by Terrence Turman
Known also as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Jubilee Day, Juneteenth—short for June Nineteenth—commemorates the day in which Union Army soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of slavery. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being issued in 1863, these enslaved image bearers did not rightly receive their freedom until June 1865, some 2 1/2 years later.
Even as America continues to wrestle through the dark days of its past, it has become increasingly normalized to acknowledge this day as one of celebration. The U.S. Senate a year ago voted unanimously to make this beautiful day, commemorated in Texas and other Southern states historically, a national holiday. Though I found some joy in that decision, it would be remiss to celebrate it without equally reflecting on the path that got us there.
The Journey to Today
2020 was a year like no other, and it stood on the shoulders of countless other years, moments, and times riddled with the wounds and residue of our nation’s past! Carved into that past is an unfortunate false and sinful witness of a complicit church: A church with artifacts like Slave Bibles that removed the passages of liberation and freedom from the reach of those who needed them most. A witness that left behind denominations, institutions, and traditions directly related to slave trade, racism, and segregated Sunday mornings. Assemblies that proudly made room for Confederate flags and Klan rallies alike. A wayward witness that gave us theologians, pastors, and generations of Christians who in many regards stood firmly on Biblical principles while remaining silent on the Biblical infractions of racism, prejudice, and, at the very least, favoritism and straight-up bad theology.
Yet, as that witness lived, so did a remnant of faithful white believers who rightly adhered to Scripture. Those who had no problem seeing the Imago Dei in all humanity and the evil of both slavery and racism. A people who understood that, by being “in Christ,” they were subsequently grafted into a globally-diverse family. From Christian abolitionists of the 1700s to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, many risked much to see their Black brothers and sisters truly free and, more importantly, to preach the Gospel through their action.
As they did so, they rallied beside and for resilient Christians of color who were much more than their struggle. Those who, in the face of evil, never wavered in their belief in the goodness and righteousness of God! From Frederick Douglass’ impassioned Fourth of July speech to Richard Allen’s God-honoring and devil-shaming church planting, history casts a wide shadow on the Gone with the Wind, happy-as-can-be Christian story we sometimes celebrate here in America. I’m always amazed that those people, my people, in spite of their daily struggle, still raised hallelujahs to the God of Israel—that same God who would one day show Himself to be the God of Juneteenth.
One More Thing
If I had to speak for the God of Juneteenth, the Sovereign God of the universe who sent His Son to sacrificially die on our behalf, I would imagine He would point us back to one of the final prayers of that Son, the prayer that we would be one, or as Dr. Tony Evans puts it, that oneness would be embraced.
The Church is a reconciled body in Christ already, but a reconciled reality must be met with reconciled living, reconciled thinking, and a reconciled vision. It must be met with personal responsibility and obligation by all who count themselves in Christ to first slay the sin that lives within as we seek to fight for something greater together. Days like Juneteenth give us tangible reminders of that truth.
As I share all of that, I’m more deeply reminded of why we can’t afford to give up on the work of reconciliation. I was recently listening to a sermon by Pastor Albert Tate in which he posed the question, “What's the cost?” He was asking what’s the cost of leaving the table and this work for our kids and the next generation of the church. It was a charge to push through even when it’s not clear or comfortable, because it’s God’s heart and it’s worth it.
So, this Juneteenth, as a minority pastor in a majority context and as a descendant of enslaved image bearers, I want to leave us with simple yet profound words from Dr. John Perkins, a true father of Biblical reconciliation: “Our love is our witness. Love is the final fight.”
This is Juneteenth! This is jubilee!
Terrence Turman is Associate Pastor of Southeast Christian Church City Region.