Juneteenth is now circled on everybody’s calendar — another day off from work! Freedom!
Of course, that’s not the kind of freedom we’re celebrating. It’s the emancipation of American slaves as part of the Civil War struggle in our Nation. The Union victory meant a radical change for most Americans, but especially those of African descent whose ancestors were brought into this country in chains and had never been free. Juneteenth (short for June 19th) marks the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas finally got the message, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln actually put out the Emancipation Proclamation.
Right-wing Congressman Paul Gosar voted against our new holiday, arguing “We have only one Independence Day, and it applies equally to all people of all races.” Tell that to the slave on a southern plantation laboring in the fields while the white folk in the big house were setting off their Fourth of July fireworks during the early years of America’s existence! We all need this holiday!
I’d like to share two great poems about freedom. The first is from Langston Hughes (1901-67), who spoke as a twentieth-century African-American who still suffers from the after-effects of America’s two centuries of slavery:
Freedom will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
“Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.”
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want my freedom
Just as you.
The second freedom poem was quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry — from the Prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:18-21, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2)
Just as the poor slaves of Texas toiled on hopelessly for another two-and-a-half years after their freedom was announced, many people have known Jesus’ emancipation poem all their lives, but have never experienced the freedom he offers.
I once heard a story about a prisoner who was bound in his vengeful oppressor’s courtyard for years, held by a fifty-foot chain attached to a secure post, fed enough to keep him barely alive. People who walked by were encouraged to taunt and ridicule him as part of his punishment. He was “free” except for that fifty-foot chain, which he could not escape.
One night his friends snuck into the courtyard and sawed through the chain. They were so quiet that he slept through it. He woke up the next morning and wandered helplessly throughout his familiar area, within a fifty-foot radius of the post, but he never went beyond that area, so he never learned that he was free.
Is this a story about you? You’re not really free until you experience freedom. Are you still afraid to venture beyond the chains that used to bind you?
– Pastor George Van Alstine