Jesus and Juneteenth

This post was written by Zeru Fitsum.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” Luke 4:18

For the longest time in America, the joy of freedom was not prioritized for Black bodies, and that extended into the walls of the church. Whether it was parts of the Bible being ripped out that spoke of freedom, or enslavers telling their enslaved that their baptisms didn’t qualify them for physical liberation,  just a hope in the sky, or even conventions and denominations splitting because of their views on chattel slavery – the church’s complicity shows that it was taking it's cues from the culture. In many ways, we are still reeling from the church's egregious error.

Today, justifications like “things will get better” are used to quiet many Black people (especially Black women) to get them to see how much better things have gotten. Historically, the American church’s treatment of Black people has not been fair. And though reasons for celebration of freedom among Black people in America exist today, these reasons do not come without historical baggage and present disparities.

Something worthy of celebration for Black people is the holiday Juneteenth. Juneteenth is the combination of the words “June” and “Nineteenth,” the date when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the freedom of enslaved African-Americans had already happened two years earlier in the Emancipation Proclamation. Nonetheless, the news of liberation reaching the ears of the disheartened and debased was a starting point for celebration.

Juneteenth is worth celebrating because it reminds us that Black bodies were never meant to be for sale and have always been worthy of inclusion. The church is not exempt from this observation. The success of Southern slavery was highly due to the monetary participation of the church (Reparations by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson does a great job of unpacking this history). John Piper, in his book Bloodlines, shares a story about how his dad’s church voted that Black people should not be able to be members of their church; which happened after racial segregation laws were abolished. However, because autonomous churches are private entities, their right to discriminate was fair game. And, today, if you were to look at the percentages of Black people and other minorities involved and empowered in the life of predominantly white local churches, the results are marginal. Which, at the very least, speaks to the deceptive nature of progress—where acceptance doesn’t always mean equality. In these spaces, regrettably, acceptance has become a way to placate what we think the cultural expectations are, rather than walking in the transformative ways Jesus has given us to love our neighbors, especially the downcast ones.

Juneteenth affirms what Jesus has already said to be his mission: the impoverished being noticed, the imprisoned becoming free, the blind gaining sight, and the oppressed delivered. Jesus was not metaphorical in his quoting of Isaiah, and he expects his church to join him in his work of redeeming the world.

This task seems nebulous to many. A question I imagine one might have is, “How can Juneteenth help the church understand her mission?” Many ways, but one is to affirm that the freedom of Black people matter, and that the lack of freedom did not exist merely in the culture, but it was the defining feature of churches.

In the Gospel of Matthew, there are several sections where Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, and the message is singular: the kingdom of God is for the vulnerable, and Jesus took care of the vulnerable by becoming so himself.

Juneteenth would have never come, but a handful of people refused to accept the status quo, and instead stood up -- and with -- those who were dehumanized and without freedom. So, we would do well to understand that following Jesus won’t come without sacrifice. While we know this, we often argue that the demands are too high, which excuses us from acting.

So, as you think about the church on a day like today, and your own life, here are some practical ways this might take shape:

The “recovery of our sight” will not come without a willingness to confront our own biases when it comes to freedom for all. In the nation’s battles between “All Lives Matter” and “Black Lives Matter,” a phrase that has stuck with me is: “All lives don’t matter until Black lives do.” This is so true for any group, but it has rung especially true for Black people. For a long time, America didn’t consider groups that weren’t white fully human, even after emancipation! At the risk of being anachronistic: that’s how they could justify a statement like “All lives matter.” All lives entailed those who weren’t descendants of Ham, (the supposedly cursed race). That’s how they could say “all men are created equal” and not mean it. The men who were created equal were “white, male landowners.” If we are going to really mean “All lives matter” and “All men are created equal,” we need to embody it.

To be certain, the idea that each life matters equally will be a difficult task to see accomplished in the world today – though we work toward that end. But of all places, it should not be so in and among the church.

The celebration and respect of Juneteenth is a great invitation into the world of believing and living in such a way that Black lives do matter. To partner with others around the history of their liberation from oppressive powers helps in the pursuit of our sight being recovered, and it wonderfully corresponds with the mission Jesus has accomplished and promised to be with us in as we engage the world around us.