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Juneteenth and the Gospel June 17, 2021

Juneteenth and the Gospel

In light of the recent passing of congressional legislation in the United States recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, along with increased interest over the past year in the history and significance of this day that has been observed among African Americans for over 150 years, and as part of our Gospel-commitment to be a church that is actively engaging in Christ-centered racial reconciliation, this article explores how the Gospel helps us interpret and engage with such pivotal events in human history.

See our note below on how our commitment to Christ-centered racial reconciliation is distinct from the ideologies of Critical Race Theory.

History of Juneteenth 

The origins of Juneteenth date back 156 years to June 19th, 1865.  Approximately two months after the official end of the American Civil War, Union troops reached Galveston, Texas and delivered General Order Number 3­­– an official proclamation of legal freedom to those who remained under the oppression of slavery in the state of Texas. An estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas were some of the last to receive word of the abolition of slavery and this declaration of their own freedom.

Newly freed slaves in Galveston celebrated this long-awaited day with prayer, feasting, singing, and celebratory dancing.  One year later, this celebration was commemorated and became known as “Juneteenth” (combining “June” and “nineteenth”).  It has since grown to become a recognized federal holiday and is commonly celebrated with festivals, cookouts, pageants, and parades.  

As civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, has pointed out, slavery did not end with the Civil War; it only evolved.  Sadly, our country bears the painful scars of a history of oppression and dehumanization resulting from chattel slavery.  Despite the passing of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, followed by the constitutional amendment to abolish slavery in 1865 (Thirteenth Amendment), progress toward ethnic equality was obstructed through reconstruction and Jim Crow laws that only deepened racial strife in America, resulting in a false impression of ethnic equality in American society. 

It took nearly 100 years before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 began to desegregate systems galvanized by Jim Crow. Yet, even with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, African Americans have historically and systemically remained disadvantaged and suffered under the lingering effects of generational racism.  

Juneteenth and the Gospel

Already But Not Yet

There is a powerful representation of the Gospel reflected in the 156 years of Juneteenth celebrations.  In Christ we have been granted full freedom from the power of sin and its oppression on our lives, and yet 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 a continuing push towards full liberty. 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.

None Second-Class

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 to 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 the wilderness and 40 years of wandering to eventually break the systems of bondage deeply engrained in nearly 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

Four-hundred years of enslavement, dehumanization, degradation, and segregation has a way of taking a toll.  And one of the tolls of being treated as second-class citizens is that eventually you start to see and accept yourself as second-class.  

The problem is that such treatment 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 most certainly includes our skin tone.  And regardless of whether we know God through a saving relationship through Jesus Christ, 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 Americans 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. 

Conclusion

Although Juneteenth is a celebration of black liberation, it is also an experience that welcomes all ethnicities. With a Gospel-perspective in mind, consider learning more about the history and rich traditions of Juneteenth.  You might also consider attending a Juneteenth event in our area. If you are not African American, or are not part of an ethnic group that has suffered from racism, be willing to take a humble and bold step, allowing yourself to be uncomfortable by putting yourself in an unfamiliar place.  Listen more than you talk. Ask questions.  Be interested instead of trying to come across as interesting.  This is all a critical part of the larger work of the Gospel, which includes the challenging but necessary work of engaging in Christ-centered racial reconciliation.  

Critical Race Theory vs. Christ-centered Racial Reconciliation

It is important to acknowledge that in light of recent concerns surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT), this article in no way seeks to support the tenets of this controversial ideology and social framework that has been used to understand and define structural racism in America.  While there are certainly components of CRT that provide helpful perspective on injustices and inequalities that have structurally taken shape in society over hundreds of years, which includes the dehumanizing sin of chattel slavery in America, CRT, like other social theories and ideologies, will always prove insufficient and fallible in addressing injustices that ultimately result from human sin.  CRT is yet another human construct attempting to address, confront and correct injustices stemming from human sin, but attempting to do so on human terms.  Only the Gospel can bring about full reconciliation and healing that is so desperately (and rightly) longed for in our world. 

Therefore, CRT, like all other man-made theories, must be held in subjection to the Scriptures.  Without condemning Critical Race Theory, Westover Church rejects many of the tenets of CRT as antithetical to the reconciling Gospel of Christ.  However, our doing so in no way intends to overlook both the historical and present injustices and atrocities caused by racism in America, something that is absolutely antithetical to the heart and will of God.  Therefore, we affirm that our commitment to Christ-centered racial reconciliation remains central both to the Gospel and to our Gospel-mission, which includes confronting issues of race [1] with the reconciling power of the Gospel – a Gospel that breaks down dividing walls of hostility, creating one new humanity by reconciling us together through the Cross! (See Ephesians 2:13-22.)


[1] ‘Race’ and ‘racism’ in all its forms, is sin, which includes any form of ethnic inequality, prejudice, segregation, and or any practice that contributes to ethnic and cultural superiority and inferiority, and therefore, runs contrary to the heart of God as demonstrated through the Scriptures, and in violation to the Gospel of Christ.  Racism is unbiblical, a human construct born out of sin that has contributed to dehumanization, division, distrust, and deep wounds across generations, resulting in structural and institutional forms of inequality and injustice in our world.