In life, there is a tension between the ideal and the real. We have our beliefs, but often fail to live up to them. We hold our ideals, yet often fall short of them. We have our faith, but are often unfaithful. We know who we would like to be, but we don’t always follow through. A similar dynamic is at play within a nation. The United States was founded on principles of life, liberty, and justice, but our history is a complex story often marred by corruption and injustice. There is a tension between what we claim to stand for and what we sometimes tend to do. This is a sort of national hypocrisy. As Christians, we are called to hate the hypocrisy but love the hypocrite. We hate the sin but love the sinner. Are we able to love our country yet speak out against its injustice?
Over the past year or so, our staff has engaged in a conversation around the story of our nation and how that story differs for different people. When and where you were raised, your family dynamic and socioeconomic status, the color of your skin, your country of origin, and many other factors dramatically affect your experience as an American. Each individual story is unique, but there are groups in our nation for which things have been markedly easier and groups for which things have been exceptionally difficult. I am no expert on this subject, but over the past year I have gotten to dive deeper into this topic and learn more about the history of our nation and the opportunities we have to make things better together.
For almost 250 years, many Americans have celebrated July 4 as our national Independence Day. While July 4 is a significant day in our history, it doesn’t take much to explain why Independence Day does not resonate with all Americans. On July 4, 1776, roughly 20% of British North America’s 2.5 million residents were enslaved. That’s 500,000 people for whom the term Independence Day did not ring true. When asked to give a keynote address at an 1852 Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass, the famous American former slave who went on to become a powerful orator and statesman, eloquently expressed this idea:
“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions!...But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
It would be another decade until, on September 22, 1862, president Abraham Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the freedom of all people enslaved in the Confederate States. The proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, but it wasn’t until after the end of the war in 1865 that the Union forces were able to make their way through the Confederacy and enforce the new law. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger made his way into Galveston, Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states, to announce to the population that slavery had ended in the United States. General Granger read General Order No. 3, which stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This occasion has come to be celebrated as Juneteenth—a portmanteau of June and nineteenth. Initially a local celebration, the holiday has come to symbolize the emancipation of slaves in America for people across the nation.
We celebrate Juneteenth in recognition of the fact that “Independence Day” did not mean independence for all. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “No one is free until we are all free.” As Christians, we are not satisfied to simply attain freedom for ourselves; we are called to contend for the freedom of others. The Emancipation Proclamation was not the end of injustice in America. The fight for freedom rages on. And that is a fight we refuse to forfeit. We contend with our brothers and sisters until all are free. Yet we know that political liberty itself is incomplete. True freedom is only found in Jesus. That is why our mission will always be to spread the gospel—because racism and injustice are ultimately issues of the sinfulness of man. And there is only one cure for that disease: his name is Jesus.