Why Juneteenth challenged my view of freedom

CULTURE | 6 mins

Juneteenth was yesterday. I forgot about it because I’ve never known anything but freedom. And that, my friends, is what we call privilege.

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Juneteeth is an American holiday commemorating the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the (then far off) U.S. state of Texas. More than two years earlier, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation, granting freedom to slaves residing in the confederate states. You can imagine the southern states weren’t quick to act on the proclamation, but as Union soldiers advanced (or slaves bravely escaped) they were allowed to remain free. But things were a bit different in the wild west of Texas. The “new” state was remote, far removed from much of the violence and warfare that plagued the rest of the country. In fact, many southern aristocrats had used it as a haven during the war, relocating themselves (and their slaves) to it’s quieter frontiers to escape the war their soldiers were slowly losing.

History says that word of General Lee’s surrender on April 9th, 1865, finally reached Texas by the end of the month. But freedom wasn’t granted until Union General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2,000 federal troops, stood on the steps of a prominent home in downtown Galveston and publically announced the end of slavery in Texas. It was June 19th, 1865, and celebrations broke out in the streets.

Juneteenth celebrations have ebbed and flowed since the original announcement. But the day remains a symbol, and reminder, of hope and freedom. And, unsurprisingly, most white people have never heard of it… or, like me, forget about it until it’s too late. But we need Juneteeth—every single one of us.

Before I go any further, let me be clear—it’s tragic that so much of the African American experience in our culture gets co-opted. Sometimes it’s done unintentionally, but other times, it’s done to divert attention from uncomfortable subjects like slavery and race relations. God used Juneteenth to teach me something about myself, something I think important enough to share with you. This article, for all its shortcomings, is not an attempt to co-opt a holiday that most Americans don’t even recognize. It’s not meant to divert attention from the uncomfortable conversations and self-reflection we all need to be doing around race. Rather, it’s a grateful response to a God who isn’t willing to leave me in my white cultural experience. I’m finding the more I move into unfamiliar territory alongside people who don’t look or think exactly as I do, I hear his divine voice grow stronger.

Juneteenth hits me hard. First, because it’s so like the spiritual freedom I’ve found in relationship with Jesus. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had freed the slaves in 1863. And yet, for over two years, every slave in Texas remained in their slavery. The distance and the chaos of war had prevented that freedom from being grasped. So often, that’s precisely how I live. My spiritual freedom cost God a high price. He sacrificed his son to set me free; he dealt with injustice to set me free. And yet, in so many areas of my life, I persist in my “slavery.” I name an area of my life “Texas” and just assume the freedom of God doesn’t apply there. The words I speak; my attitude; how I use money; my ability to trust God—these are my wild wests. But God has already won freedom for my entire life. The resurrection of Jesus is the announcement of that freedom. So what if I actually believed him? What if I set free anything I’ve been clutching onto? What if I refused to stay enslaved to negative thinking, past mistakes, or fear of the future. The freedom is there… and yet, I don’t grasp it nearly enough.

I’m afraid that part of my problem is I’ve forgotten what freedom tastes like. I’ve never been enslaved; none of my ancestors have ever been enslaved. Freedom is something I take for granted every single day—like the air I breathe and the food I eat. And thus, I forget to celebrate it. To appreciate it. To breathe it in. And I forget to share it. It’s embarrassing to say I overlooked the day we celebrate the death of a system that sold people as pieces of property, that based the value of a person on their skin color. And yet, when I take a step back, I do that with my spiritual freedom. I don’t celebrate it. I don’t bask in it. I don’t take time to remember the broken places I’ve been and the way that God pulled me out of the mud and mire. And because I don’t do that, his amazing grace glows a little less every day. I’m not compelled to live free and I’m not inspired to share it with others. Has my spiritual freedom really grown so bland that I can’t taste it anymore?

That, my friends, is utterly terrifying. And that’s why I need Juneteenth. It’s a day to celebrate freedom and it’s a day to remember it—not just for enslaved peoples, but for me—for this white kid from rural Kentucky. It’s a reminder that, as cliche as it sounds, freedom really isn’t free. It’s always come with a cost. Our country is still wrestling with that cost—but thank God, he is not. He’s won it, decisively. And Juneteeth was just the reminder I needed, the herald on the steps of my heart, declaring freedom to the very depths of my soul. And it can be the same for you.

Open your phone calendar right now. Go to June 19th, 2020. It’s a Friday. Now, put a calendar reminder on that day. Use it to remind you of the fight for racial equality in our country. Let it push you to pray for continued improvements in our race relations. Dare I suggest, make a point to spend the day with someone who doesn’t look like you. And also let Juneteeth propel you to examine your spiritual life. Are you living in freedom, or are you holding on to a “Texas” somewhere in your life? Have you grown numb to the taste of your own freedom—if so, how you can remember it once more? Who do you know that needs to taste this freedom for the first time, and how can you be the herald that helps declare it?

The calendar reminder is in my phone. I won’t forget Juneteenth again—I pray you don’t either. Freedom is much too important for that.

Written by Caleb Mathis on Jun 20, 2019