federal holiday was added to the days we as a nation commemorate. June 19 is now recognized as Juneteenth National Independence Day. It is the day that marks the end of slavery in America. Most African Americans know about Juneteenth. Commemorating the day is often limited to African Americans. With this new federal holiday, that will change.

Some raised concerns about political motivations behind this bill, while others took issue with the offical name of the holiday. Although those issues may be legitimate matters to discuss, there ought to be unanimity among as we remember and affirm the freedom of slaves and the abolishment of slavery as a great good. As one appropriately writes, "here's why Juneteenth is a great American holiday: Slavery was very bad. . . . celebrating the end of slavery is . . . good." The end of slavery is something we should all celebrate, something for which we all should give thanks. It reflects the triumph of Christian truth affirmed and applied, truth lived out in life.

Personally, I respond to this new federal holiday with a posture of listening, learning and loving (Matt. 22:37-39; Mk. 12:30-31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 12:15; Gal. 6:2; Eph. 5:1-2; Jms. 1:19). Just as we celebrate special days through remembering and hearing each other’s stories, we do the same now with this historical remembrance. As part of a manifestation of my love for God, I love others, and part of my loving others is listening and learning from them. Juneteenth Day provides a wonderful opportunity to listen and learn from African American brothers and sisters, which evidences my love for them, which also manifests my love for God (Matt. 22:37-39), which also reflects the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and life in the kingdom (Matt. 5:-7), which produces an aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14-15).

What Just Happened?

Juneteenth National Independence Day, a day commemorating the emancipation or freeing of African American slaves, was declared a federal holiday this past week. Both the Senate (no dissenters) and the House passed the bill unanimously (415-14). On June 17, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Act into law, making it a federal holiday.

Signing the bill Biden said,

[this is] a day that reflects what the Psalm tells us: ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’ Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation, and a promise of a brighter morning to come. This is a day . . . we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take — what I’ve long called ‘America’s original sin.’ At the same time, I also remember the extraordinary capacity to heal, and to hope, and to emerge from the most painful moments and a bitter, bitter version of ourselves, but to make a better version of ourselves.

This is the 10th federal holiday, and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a holiday in 1986.

Juneteenth has also been referred to as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day and Jubilee Day. This last reference has roots and reminders in the year of jubilee in Leviticus 25. (One thinks of an excerpt from the chorus of Michael Card’s song written about this biblical text, Jubilee: “debts forgiven, slaves set free, Jesus is our Jubilee.”)

What Happened Historically?

Last year Alexandro Mandes wrote an excellent essay about the history of Juneteenth and how we as Christians understand this day and a possible response to what this day signifies, especially to our African American brothers and sisters. I will not repeat what he wrote there, though I encourage you to read the essay. There are, however, a few critical historical reminders for us to consider.

The Civil War was fought from 1861-1865 with the death of 620,000 Americans, roughly two percent of the population, and with approximately 1.5 million casualties (which consists of military persons “lost through death, wounds, injury, sickness, internment, capture, or through being missing in action.”). It was a brutal war with devastating consequences. At the heart of the War was ending chattel slavery, a brutal reality with devastating implications.

It is important to understand terms and definitions, since a slave, as bad as that was, is not the same as a chattel slave, which was even worse: A slave is a human being owned by another person, classed as property and who is forced to work for nothing. (Some prefer the expression enslaved person, a human being who is made to be a slave, since it refers to the person and their experiences, which avoids dehumanizing language.) A chattel slave is an enslaved person who is owned forever and whose children and children's children are automatically enslaved. Chattel slaves are individuals treated as complete property, to be bought and sold.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, which became official on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation declared all slaves in Confederate states to be free, which included more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans:

That on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

On June 19, 1865, Major-General Gordon Granger, accompanied by approximately two thousand Union soldiers, made it to Galveston, Texas, part of the former Confederacy, with the news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Major-General Granger read General Orders, Number 3 with the news all the slaves were free.

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

There were 250,000 slaves literally freed that day (June 19, 1865), two and one-half years after they had been legally freed (January 1, 1863), and about two and one-half months after the end of the Civil War (April 9, 1865). Later in that year, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (December 6, 1865), chattel slavery was abolished nationwide.

The next year, June 19, 1866, was the first anniversary celebration of the ending of the freeing of slaves, making this date the oldest remembrance or commemoration of the end of slavery. The celebration was referred to as Juneteenth and it “was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members.” The gatherings were celebrations, but they also remembered the past. Often the day would consist of a recollection and recounting of the events of the past, and religious and prayer services were a major part of the celebrations, which were often held on church grounds.

Christians (though not all) led the way to do away with slavery, recognizing the truth that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity. For those working for the abolition of slavery, their Christian faith and beliefs could not be reconciled with slavery. Timothy D. Padgett, Juneteenth: The Legacy and Lessons of Slavery’s End, writes, American abolitionists “were driven by the understanding that the realities of American Slavery were irreconcilable to their Christian beliefs about the dignity of humanity and their American dreams about the centrality of liberty. They saw that the slave was as made in the image of God as anyone else and therefore as deserving of honor as themselves.”

Why Does It Matter?

In response to the question, “why does it matter?,” it will be helpful to read comments from a few others. With the exception of the first, which I do not know, the other three are believers. And the one, Alejandro, is a dear brother who has walked this path faithfully for many years, has been used of God to teach me many things about why this matters, and has remained "steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). This is a part of listening and learning and loving.

Opal Lee, 94-year-old, “grandmother of Juneteenth”

Two years and they did not know. How many lives were lost? What kind of brutality did they face in that period of time? Yet [it is a wonderfully joy-filled day] because it allows little children in schools to be taught the wonderment of America and that America can overcome its ills to be able to rise to its better days. . . . What better concept to rally around in the idea of freedom for us all? . . . [People] all over the country can cherish it as a day of unity.

Kay C. James, What is Juneteenth, and why should every American want to celebrate it?

Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866, mostly by Black Americans; yet it’s a day that’s worthy of celebration by every American, as it represents a critical turning point in American history, not just Black history. It is the day that we as a people finally began to live up to one of the greatest principles we professed: a nation devoted to liberty for all...Every nation has scars from its past, but we can use Juneteenth as a day to acknowledge our past faults, help heal current divisions, and move toward a future as a nation more united...Let us look at Juneteenth just as we look at Independence Day—as a great turning point for freedom in our nation’s history, and one where we were willing to pay a heavy price to ultimately live out our highest ideals.

Alejandro Mandes, Juneteenth: A Day of Celebration, Mourning and Action

Juneteenth is an opportunity to remember and celebrate the end of slavery in America. While slavery is a painful part of our country’s history, recognizing Juneteenth is a small step toward acknowledging the experiences of African Americans.

Sherelle Ducksworth, Juneteenth and the Great Commission

Enslaved people marched out of slavery with feet walking towards their people, mouths proclaiming the Gospel, hands committed to working towards physical liberation, and eyes towards the coming Kingdom. Convinced that their God was a God of liberation and eager to spread their Christian faith, African Americans spread the Gospel and caused significant growth in black churches in America and missionary work domestically and abroad. So, we commemorate Juneteenth because we rejoice in the liberation of black enslaved people and acknowledge the example set before us by African American Christians to steward our liberation to fulfill the Church’s mission.

As we listen, what a wonderful historical recounting we learn: “Enslaved people marched out of slavery with feet walking towards their people, mouths proclaiming the Gospel, hands committed to working towards physical liberation, and eyes towards the coming Kingdom.” And with this learning comes an exhortation to all of us, that we, first and formost, "run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith," (Heb. 12:1-2), and then second, that we might follow “the example set before us by African American Christians to steward our liberation to fulfill the Church’s mission.”

The Scriptures

A federal holiday says something about our nation. The way we listen, learn and love says something about our Christian faith (Jn. 13:34-35; 1 Jn. 3:18; 4:10-11, 19-21). Being people of the Book, it is always good and right to remind ourselves of the foundational truths we affirm about God’s providential purposeful plan for creation and redemption.

When we hold up the diamond of God’s truth, and we turn it to see the various facets of its beauty, we then also see the ugliness of sin brought to light by the truth. One of those heinous, grievous sins is slavery, which we remember and give thanks for its end on this day, remembered as Juneteenth. God’s Word condemned sin and slavery long ago, and also brought light and life and freedom (cf. Jn. 8:32; Col. 1:13-14) through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here, then, is a summary of God’s redemptive story in which we recount how he “has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory” (EFCA SOF, Article 1, God).

First, God’s creation of all ex nihilo is foundational for meaning (there is a Creator and creation distinction), while creation of man and woman in the imago Dei is the ground of significance, the essence of humanity, and the basis of and for the dignity of all (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1, 3; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Jms. 3:9; cf. Acts 17:28; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:23-24).

Second, sin and the fall, rebellion against God, our Creator, bring guilt, shame, and spiritual death (vertically with God) and create discord, enmity and hatred (horizontally with one another) (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-21).

Third, God is bringing salvation to all nations, which reaches fulfillment in Christ (Gen. 12:1-2; Matt. 5:17-20; Rom. 1:1-4; 2 Cor. 1:20; Gal. 3:7-9, 26-29).

Fourth, the gospel erases any and all distinctions. This soteriological reality addresses the covenantal distinctions, Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, and all other distinctions, that of race, class and gender (Rom. 10:12; 1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:9b-11).

Fifth, the cross of Jesus Christ, the fundamental truth of the gospel along with Jesus’ burial and resurrection, is the ground of creating one new humanity, through faith (Eph. 2:11-22; Rev. 5:9-10).

Sixth, we are an outpost of heaven, a manifestation in the present-time of the end-time eschatological people of God – what we will become, we have become, as the kingdom has come in the person and work of Christ (the now), his rule and reign are embraced and lived out by those who have received Christ by faith, and the kingdom will come (the not-yet) fully when he returns in glory. We are a manifestation, a living commentary of the truth of the gospel (Rev. 5:9; cf. 7:9; 14:6; cf. Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Cor. 3:17-18; Phil. 3:20-21).

Seventh, and finally, we will be glorified, individually and corporately, with no more sin or effects of sin, God will usher in the new heavens and the new earth, making all things new (Rev. 21:4-5a; 22:3).

Conclusion

On this day, and every day, we love God by looking and listening to him and learning from him, in his revealed word, the Bible. We also love others by looking at them, listening to them, and learning from them. As noted earlier, Juneteenth provides a wonderful opportunity to listen and learn from African American brothers and sisters, which evidences my love for them, which also, then, manifests my love for God (Matt. 22:37-39).

Beloved or dear friends, writes John, “we love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 Jn. 4:19-21).

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