Juneteenth showcases America at its best
There are good reasons for Christians and Republicans to celebrate our newest national holiday
The American story has always been about pressing forward, not just toward technological progress and material prosperity but moral excellence as well. The preamble to our Constitution declares our intention “to form a more perfect union,” conceding from the start that while perfection may be out of reach, improvement is always possible. One genius of our constitutional order is its allowance for government to self-evaluate and reform. The legislative compromises that litter our past—and inevitably our future—are certainly frustrating in their flaws. But we work together trusting that such imperfect steps are the building blocks of a union that is better than it has been, while simultaneously not as good as it will be.
One year ago, President Joe Biden signed Public Law 177-17, making Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday. I was disappointed that some Republicans and public figures on the right opposed and seemed upset by what to me is a wonderful celebration of American redemption and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
It was Lincoln—a Republican, in case anyone has forgotten—who signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It was Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger who on June 19, 1865, carried out the order to free the last slaves in Galveston, Texas, who had not heard the news of their emancipation. His General Order No. 3 read: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Many of the newly freed people broke into immediate, spontaneous jubilation. Their prayers, and the decades of prayers by their ancestors, had been answered. They then began to gather to remember this wonderful day each year in Galveston. In 1872, in Houston, freed blacks raised $1,000 to establish Emancipation Park to host Juneteenth celebrations going forward.
Juneteenth is also referred to as “Jubilee Day” or “Freedom Day,” and both have their root in the Biblical tradition of forgiving debts, freeing slaves (in the context of Hebrew culture, slaves had typically indentured themselves to pay off debts), and releasing prisoners every 50 years. This demonstration of forgiveness is viewed by Christians as a precursor to the ultimate forgiveness and payment of the debt of sin by Jesus on the cross. Christians in America should find it easy and natural to embrace Juneteenth as an extension of this idea. Like the Christian moral tradition at the heart of our constitutional order, we see in Juneteenth the Christian tradition’s moral vision put on vivid display. Yes, we cannot dispute that Christianity was made a tragic handmaiden to slavery by some, but for others, it was the same religion that taught all human beings were of equal dignity, regardless of skin color.
Celebrating Juneteenth should not be a partisan issue. Rarely will you see a Republican-led initiative carried out by a Democrat. But President Donald Trump proudly promised to make Juneteenth a federal holiday in his Platinum Plan for Black Americans. President Biden and Democrats in Congress passed the legislation shortly after he took office.
Slavery was a terrible stain on the United States for the first 87 years of its history. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, the peculiarly evil institution not only brought unspeakable suffering to the slaves themselves but was also toxic to the moral health of slaveholders. It was at odds with the principles of our Declaration of Independence. Ridding America of legal slavery was the beginning of a long cleansing process that has made the country better and set an example for many other nations to follow.
Juneteenth is not a celebration of American perfection, because nations are never perfect. But it is a right and good celebration of our ongoing commitment to strive toward perfection, by admitting our sins and seeking to overcome them.
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