Why Juneteenth Isn’t Just A Holiday For Descendants Of Enslaved People

Many years ago (sooo many years ago) when I had my first job just out of High School I remember coworkers and supervisors talking about Martin Luther King Day. It was a joke to them. A joke so serious, in fact, that some of them said they would rather work on that day even if given the option of a day off.  I remember thinking: really? You don’t want a day off With Pay?

I lived (and still do) in a state that did not recognize MLK Day officially until 2000. It was created in ’83, not observed for another three years, and then not for a long time in some states.

Think about that for a minute. My coworkers and supervisors were not alone in their feelings of resentment and enmity. They were so against honoring Martin Luther King, Jr that they would reject a paid day off! I believe that is a great illustration of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

As of this week, we now have Juneteenth. A brand new shiny holiday! It is coming this Saturday, June 19th! Actually, it is not new at all. It is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is also sometimes called Jubilee Day, a title with unmistakable biblical connections, referring to the Jubilee year when slaves were freed, debts forgiven, and the mercy of God was particularly abundant. Do not know what Juneteenth is about? This can explain it better than I can.

I believe this matters for all of us. That includes me (a very white, very Anglo descendant woman who has never been owned by anyone and has never owned anyone myself) and you and all of us. Here’s why: none of us are free until all of us are free. That is a simple sentence and, in a way, kind of cliché these days. I have heard it a lot lately. So, let me say a little more. Sin harms the soul of the perpetrator, too.

Now, there are a lot of ways to think about and talk about sin and maybe someday I will get around to writing down what I think about all of that but for now, for this in particular, let’s go with the concept of sin as the ways in which we harm one another. The ways in which we do not love our neighbor and the ways, most monstrously defined, we fail to see other people as really and truly human and being bearers of the image of God; this is sin.

We think a lot about those who were the victims of this kind of sin, and it is right that we should do so! In fact, our thinking about sin tends to sound more like a judicial system than a theological one, with punishment and suspended punishment (grace). But no one can murder without being damaged in the doing of the murder. That is what God was going on about in the fourth chapter of Genesis with Cain’s terrible act of murder. All of creation is damaged, including Cain himself. The sin harms the sinner as well as the victim.

This is why repentance actually matters. Jesus calls people to metanoia (Greek for repentance), which means to turn around and go another way. It is not enough to just stop. It is not enough to say sorry, which is by the way not what repentance is. That is regret and possibly the beginning of reconciliation, but it is not repentance. A change of direction is for the sake of the sinner.

It is not enough to say: Oh, I am so sorry for stealing your cow so here is money to pay for it! The thief must metanoia, turn around, repent and go a different way. Otherwise, they remain a thief and, perhaps, a little bit less human than they could be.

It was not enough to say: Oh, we are sorry that we treated you like animals for generations and built our entire economic system on your back as though you were merely a commodity to trade, so here are 40 acres and a mule. This is not repentance for a whole host of reasons.

My point is this. Issues of slavery and racism are about groups, nations, and cultures, not just individual people. These were not individual decisions made by unconnected individuals. They were certainly conscious decisions for the most part, but they were group, cultural, national decisions. Our nation bears both the wounds of the victim of the sin of slavery and the wounds in the soul of the perpetrator as well. So when we see signs of metanoia, it is reason for everyone to celebrate! This is healing for all! Juneteenth is an opportunity to celebrate metanoia and be reminded that the world still needs turning. We are becoming more fully the human beings that God created us all to be.

Martin Luther (the German Theologian this time, not the American reformer) once wrote, “We are not yet what we shall be, but we are on the way.” There is so much metanoia-ing to do in this world. Some believe we will never get there. Some are tired of so much turning and changing, thinking perhaps we did not really need to change in the first place. And some are just dizzy. In scripture, when the people of God grow tired and grumpy and are edging their way towards hopelessness, God reminds them of where they have been and where they are going and why it all matters. Maybe a celebration like Juneteenth is what we need to remind all of us of why we are trying, even though it is hard, to be a better nation, to be better human beings, so that we may all be truly free.

Some truly great information and learning about Juneteenth can be found at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Consider celebrating Juneteenth by learning some new things! From barbecue to oral history and resiliency, Check it out here!

Also, any holiday that has such awesome food as part of the celebration is worth it! After all, God did make food a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven! Enjoy this interview of Toni Tipton Martin, editor of Cooks Country Magazine, about Jubilee Day foods.

May we all be healed. May we all be free.

2 thoughts on “Why Juneteenth Isn’t Just A Holiday For Descendants Of Enslaved People

  1. Excellent!!!

    Lisa J. Lefler, Ph.D., Director Culturally Based Native Health Programs College of Health & Human Sciences, Rm. 448 Western Carolina University Cullowhee, NC 28723 828-227-2164 nativehealth.wcu.edu ________________________________

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