Several years ago, my family and I attended our first Juneteenth Festival in the small town where we lived. I’m both proud and a bit ashamed to share that. Let me explain.
Admittedly, and probably like other white people, I was unfamiliar with the history and significance of this annual celebration and commemoration for much of my life. Somehow, despite my presumed ‘wokeness’ as a white pastor at the time, which has included many relationships and deep friendships most of my life with classmates, neighbors, colleagues, professors, etc. who are African-American, as well as my years of study and deep interest in the imperative multiethnic, multicultural, and racial-reconciling work of the Gospel and the local church, I had missed out on one of the most popular and longest-standing celebrations and commemorations of liberation and emancipation from slavery among African-Americans in our country.
I remember we had been invited by several friends to one of our local Juneteenth celebrations, and were particularly interested in making every effort to attend that year, especially in the wake of several tragic events that had resurfaced the painful realities of racial brokenness in our world. From the mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine African American congregants during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC; to the tragic circumstances that had led to the wrongful deaths of several unarmed black men over the course of several years, which included Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Scott; to the ambush that led to the vengeful but wrongful deaths of five police officers in downtown Dallas – there was a deep and palpable sense of grief, concern and outrage, specifically among and for the African-American community. The ripple effects of these events had seemed to result in more intentional efforts of solidarity between black and white communities, especially among churches and leaders, along with cries for greater awareness, repentance, accountability and collaboration.
Interestingly, we find ourselves at another pivotal moment in time where recent tragic events involving the wrongful deaths of African-Americans have once more sparked even more intense outcries and demands for systemic change in our country. There is a swelling hope that perhaps this time, racism is facing a unique reckoning that seems long overdue.
This most certainly explains the spark of renewed interest in Juneteenth in 2020.
And yet, while Juneteenth may be as commonplace among many African-Americans as is other significant days the third week of June (the first day of summer, Father’s Day), there also exists an unfortunate, and even tragic unfamiliarity to its history, significance, and importance in our culture as a whole.
Perhaps it is the nature of unfamiliarity in general that has served to adversely contribute to some of the deepest wounds when it comes to systemic racism.
A little awareness would serve us well.
In addition to briefly summarizing the history of Juneteenth, we will also give consideration to several implications of this annual celebration and commemoration that connects directly to the Gospel.
Also, please know that I am terribly unqualified to write anything about Juneteenth as a white man who is still growing in my own white-awarenesses and black/brown-empathies, and do not presume to write from a place of any expertise. Instead, I would say this post is as much an exercise in my own process of learning as it is an opportunity to humbly share with others.
History of Juneteenth
The origins of Juneteenth date back 155 years – June 19th, 1865. Approximately two months after the official end of the American Civil War, Union troops, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, reached Galveston, TX; the western edge of the former confederate states. Granger and his troops were commissioned to deliver General Order Number 3, an official proclamation of legal freedom to those who remained under the oppression of slavery in the state of Texas. At the time, there were an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas alone, who were among the last to get word of the abolition of slavery and declaration of their freedom.
It is difficult to comprehend how slowly news traveled at that time from our vantage point of instantaneous global communication. Add to this the resistance to emancipation, specifically among white slave owners, along with the imminent threat that the abolition of slavery posed to an economy built on forced labor. These factors undoubtedly slowed the transmission of the good news.
However, what began with Lincoln’s infamous Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier, was now law under the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery across the war-torn country.
As a result, the newly freed slaves in Galveston, TX, representing the last to be informed of emancipation, celebrated this long-awaited day with prayer, feasting, singing and celebratory dancing. The following year, this first celebration was commemorated, which became known as “Juneteenth” (combining “June” and “nineteenth”). It has since grown to become a recognized state holiday or day of observance in 47 states, with renewed effort for consideration as a Federal holiday given its historical significance as the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery. The day is commonly celebrated with festivals, cookouts, pageants and parades.
Juneteenth and the Gospel
With the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619, along with the conquests of Native Americans territories and subjugation of its people, our country bears the painful scars of a history of oppression and dehumanization. And yet, such ‘progress’ as that of the Thirteenth Amendment, which was intended to break the bonds of slavery at the end of the Civil War, has consistently led to a false impression of equality in our culture. It took nearly 100 years before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 began to desegregate systems that had become known as Jim Crow Segregation following the Civil War. As Bryan Stevenson has famously pointed out, slavery did not end with the Civil War; it only evolved.
Yet, even with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s, African-Americans have historically and systemically been disadvantaged, despite the incessant arguments of equal opportunity. As another author puts it, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was like inviting people into a game of Monopoly that has been going on for nearly 400 years. In other words, equal opportunity does not necessarily mean equitable. However, despite significant disadvantages over a 400-year-history, including the horrific lynching’s carried out across the country during the Jim Crow era, African-Americans have overcome systems of inequality, segregation, and racism in their struggle for full liberation and equality.
Of course, not all aspects of these, or any of the common struggles against oppression, segregation and inequality, are always motivated by the Gospel. And sometimes those struggles can lead to the reciprocation of destructive behaviors that go against the grace of the Gospel that enables the reconciliation to which the people of God are called.
Already But Not Yet
However, there is certainly a powerful representation of the Gospel reflected in the 155 years of Juneteenth celebrations. Just as in Christ, we have been granted full freedom from the power of sin and its oppression on our lives, we are simultaneously in a struggle for that freedom to be fully realized. In theological terms, we refer to this as “the already but not yet.” Since 1865, Juneteenth has been a celebration of freedom granted and freedom longed-for. It has been a commemoration of liberation, while also serving as a communal spurring-on for full liberty. Granted, all metaphors tend to break down at some point, and while it can be argued that the oppression of African-Americans has had more to do with the sin of the oppressor than the oppressed, Juneteenth reflects a beautiful picture of our celebration of freedom in the midst of the struggle…a struggle that one day will give way to fullness of the peace, righteousness and justice of the kingdom of God for those who are in Christ.
Lastly, one of the distinctives characteristics of God throughout the Scriptures is that He is a God who hears the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 2:23, 3:9), and who calls His people let the oppressed go free (Isaiah 58:8). In fact, one of the two foundational accounts of the Hebrew (Old Testament) Scriptures is the Exodus, the story of God hearing the cry of His oppressed people, and how He comes to set His oppressed people free. However, God not only sets His people free through the miraculous signs and wonders He brings through Moses onto Egypt, He subsequently leads this people, who were once oppressed, to live in their newfound freedom. And yet, it took a wilderness and forty-years of wandering to eventually break the systems of bondage deeply engrained in nearly 400 years of slavery in Egypt.
There’s that number again – 400.
Four-hundred years of enslavement, dehumanization, degradation, and segregation have a way of taking a toll. And one of those tolls of being treated as second-class is that eventually you start to see and accept yourself as somehow second-class.
The problem with this is that such treatment of others or ourselves runs completely contrary to the Gospel. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Instead, as human beings, we are image bearers, the imago dei, created in the image and likeness of God. This includes, it most certainly includes our skin tone. And regardless of whether we know God or are far from Him, that image never changes. Therefore, we have a divine responsibility to care for, honor and respect the image of God in every human being. Racism and segregation destroy that purpose.
Around 1900, African-American’s began to celebrate Juneteenth by wearing their finest clothes in response to the insults and dehumanizing comments made by public officials who resented their freedoms. It was a statement of dignity, where, although someone may refuse to acknowledge and honor the image of God in me, I will not refuse to see it in myself. Because somehow, embracing and loving the image of God in me leads me to embrace and love the image of God in others.
While Juneteenth is a celebration of black liberation, it is also an experience that welcomes all ethnicities in the celebration and commemoration. If you are not black, be willing to be uncomfortable if necessary by putting yourself in unfamiliar places. And listen more than you talk. Ask questions. Take a posture of humility. Be interested instead of trying to come across as interesting. This is all a critical part of the movement necessary in the larger work of the Gospel, which includes the challenging but necessary work of engaging in Christ-centered racial reconciliation.