The Jewish culture of Jesus’ time was deeply shaped by moments such as the Passover holiday. These holidays celebrated times in the history of the Jewish people where Yahweh moved mightily to make a way for the people. The Jewish people were unwilling to let those events become lost and were committed to always remember the truth of their story with all the joy and pain that came with it. Jesus participated in these celebrations and holidays of remembrance.
In our own culture, there are celebrations of important moments. In the summer, many people celebrate the 4th of July as a deeply reverent holiday, but there is another meaningful moment that should create both pause and celebration. This holiday is known as Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is the fusion of words June and Nineteenth and celebrates when in 1865 the African-American slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave them their right to freedom.
Juneteenth is already celebrated by millions of Black Americans each year to commemorate freedom from chattel slavery. This day is acknowledged on some level by many states. It is not considered a national holiday, despite it being the oldest known Black freedom celebration.
As Common Ground Northeast continues to pursue the vision of our church as a reconciling community, holidays like Juneteenth are absolutely paramount to our understanding of how we embody that vision. We must all understand that chattel slavery in America was foundational to the creation of the country itself.
Africans slaves were brought over and forced to work under brutal conditions for centuries, enduring rape, torture, and sub-human conditions generation after generation. One of the main functions of enslaved persons was to pick and process cotton; by the start of the Civil War cotton had generated $220 million worth of goods (equating to $6.5 Billion in today's standards). This made up 61% of all US goods exported and was a huge part of the entire US economy.
The economic boost from slave labor catapulted the United States into one of the most economically powerful nations in the world, fueling the growth of the nation. Chattel slavery in the United States had an impact across the whole of the U.S. economy, carrying with it international implications for centuries.
Juneteenth celebrates the de facto end of this abuse and of legally enslaving Black persons in this country.
This is relevant to our work as a church because the work of reconciliation requires an acknowledgment of wrongdoing in order to fix what was broken. Juneteenth acknowledges the wrongdoing and abuse done to Black Americans that still has an impact today.
Much like the Old Testament celebration of Jubilee, the holiday of Juneteenth can be a moment where we take seriously the damages done and seek to repair the damage. Emancipation of enslaved Black Americans is one of the most important moments of U.S.history, and treating it as such is a powerful means of starting the process of reconciliation.
So how do we do acknowledge, fix what is broken, and begin the process of reconciliation? As a church and within our individual families, we can celebrate Juneteenth by making space to educate ourselves and legitimately celebrate a positive, momentous shift in our country's history. We can also commemorate the day by taking serious the amount of work still needed to be done as a nation.
Juneteenth is not acknowledged as a national holiday and should be. There have been a number of efforts to turn the day into a national holiday, but these efforts have always been devoid of White Evangelicals at the table to help the cause. Despite the lack of national approval of such a holiday, it still can and should be celebrated by our faith community.
Juneteenth can be celebrated by recognizing that not all Americans have equal freedoms and rights, and that millions of Black Americans and people of color still suffer from systemic injustices that cause a different type of bondage than physical slavery. We often participate in these systems, so we need reconciling. We have an opportunity to do so in celebrating Juneteenth.