How Christians Can Celebrate Juneteenth – Nathan A. Finn

How Christians Can Celebrate Juneteenth – Nathan A. Finn

Most Americans are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared,

All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

According to President Lincoln, all enslaved individuals in the Confederacy were now legally free. Reality, however, was far more complicated.

Because the Confederate states considered themselves a separate nation, they ignored Lincoln’s decision. And enslaved people in Union border states weren’t addressed in the Proclamation. Slavery was still allowed in certain southern territories under Union control. It wasn’t until the passing of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865—more than two years later—that slavery finally became illegal across the United States.

And this is related to an event that’s far less familiar, especially to white Americans.

Let Freedom Ring

On June 19, 1865, as Union troops entered Galveston, Texas, General Gordon Granger announced enslaved African Americans in Texas were free. The news hadn’t yet arrived! Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in January 1863; Congress had passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865; and the Civil War had ended in April 1865. None of that mattered, though, for enslaved people in Texas—until Granger arrived announcing their freedom and enforcing its implications.

Juneteenth is an occasion to celebrate African American heritage and culture, not unlike Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month.

Over time, a growing number of African Americans celebrated “Juneteenth”—a portmanteau of June 19th—as a second Independence Day. Throughout the 20th century, it became a local or state holiday in many places. Juneteenth was also an occasion to celebrate African American heritage and culture, not unlike Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day or Black History Month.

In 2021—more than 150 years after the event it commemorates—Juneteenth became a federal holiday when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. The measure had also been supported by President Trump and both parties in Congress.

Responding Christianly to Juneteenth

Summer is filled with holiday opportunities for American Christians to be reminded of our history and respond to God’s blessings on our nation. The last Monday of May is Memorial Day, honoring U.S. military personnel who have died in service to our nation. July 4 is Independence Day, celebrating the birth of our nation. The first Monday of September is Labor Day, celebrating American workers.

Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, how should we celebrate? Let me offer three suggestions.

First, we should remind ourselves enslavement was an awful reality for most African Americans prior to 1865, and its terrible legacy casts a long shadow, even to the present day. Many in the church are already aware of the generational effects of slavery in their own families. For others, particularly those in the ethnic majority, it may take intentional effort to understand this reality. Juneteenth is a powerful reminder of both how far our nation has come and how much work remains. If you want to learn more about the history of slavery in America, there are many resources available online through the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. A helpful book about Christianity among enslaved African Americans is historian Albert Raboteau’s classic work Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South.

Juneteenth is a powerful reminder of both how far our nation has come and how much work remains.

Second, we could focus on serving our communities on Juneteenth, especially if we’re partnering with organizations that cultivate flourishing among African Americans. For many, MLK Day is a day of both remembrance and service. Juneteenth could be the same. Investigate what Juneteenth service opportunities are available in your community.

Finally, consider planning a Juneteenth worship service—not in place of the main Sunday gathering, but in addition to it—to remember slavery’s legacy, lament ongoing racism, and highlight gospel-centered racial reconciliation. Juneteenth could provide a strategic occasion for predominantly white and historically black churches to worship together, for black members of multi-racial churches to take the lead in a time of prayer and thanksgiving, or for churches to host community-wide worship to exalt the name of Jesus. Such a time could also be paired with a day of community service, perhaps as a concluding celebration.


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