Juneteenth and White Christians
How can White Christians celebrate a day like Juneteenth? We should listen, learn, lament & celebrate in solidarity with the African American community. These are good postures to assume everyday. I also believe there is a question to ask myself.
“Would the way I read my Bible in 2020 lead me to oppose & work to abolish American Slavery if I were alive in 1863?”
Why ask this question? It admits reading the Bible doesn’t mean I’m obeying Jesus. For example, white Christians before & during the Civil War defended owning human beings with Bible verses. Most importantly, the question forces a confrontation of blindspots so I don’t miss out on doing God’s will today. Learn from the past to prepare for God’s future kingdom.
Jesus never marched. He has no quotes against the oppressive laws of Rome, except “render to Caesar.” Not once did the gospel writers quote him rebuking the common ancient practice of leaving unwanted infants to die outside the city walls. Yet Jesus is not indifferent. The kingdom Jesus announced with his lips and demonstrated with his life, death, and resurrection, does not ignore the needs of human beings.
Jesus lived in a pre-human rights culture
Our concept of human rights in the 21st century did not exist in the first century. All the same, Jesus showed respect for the dignity of human beings, even when his culture did not. Poor logic concludes that since Jesus did not march in Jerusalem then he must not be in favor of addressing injustice which perpetuates the suffering of human beings. This is like saying since Jesus did not drive a car, he is against road trips. Jesus’ pre-human rights world would not have understood marching, civil disobedience, or legislative measures to curtail abortion or slavery. This doesn’t mean these are dead ends for modern Christians. Few would argue today that the gospel should have left slaves in chains, but the thinking that led to that view in 1863 is with us still if we believe the gospel is exclusively spiritual with no outcome which seeks to better our neighbor. As Luther says, “God may not need your works, but your neighbor does.”
Jesus broke barriers to get to people, even death
Even so, if Jesus had only done these things, he is only a reformer, not a resurrected King. The gospel is not exclusively spiritual, but it is primarily spiritual. Seeking people at their deepest level led Jesus to gladly disrupt social norms, even showing contempt for any power, internal or external, that kept people from hearing the good news of the Kingdom. This is what love for God and love for neighbor looks like when they are held together.
Jesus dined with a corrupt tax collector, and then celebrated his repayments as evidence of personal salvation. (Luke 19) He healed a Roman soldier’s servant, praising a representative of an occupying political force by declaring he had the greatest personal faith he had ever seen. (Matthew 8:5) Jesus hurdled ethnic roadblocks & social convention to speak truth to a Samaritan woman. (John 4) Jesus ministry, and the legacy of His Church, proclaims the gospel and provides for neighbors and enemies with a love that is willing to suffer for their good.
What can we say of American Slavery and the Bible? If the gospel would allow the system of chattel slavery to continue to exist, the same disconnect — applied today — will have equally shameful consequences. But let’s say this simply, if Christians have a gospel which speaks only to someone’s eternal destination without thought or care for their present situation, we divorce the greatest two commandments. Christians of every ethnicity must look to Jesus, and seek His will — His kingdom — in our day with a faith that acts. Saving faith is not only doctrinally sound, but also visibly loving. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it well, “action springs not from thought, but from readiness for responsbility.” Do you read your Bible in a way which gives you Jesus’ eyes and heart for the world around you?
All who say “Jesus is Lord” have a responsibility to live out his agenda in their immediate circumstances, in fellowship with Christians, having their conscience clean before God. To live in our obedience these two simple commands, never to be seperated: love God and love people.
Epilogue: Why I Write
In days like ours, it‘s easy to create a monument to awareness. It might even be socially beneficial. An article like this one can fall into that pit, as if to say, “look, here’s an article about Juneteenth to prove myself to the eyes of culture.” But really, it’s easy to seek approval. It’s more difficult to create a conversation and forge consensus. Admittedly, I don’t believe articles and blogs are the best place for this. But ideas are powerful, as are questions. That’s why I write. But the work is not done when a post is made, or a blog is published. No, the work is between human beings in relationship themselves and with their Creator. I believe — always will — that the Church is God’s Plan A. Any work must begin there where God has made His presence to dwell. Jesus is more committed to the work than any one of us. For this, I am grateful, and the mere fact gives me courage. Grace & peace to you.