What, to black Americans, is the Fourth of July? To the slave, as Frederick Douglass famously said, it is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him,” Douglass continued, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Douglass spoke those words in 1852. It would be another 11 years before the Emancipation Proclamation—and two more years after that before news of this liberation reached every state in the rejoined Union. The final announcement came to then-remote Texas on June 19, 1865, and thus was born our nation’s second—and fuller—Independence Day: Juneteenth.
This year, Juneteenth will arrive after weeks of protest of police brutality, endemic unfairness in our justice system, and broader racial injustice too little reckoned with or rectified in our history, governance, and culture. Many white evangelicals, like our white compatriots more generally, are seeking to better understand what it’s like to be black in America—to learn how we can better have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” “not looking to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others,” our black brothers and sisters (Phil. 2:4-5). Commemorating Juneteenth tomorrow is a good place to begin.
If you are white, as I am, perhaps this is the first you’re hearing of Juneteenth. I learned of it well into adulthood, in 2016, reading the work of my then-colleague, Zuri Davis, who is now an assistant editor at Reason. That was the first year Davis celebrated Juneteenth, too, she told me, the first year of honoring “the Independence Day that actually had me in mind.” Now she marks it annually, in her work and her Catholic faith alike, using “the day to pray for racial reconciliation and economic and personal freedom in black communities.”
For white evangelicals, Davis said, Juneteenth is a “unique opportunity,” a moment to “question why so many Americans still feel like subclass citizens or outsiders in their own country” and to “go into black spaces and start a dialogue, rather than wait for their black brothers and sisters to find them.” It is an entrance point, an occasion for education and self-scrutiny—but also communion and joy.
That it comes shortly before the Fourth of July is a chronological accident, but a useful one: We can mark Juneteenth before (or even instead of?) our more limited Independence Day. “Juneteenth helps us understand the history of this country in more honest ways than July 4th ever has,” Drew G. I. Hart, a theology professor at Messiah College and author of Trouble I've Seen and Who Will Be A Witness?, told me in an email interview. “Juneteenth, in contrast, offers a more honest view of the struggle for genuine freedom in the United States, which has often been delayed and denied to black people (and for our indigenous siblings).”
For American Christians in particular, Hart said, Juneteenth “forces us to grapple with what we even mean when we discuss freedom”: Have we allowed a hyper-individualist notion of our personal rights to crowd out “God’s righteousness, which requires justice and mercy for our neighbor”? Have we been careless, selfish, uninterested in learning why Douglass’s exhortations still ring fresh and true for our black neighbors? Have we been indifferent?
Has ours been the religion Douglass decried in 1852: “an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love and good will towards man”? Does our faith esteem “sacrifice above mercy; psalm-singing above right doing; solemn meetings above practical righteousness”? Have we been like the Pharisees Jesus rebukes in Matthew 23, the “whitewashed tombs”—clean outside but rotten inside—neglecting the weightier matters of “justice and mercy and faith” (vv. 23, 27, NLT)? Juneteenth is an opening to explore our full history—national, ecclesial, and personal. For churches wondering how to respond to the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, Juneteenth is a timely opportunity.
This is a holiday with a built-in tension: It celebrates a delayed and, in many ways, incomplete liberation. But it still celebrates and hopes for a future held by God in Christ. Juneteenth “reminds me that my ancestors struggled for more freedom for their children,” Hart said, “and that I am a part of a longer river that has been flowing for generations, not giving up on God’s dream for us,” a dream of freedom, justice, and the flourishing of the biblical shalom, the peace Christ himself is for his people (Eph. 2:14).
In Juneteenth’s tension we may be reminded of the already/not yet of God’s kingdom: Jesus is already victorious over sin, death, and every evil and oppression that besets us, but this victory is not yet fully realized here among us. “We live in this present evil age, and as a result we live in the tension of the already and not yet, meaning that Christ’s kingdom has been inaugurated due to Christ’s advent and finished work of the Cross, but the full manifestation of the kingdom of God hasn’t come yet, and it will not come in its fullness until Christ returns,” explained Ekemini Uwan in a Juneteenth sermon at Citypoint Community Church in Chicago last year. As Christians, she continued, we seek justice now, “which points forward to the perfect justice that will reign when Christ returns.” In celebrating Juneteenth, then, we find a new way to say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come” (Rev. 22:20).
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today, a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette).