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  • Rev. Helena Martin

Juneteenth and Christianity

Yesterday was Juneteenth. If you have no idea what that means, I understand why; "Juneteenth" is a word I'd never seen until a few years ago. This isn't a holiday that was celebrated around me growing up—or that I even knew existed.

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. On June 19th in 1865, the enslaved people of Texas were finally emancipated when Union Major General Gordon Granger was able to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation there. Today, Juneteenth is primarily celebrated in African American communities with parades, street fairs, cookouts, and music festivals.

The Juneteenth flag: a large white star in the center with a white jagged line around it indicating a nova, on top of a flag background of blue on top and red on the bottom.
The Juneteenth Flag

As it turns out, "freeing the slaves" was a lot more complicated than I learned in history class. I was taught that President Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and then all enslaved people in the United States were free. In reality, it took several more years for the country to be reunited and the last of enslaved people to be set free. And even then, that "freedom" had an asterisk with some pretty heavy caveats.

As Christians, we bear a particular responsibility with respect to this history. For four hundred years, most Christians weaponized the Bible against enslaved people as a justification for keeping them enslaved. See, for example, the instruction: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters" (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22). Such verses became the cornerstones on which Christians built a theology that "allowed" them to do the worst kinds of violence against other human beings.

(Slaveholders even gave enslaved people a mutilated version of the Bible, to uphold their supremacy. Specifically, they removed the parts of Exodus that show God to be a God of liberation.)

This wasn't me personally who did this, and it certainly wasn't you.

But white Christians, especially in the United States, have a responsibility to recognize the irreparable damage created under the auspices of the our sacred Bible. We have to seek healing and reconciliation for the harm our Christian forebears caused in the name of our loving and life-giving God. God yearns for that justice to permeate our lives and our society.

The Episcopal Church in Connecticut calls our engagement in this work as a diocese Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation. Click there for more information and the resources that ministry network has compiled.


For more about the ongoing struggle for Black liberation in the United States, I recommend the following resources:

"Why you should stop saying 'all lives matter,' explained in 9 different ways" (article) by German Lopez. This article is a simple, effective explanation of a well-known and sometimes controversial phrase: Black lives matter.

The 13th (movie) on Netflix or YouTube. This movie examines how the 13th Amendment, which guarantees freedom from slavery "except as a punishment for crime," has transformed into a new form of enslavement: mass incarceration.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (book) by Michelle Alexander. This book traces the permutation of the "Jim Crow" laws that defined formal segregation, even in an age when many of us assumed that racism was over.

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