Juneteenth: A Fearless Call to Celebrate, Educate, and Agitate

by Bishop Todd Hunter

Conversion will be lasting and profound
if we are able to critique our false way of looking at the world and at people.
—Archbishop Oscar Romero

Many people, including me (and especially white people), only recently started paying attention to and learning about Juneteenth National Independence Day. Originating in Galveston, Texas, Juneteenth memorializes the order given on June 19, 1865, to free all slaves in Texas. As one historian put it, Juneteenth is meant to celebrate, educate and agitate.

This year, I want to dig a bit deeper into educate—the call to fearlessly, with humility and love, educate ourselves on Black reality.

Juneteenth demonstrates that we can learn things about American history regarding race, things that may change our views, attitudes, and behaviors. Case in point: At one time we were ignorant of Juneteenth, and now we know a bit about it. Learning a bit about issues of race points to the fact that we can learn more—and can do so in peace, with humility, seeking to be God’s ambassadors of repair.

Learning the true story of indigenous people and slaves does not have to lead to hating America. That is ridiculous. In fact, hating your country—or experiencing the white guilt, shame, or fragility that sometimes go along with it—does not advance justice. Most of us have emotions about racial issues, but we must put them in their place—which is secondary to what we know to be right about God’s heart for justice. 

Education, or learning the facts of a matter, should mostly be practical, a tool for doing the good. For example, I’ve had melanoma twice. It is a scary form of cancer. Both times, I survived when others did not. I don’t love talking about malignancies; it makes me uncomfortable on several levels. But when I’m at a doctor’s office and the doctor or technician is going over my history of the disease, I don’t think he or she hates me. I know the medical professional is simply working with my past to ensure a healthy future. 

As Archbishop Oscar Romero says in The Scandal of Redemption, “There is no justice without truth.” Education that allows us to grasp the truth of racial dynamics is the first step on the path to racial healing. If we want to be agents of healing to injury and injustice, it’s crucial that we listen and learn from people of color, and see their perspective on life. History is context. We cannot be ministers of healing love if we are cut off from or distracted from real life as people of color have known and presently experience it. 

Romero is again helpful here: “The church cannot be deaf or mute before the entreaty of millions of persons who cry out for liberation, persons oppressed by a thousand slaveries.”

When talking about racism, education means lots of things to me, but at the top of the list is a key issue of the heart: Am I willing to de-center myself to center others?

If I center my thoughts and feelings, my ability to learn is curtailed. My beliefs and emotions are valid but secondary. First and foremost is listening to people of color, perceiving their world, and becoming vulnerable enough to truly empathize with the reality they describe. 

In Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Reggie Williams says that Dietrich Bonhoeffer “was a white aristocrat…but that identity did not prevent him from…practicing empathy…or opening himself to exploring and revising the way he saw the world. It was Bonhoeffer’s experience with Black people in Harlem, centering their experience and the way they articulated it, that sent him back to Germany to be the Christian leader that many people admire.

A snippet from Maya Angelou’s famous poem, Still I Rise, is a magnificent way to practice centering the Black experience: 

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

As I continue my education this Juneteenth, I’m also reminded to celebrate racial progress. We join with our Black sisters and brothers in applauding freedoms that should never have been taken away in the first place. In a just and loving world, one in which the imago Dei was revered, powerful people would not have enslaved human beings who are equally made in the image of God. When such a widespread diabolical wrong is righted, we are correct to note and celebrate it.  

Juneteenth also agitates me to participate, in a self-emptying way, in the rise of Black Americans. This agitation is because the work of justice-seeking, of freedom and peace-seeking, is not done. Juneteenth shakes up those of us who need reminders to stay with the long, often slow, and frustrating work of racial healing, harmony, and equity.

This post originally appeared in Bishop Todd Hunter’s Substack The Gospel of the Kingdom.

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