In 1978, I wrote a poem that I now believe represented God’s first calling me into ministry, a calling that I had no ability to understand at the time. The poem spoke of the relativity of freedom. And so I concluded that I would not be free, “’Til freedom gets to where my spirit flies.” Our slave ancestors understood this concept because those who had experienced the freedom of salvation as Jesus promised, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b–32), knew that they were not experiencing full and complete freedom in body, mind, and soul. They trusted, however, the truth would set them free, indeed.
The truth lay more in what Frederick Douglass spoke in an address to the Antislavery Sewing Society in Rochester, NY on Independence Day. He actually wanted to know why he had been invited to speak, since the celebration truly pointed out the wide gap between the experiences of those he represented—that is—black people, and those Whites who were hearing the speech. Douglass forced his audience to face the fact that all were not included in the benefits of the glorious celebration. “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” he asked. In this speech, Douglass argued that the very laws forbidding Blacks to learn to read proved their humanity since there were no laws on the books forbidding an animal to read. He argued that slavery is inhumane and therefore not divinely established. Douglass concluded the Fourth of July reveals to the American slave “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.” In 1852, the year in which he gave this speech, black people were still waiting for freedom to get to where their spirits were longing. They were waiting for Truth to set them free.
In 1863, it appeared that Truth was marching on. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, ordering and declaring, “That ALL PERSONS HELD AS SLAVES within said designated States and parts of States ARE, AND HENCEFORWARD SHALL BE FREE!” With this document, he in theory set at liberty all persons held in slavery in geographical areas that were in rebellion to the United States government. Those states in rebellion had already given their loyalty to another governing body and it would take 2 ? years of war to preserve the Union and make the proclamation a reality. In the process, many slaveholders gathered up their slaves and moved to Texas, as far away from the arms of the law as possible. Nevertheless, the Union Army arrived and on June 14, 1865, another Executive Order, once again in theory, freed the black people of Texas. Juneteenth! Hallelujah!
Throughout the Twentieth century we have seen that Truth marches all over the world “proclaiming release to the captives,” not just with the American Civil Rights Movement but in China’s Tiananmen Square, with the tearing down of the Germany’s Berlin Wall, and with the dismantlement of South African apartheid. Truth exposes the lie, as Frederick Douglass did. As Martin L. King, Jr. told us, Truth pressed down to the earth will not stay there. Truth is God’s Word and God has promised that we shall be free.
So on this day to celebrate Freedom, let us follow the example of Frederick Douglass and tell the truth about what freedom is and what it is not. Freedom is not just about little black and white children sitting next to each other in school. Freedom is not just about economic opportunity. Freedom is also about the Church which must stop rebelling against God and move towards a place where all people, regardless of race or gender, can serve God freely because freedom has gotten to where their spirit flies!
Written by Marilyn E. Thornton, The Africana Worship Book: Year B © 2007 Discipleship Resources. Used by permission.
Find more resources for celebrating Juneteenth by visiting UMCDiscipleship.org.
I could not have found The Upper Room Moments of Prayer (on Facebook Live) sooner. For it is during these moments of centering spiritual practices, meditating on the words of scripture, praying with and for the world, that I find moments of transcendence, hear whispers of peace and hope, see glimpses of truth and justice, behold visions of love and beauty amid all the stark realities that are around me.”