Did you see the news? The United States has a new federal holiday, Juneteenth, to commemorate the day when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas finally learned they were free on June 19, 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed them. Known variously as Emancipation or Jubilee Day in addition to Juneteenth, many African American communities have celebrated this day with picnics, parades, church services, and other gatherings. Now all of us can reflect and rejoice together when marking this special event in American history.
Christians may see some parallels between the Juneteenth story and spreading the gospel story of Jesus’ redemption to all corners of the earth.
Jesus tells us in John 8:34 that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Before Christ’s redemption, we were all slaves to sin with no hope of getting out of it alone. For centuries in our land, generations of Black people toiled in slavery, yearning, hoping, and praying for freedom that did not seem possible. Freedom seemed like a wild dream.
In the case of our slavery to sin, Jesus’ life and sacrifice made our spiritual freedom possible. This was—and is—Good News! But the Bible says we are to use that freedom in a specific way:
Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 1 Peter 2:16
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14
Spiritual freedom has implications for how we should press for human rights and freedoms as well. As we sing at Christmas time, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” (We are still called to work to make that last part a reality.)
Sharing the news was key to transformation in both the biblical and Juneteenth stories. Today, we have nearly instantaneous awareness of global news stories, but this was not the case 2000 years ago in the Holy Land nor in 1860s West Texas. Even good news took some time to get out. Until it did, life went on the way it always had.
After Jesus rose from the dead, Mark 16:15 says he visited his disciples with the instructions to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” There was good news, but people had to be told about it before they could embrace this new reality. In a similar way, the Emancipation Proclamation was good news to weary enslaved people, but nothing changed until someone informed them they were free. Awareness of freedom is always the first step toward transformation and emancipation.
So, what does this mean we should do now? First, modern Christians like us must still answer the call to be Christ’s disciples and messengers of the Good News, through not just our words but through the way we live our lives and interact with others. The UMC mission statement declares we are “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Second, we must undertake the work of transformation to bring healing, love, and justice in our own communities and far beyond. Sometimes transformative work looks like building up; other times, it is tearing down.
On this Juneteenth celebration, let us be reminded of our own emancipation journeys and our role in sharing the Good News and transforming the world for the better.