The Hebrew people laid claim to the idea that no one should spend a lifetime in servitude. The entire Jewish tradition is built on the story of their emancipation from the yoke of slavery under the Egyptians. To this day, the Jewish people remember and celebrate their liberation. And so, they proclaimed:
“You shall hallow the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your property and each of you shall return to your family” (Lev 25:10).
The stories of liberation remembered in the Hebrew Bible were remade and remodeled through the revelation of Jesus and by the movement of the Holy Spirit. It was the very mission of Jesus to do this, as he read, from the scroll of 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” – meaning the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18-19).
Let me sum up this mission more succinctly: God desires freedom for all of God’s children!
That message of freedom permeated the souls of enslaved African Americans. They sought the liberation that God promised, and they often looked to the experience of the Hebrews. So, it’s no surprise that freedom seeker and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman is called “Moses.” The “Moses of Her People.”
What also spoke to this desire for freedom were missionaries’ messages, itinerant ministers, and enslaved preachers’ evangelism, melded with the rich, varied rituals of worship — like call-and-response spirituals — that African men and women carried with them to America. Now, if we take Leviticus literally, we might think it doesn’t apply here. After all, enslaved men and women often had their families torn from them; and they had no property to return to. But what allowed their faith to hold firm was God’s message of hope and redemption, suffering and salvation — occasionally expressed in spirituals as messages of resistance; that is, directions for escape. Just as the Hebrews, for 400 years, hoped for freedom, so too did African Americans, for 400 years, hope for freedom. And then, when it arrived, they marked the day, June 19, 1865, as a day of Jubilee.
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, but its enforcement as law did not prevail. Confederate gangs of the South still needed to be suppressed. We know that just because something is proclaimed doesn’t mean the battle is won; there’s still labor to be done. On June 19, 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation was read from a hotel balcony in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Civil War ended. Texas was the last state to receive the message that the insurrection had been quelled and the Union of American states preserved. The day of this reading was named by African Americans as Jubilee Day, to mark and remember the fulfillment of God’s promise that all God’s children would be free.
First celebrations of Jubilee Day were held in African American churches and used as a day to give voting instructions to newly freed men and women. The right to vote, and the ease in which that happens, is still seen as pivotal in the exercise of freedom in America. By the 1890s, Jubilee Day had become known as Juneteeth, and it has retained that title, and has been celebrated, ever since.
I must confess that until recently I was entirely unaware of Juneteenth. This speaks to my ignorance, and my white-centric perspective. But God is good. My blindness has been healed, as I’ve been given eyes to see this holiday and its necessary celebration. God has ordained the Jubilee; God has sanctioned the celebration of Juneteenth as another way to let the oppressed go free, to express God’s favor and God’s expectation of full freedom for all people.
I encourage you to take some time this week and read the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a living document that we are duty bound to uphold and live out as an expression of freedom-loving people and followers of Jesus Christ.
Happy Juneteenth, and peace upon your souls.