I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,
Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…
Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”
Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”
I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.
And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.
During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?
You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)
And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.
Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.
Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
Yesterday morning I walked three quarters of a mile from my in-law’s home in Brownsville, TN to this roadside marker beside a small family cemetery.
James Bond, a quick internet search will reveal, was once one of Tennessee’s largest slaveholders.
By the eve of the Civil War, Bond had amassed property holdings in Haywood County alone of more than seventeen thousand acres and approximately 220 slaves. In 1859 his five plantations yielded more than one thousand bales of cotton and nearly twenty-two thousand bushels of corn. The federal manuscript census for 1860 estimated his total wealth at just under $800,000. (By comparison, the total value of all farmland, buildings, and other improvements in the entire county of Johnson–situated in the mountainous region in the northeastern part of the state–was just under $790,000.)
The average passerby will intuit none of this from the marker standing watch over the great pioneer’s grave even though almost nothing on that marker would have been accomplished or amassed without those women and men he enslaved.
It’s not exactly a secret that James Bond owned people; people in this town know it, or at least some of them do. But seeing a sanitized version of his legacy etched in steel does reveal something about our shared memory. After all, the choice – and it must have been a conscious decision – to gloss over the source of the man’s wealth and generosity was an act of deliberate forgetfulness.
I’m sure this sort of thing is not unique to this country. It’s one of the privileges exerted by the powerful in any society to remember history in a manner wherein our forefathers and mothers retain their heroic status. But still, there is a particular way in which we forget things in the U.S.A.
In 1962 James Baldwin published a letter to his nephew. In it, he warns his young namesake about the dangers he will face from forgetful white Americans.
I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Baldwin was surely thinking about more than deceptive roadside memorials to slaveholders, but it does illustrate his point in concrete and metal.
The gravity of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper when bread is broken and wine poured out. “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:24-25) In remembrance. There are echoes here of the many times God commanded his people to remember their former captivity and God’s saving intervention.
Forgetfulness, in other words, is not normal for Christians, at least not the willful variety. Remembering is one of the choices we can make which draws us toward our Savior and into the presence of sisters and brothers. And yes, this is a remembering that centers on Christ, but at table we also remember precisely why we come so hungry and thirsty. We remember our sins, even the ones previous generations worked so hard to forget.
This week, using this helpful site, some of us posted to social media which Native American people’s land we were celebrating Thanksgiving from. It’s true that this could easily slide into a kind of meaningless virtue signaling. But, for some, it represents a decision to remember what has been forgotten for so long that many of us hadn’t even known that it could be remembered. It’s a small decision which can remind us that forgetting isn’t inevitable.
After visiting James Bond’s grave, I walked to the small town square which is dominated by a monument dedicated to “the Confederate dead of Haywood County.” There, a block away, is a recently placed monument to Elbert Williams, a man known as the NAACP’s first martyr. For his efforts to register black voters, Williams was kidnapped by the police and drowned in the Hatchie River.
I’m not sure why the Tennessee Historical Commission decided to erect this marker so many decades after Williams was lynched, but its presence is notable. Standing in the shadow of the county courthouse is this honest testimony to an ugly past and proof that, if we want to badly enough, we can remember what was previously and purposefully forgotten.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
This week I learned that there’s something called the World Socialist Website and that they published an interesting interview with James McPherson who’s book about the Civil War is exceptionally good. Anyway, the interview is ostensibly about The New York Times’ recently published 1619 Project and it quickly becomes clear that neither McPherson or his interviewer are all that impressed with it. I’ve not read all of the 1619 articles but what I’ve read – and the podcast episodes I’ve listened to – have been well done and informative, so I was interested in McPherson’s critique.
Some of you might be interested in the whole thing, but here’s the portion of the interview that jumped out to me.
Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.
But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.
Q. Could you speak on this a little bit more? Because elsewhere in her essay, Hannah-Jones writes that “black Americans have fought back alone” to make America a democracy.
A. From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.
McPherson, if I’m reading him correctly, takes issue with Hannah-Jones for a few reasons. First, he sees similar themes of racism in the histories of other societies. Second, he doesn’t think that anti-black racism is the DNA of this country. And third, he sees certain white people like the Quakers as revealing that it’s not only black people who’ve fought to make America truly a democracy.
I don’t think his first concern deserves much of a response; I’m not sure anyone would disagree, including the contributors to the 1619 Project. (Having said that, it’s interesting how often those who want to downplay the power of race and the persistence of racism bring up this sort of thing, as though the fact that there is racism in other countries somehow makes it less important. There’s plenty to explore about what is distinct about American racism – the unique ways whiteness gets legally codified in the U.S.A., the tortured logic of the founders who had to square visions of liberty with their own enslaving tendencies – but we’ll leave that for another day.) The second two, though, are worth exploring for what they reveal about the assumptions under-girding how we think about race.
Is racism a central theme to this nation’s founding? McPherson thinks it is but also seems to believe that Hannah-Jones sees it as too central of a theme. This might seem like a quibble, but I actually think it’s an important distinction. Over the years I’ve interacted with white people who are quick to acknowledge that racism is a part of the nation’s history, but one that can be quantified and contained to certain moments and individuals. Once the claim is made, as the 1619 Project does repeatedly, that racism taints everything about the U.S.A.’s founding mythology, well, that’s where the trouble starts.
In part, I think, this has to do with one’s understanding of what racism is. For many it can be located in explicit actions or policies and, when it is, they have no trouble denouncing it. But the argument that people like Hannah-Jones are advancing is that racism functions more like a lens through which the world is viewed. This means that more of our shared history than just the obviously racist stuff has to be reckoned with through this lens.
This leads to McPherson’s third concern which has to do with the exceptional white people who bravely stood against slavery. He’s right about this, thankfully, though I’m not sure I’d characterize this as optimistically as he does: “there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism.” Later in the interview he raises Abraham Lincoln up as an example. Yes, he admits, Lincolns views on race were complicated but he evolved over time.
Q. Is it correct to say that by the end of his life Lincoln had drawn to a position proximate to that of the Radical Republicans?
A. He was moving in that direction. In his last speech—it turned out to be his last speech—he came out in favor of qualified suffrage for freed slaves, those who could pass a literacy test and those who were veterans of the Union army.
But the important historical fact that Lincoln’s views about African American people changed over time – during the war he lectured a delegation of black leaders about why it was the presence of black people which caused the war and why they’d need to emigrate to Africa after the war – doesn’t mean that he shed his racist lens. One of the insights of David Blight’s really good biography about Frederick Douglass is that it was very possible to be an earnest white abolitionist and still hold paternalistic and prejudiced assumptions about the very people you worked so hard to free.
So, to say that African American people, as those who’ve seen clearly the hypocrisies of the democracy, are the ones who’ve alone fought to hold the country to its promises is simply to notice how race has functioned. As Hannah-Jones writes, “More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.” This isn’t to say that some white people haven’t opposed racism and its many expressions – slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynching, mass incarceration, etc. – only that such righteous opposition does not free us completely from our captivity to, as Bryan Stevenson says, the narrative of racial difference. Lincoln could free the slaves and remain captive to this devious narrative.
This is all a long way of saying that how we think about racism – what we think it is – impacts significantly what we think an adequate response to racism is. Hannah-Jones and others are right, in my opinion, to think about race as a smog or an operating system or a strand of DNA. It’s not our only story, but we cannot understand any of our shared story without reckoning with racism. And, for those of us who are white, there’s actually quite a bit of freedom that comes from admitting our inability to keep this country’s promises for liberty and justice on our own.
I have a hunch that Hannah-Jones would agree with McPherson’s conviction that racism is not a permanent condition, or at least that it doesn’t have to be. The really important question has to do with how we get there. It seems to me that confessing precisely the extent of the problem is the place to begin.
I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
There was one place I wanted to visit during our recent 48 hours in Paris. Well, there were a bunch of places I hoped to visit, but there was one place in particular I wanted to sit. The Café de Flore was, according to believable legend, one of James Baldwin’s regular writing spots. Baldwin’s essays have been important to me over the years; I recommend him before any other author to those wanting to understand what it means to be white in America. I wanted to sit in that cafe, while munching on a croissant, sipping an espresso, and imagining the expatriate hunched over his notebooks.
Maggie was gracious enough to get up early the morning after we
arrived so that we could get to the cafe as it opened. It was a rainy
morning, but the newstand next door sold the international edition of
the Times and the awning was enclosed and heated, so we found a table and got comfortable.
It was great. Between the rain and the early hour, we seemed to be
some of the only tourists in the place. We chatted and read and I
thought about what Baldwin came to Paris looking for, a reprieve from
the racism that plagued him in Harlem and anywhere he stepped foot in
I was first exposed to this instinct to sojourn in Paris by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates when he used to blog for The Atlantic.
I remember sitting in the living room of a friend’s cottage in rural
Illinois, about as far from Paris in every way possible, reading his posts about that city.
And we are here now, and all around me is the incredible music of
French. I walk into stores and bumble my way through. I take my family
for le boeuf et frites and bumble through. I inhale a bottle of red wine
with my wife, and stumble out. I walk into pharmacies with my son
mishandling verbs, fumbling pronouns, wrecking whole grammars. And by my
heel, I care not. It is not for them. It is for me. I know how we got
here. I do not know when we may be called back.
This is when I fell for Coates and his writing. He wrote with urgency
and conviction but also – and this continues to be a hallmark – with
great humility. He was a man unashamed to admit what he didn’t know,
hungry to learn and understand, especially those histories which make
sense of those things which seem inevitable in this world but which, as
Coates has shown us again and again, are not.
Not far from Café de Flore is a bookstore I wanted to visit. I’d
forgotten this, but I must have first learned about Shakespeare and
Company in one of Coates’ posts.
Two Saturdays ago, I visited the venerable bookstore Shakespeare and
Company. It was a hot day. The store was small and stifling. A woman
walked around handing out watermelon. I picked up a copy of Eric
Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution and Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. I
went upstairs, sat in a room with view of the street and I think even
the river. Two things happened while I sat there. First, I fell in love
with Primo Levi, an unoriginal event which nevertheless deserves (and
shall receive) elaboration. Second, I decided that this room was
I walked into that bookstore looking for The Water Dancer,
Coates’ first novel which had just been published. After scanning the
tables of new releases and checking the fiction shelves, I went to the
counter to ask, worried that the book hadn’t been released overseas yet.
But the clerk walked me over to a table and handed me the book; I’d not
recognized it because, here in Paris, it was a paperback with a
The book tucked under my arm, I made my way upstairs to Coates’
perfect room. He was right. I sat in an ancient armchair near that
window and read the first chapter. It was inevitable that the shop cat
would make his way over and jump onto my lap. Perfect.
I finished The Water Dancer earlier this week. I don’t read
enough fiction so take this with a grain of salt: I really liked it.
Coates has created a world full of detail and surprise. There’s much to
notice even as the story pulls the reader forward. It’s full of
sentences like this one, which Coates has coming from a fictionalized
Harriet Tubman: “For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and
memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom.”
That, as my pastor friends might say, will preach!
And then, toward the end, is this passage which made me think of
Baldwin scribbling away at the Café de Flore and Coates and his family
eating and drinking their way through the city. The narrator is
describing a white woman, an important leader of the underground
All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal
insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried
off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of
his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars,
steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a
basic sense of the goodness that they believed themselves to possess.
And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to
remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their
barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave.
In recent weeks I’ve had two occasions, within the company of some
African American friends, to notice this sort of vanity. There is a
certain kind of white person who is committed to opposing racism and
white supremacy. They have read many books on the topics and are
conversant in the ideas and histories. And yet, as Coates writes, they
love the fight against oppression more than they love those who’ve been
oppressed. Like the white woman in this passage, they are fanatical and
even effective. We surely need them in this work. And yet I can imagine
that Baldwin disappeared into Paris to escape not just the scary racists
but them, the fanatics, too.
And this, as one prone to fanaticism, is worth pondering.
A few years ago a member of our church was arrested and spent the day in jail. A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, this Black man had been standing on a street corner with some friends when Chicago Police rolled up. Very quickly they had him against a wall before placing him in handcuffs and driving away.
Why? I asked. They said I was selling loose cigarettes.
I thought about my friend today when the news broke that the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner into an asthma attack that ended in his death won’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department. Garner died, his faced pressed into the sidewalk, gasping for breath. “I can’t breathe.” Eleven times he told the officers who held him down that he was dying, that they were killing him. And then he was gone.
He’d been selling loose cigarettes.
In a letter to his nephew in 1963, James Baldwin wrote that white people are, “in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.”
I’m thinking about Baldwin’s words of warning today because I’m remembering how my friend explained his day in police custody; it was, for him, an anticipated experience. Dangerous, yes. Potentially deadly. But also, a sort of expected tax on his African American reality. He understood that particular humiliation – hands against the wall, legs spread – to be part of the way of life under the power of those convinced of his inferiority.
I felt outraged for this man and his experience. He seemed to feel something different- a sense of the futility of convincing a nation that had long ago decided that his was an experience not worth understanding, an existence unworthy of our collective concern.
Eric Garner’s killer was not held accountable for the same reason so many other Black women and men who’ve suffered such obvious violence haven’t received the satisfaction of justice: in the eyes of this nation they do not deserve the dignity implicit to humanity. It’s not that they don’t see us, a friend told me the other day. She was responding to another example of white people erasing the voices and priorities of Black communities. It’s that they don’t believe we’re fully human.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was twenty-six years old when he was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965. Jackson had participated in a civil rights march and died trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s blows. Martin Luther King was called upon to eulogize Jackson from the pulpit of Zion Church in Selma. “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered him,” he reminded the community, “but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.”
In her portrayal of that funeral, director Ava Duvernay has King demand with righteous fury, “Who killed Jimmie Lee Jackson?” It’s the question honest people will ask about Eric Garner and the countless others who’ve suffered this nation’s diseased imagination. “[This] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” wrote Baldwin in that same letter,” and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
But Eric Garner knew it. So did Jimmie Lee Jackson. And my friend and his friends know it as well. Their survival depends on them remembering the simple fact that this nation is uninterested – passionately, intentionally, and vengefully uninterested – in their survival.
8 The word came to Jeremiah from the Lord after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim freedom for the slaves. 9 Everyone was to free their Hebrew slaves, both male and female; no one was to hold a fellow Hebrew in bondage. 10 So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free. 11 But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. 12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, 14 ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. 15 Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to your own people. You even made a covenant before me in the house that bears my Name. 16 But now you have turned around and profaned my name; each of you has taken back the male and female slaves you had set free to go where they wished. You have forced them to become your slaves again. 17 “Therefore this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. 21 “I will deliver Zedekiah king of Judah and his officials into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them, to the army of the king of Babylon, which has withdrawn from you. 22 I am going to give the order, declares the Lord, and I will bring them back to this city. They will fight against it, take it and burn it down. And I will lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there.” (Jeremiah 34:8-22)
One of the challenges of commemorating Juneteenth is the tendency to view it safely through the soft-filter of history. If we received the typical American miseducation than we’ve been left with a hazy recollection of those Civil War years and the decade following when formerly enslaved African Americans began building homes, families, schools, and business only to have, in the words of Carol Anderson, white rage respond in the form of Jim Crow laws, domestic terrorism, and mobocracy. Juneteenth, a day to remember the delayed proclamation of freedom, resonates with those former days, but does it resonate today?
According to the Center for Law and Justice, the USA imprisons more people than any other country: we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners; we incarcerate 2.4 million people and POC represent 60% of those imprisoned; 1 in 8 black men in their 20’s are imprisoned; 13% are disenfranchised because of a record of incarceration; between 1997-2007 the number of women in prison increased by 832%. We spend almost 70 billion annually on prison, probation, parole, & detention. In 2015 the largest private prison corporation made 3.5 billion dollars. In 2017 the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reportedly locked up close to 40,000 people, including some children and youth who’ve been separated from their families for months at a time. Most immigrant detention centers are run by private corporations, some of the largest which have direct ties to the current presidential administration and have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to its campaign.
Unjust, state-sanctioned captivity
which enriches shareholders and the politically connected is not a relic of our
past; it is a reality that continues today. It manifests in racially unjust
sentencing, in dehumanized migrants, in financial exploitation of the poor, and
– if we’re willing to be very honest – the comfortable middle-class lives that
many of us take for granted.
This sinful instinct to plunder someone’s body for my benefit is an ancient one. We see it in this passage from the prophet Jeremiah. God’s people had broken their covenant with God by refusing to free those who had sold themselves into slavery. Instead of setting them free as God had commanded, they kept them in captivity for their personal gain. And the response could not have been more direct: God condemned Israel’s leaders for breaking the covenant by enslaving their fellow Hebrews.
As we open our eyes to this nation – as we open our eyes to the wealth, middle-class stability, and global security built directly upon genocide and enslavement – as we open our eyes it is essential that we hear the voice of God with extreme clarity. God judges those who enslave. God condemns those who passively benefit from systems of exploitation and plunder. Or to say the same thing positively: God is on the side of the oppressed, the enslaved, the exploited, and the captives. God is a God of freedom, liberation, and salvation. And so today, as we do our best to position ourselves among the lineage of Juneteenth saints who commemorated a freedom that might be delayed but could never be denied, today the message for us is this: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
We are surrounded by situations of captivity. There remain enslavers around us for whom our fellow-image-bearers of God are nothing more than resources to exploit. So let the Word of God speak boldly today: The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We see this mandate in our passage first through God’s intention, then through Israel’s failure, and finally through God’s intervention.
12 If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. 13 And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. – Deuteronomy 15:12-15
God’s covenant allowed for a kind of indentured servitude that benefited those who’d become indebted beyond relief. On the 7th year, the sabbatical year, the land was to rest and slaves went free. But not only did they go free, there were given material resources to decrease the likelihood that they’d return to slavery.
There were two important reminders within this covenant: God rescued you and God alone is sovereign. The people’s identities were no longer determined by someone who claimed ownership over their lives. They were children of God. And only God could claim power or authority over their lives.
In this country, slave owners generally tried to keep those they enslaved from learning to read. Practically this kept them from forging emancipation papers or following news of slave rebellions. But they also feared what would happen if these women and men began reading Scripture and encountered the God of freedom.
They were right to be afraid. When enslaved people like Denmark Vesey learned to read, they began building coalitions to overthrow their enslavers. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in Staped from the Beginning, “Vesey likely spent time teaching, motivating, and encouraging fellow enslaved Blacks and challenging the racist ideas they had consumed, perhaps regularly reciting the biblical story of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage.”
Though his rebellion was betrayed, people like Vesey saw through the slave owners’ lies to the truth of God’s covenant. They were not slaves but image-bearers of God and those who claimed ownership over them were not their masters, but rebels defying the God of freedom.
Vesey and others knew God’s intention. If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity, we too must remember God’s intentions. The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
Do you know God’s intentions for you? Who you really are? Who God is for you?
Both the marginalized and the privileged are confronted by this covenant. You are a child of God. No one but God is sovereign over your life.
Israel’s Failure (and ours)
Understanding God’s intention helps us to see the extent of Israel’s failure, and our own.
Jerusalem was besieged by Babylon. Soon the city would fall, it’s walls and temple razed and its people sent into exile.
But at this point there was a pause in the action. King Zedekiah had been desperate. He realized that his people had broken covenant by enslaving fellow Hebrew with no promise to release them. So he called the enslavers to temple for covenant and they agreed to set slaves free [34:10]. But then the siege stopped and the former slave owners, as though the ancient spirit of Pharaoh had possessed them, changed their minds [34:11]. They took their own people captive again.
To rightly understand the history of this country we must see the persistent theme of The one group of Christians enslaving another. Early one the debate was whether enslaved people could be baptized. The answer at first was obvious. No, for then they would have to be freed. But this was problematic since these were, after all, Christian slave owners. And so new possibilities were explored.
The Virginia House of Burgesses wrote in 1699 that, “The gross bestiality and rudeness of [Africans’] manners, the variety and strangeness of their languages, and weakness and shallowness of their minds, render it in a manner impossible to make any progress in their conversion.”
The well-known Cotton Mather, believing in rigid social hierarchy between slave and master, picked up a similar theme in his writings directed to enslaved Christians of African descent. “You are better fed and better clothed, and better managed by far, than you would be, if you were your own men.”
In order to justify enslaving fellow-Christians, white people developed a racial hierarchy based on an unchangeable racial construction. In so doing, white Christians gave more authority to the racial categories of their own making than the baptismal waters commanded by Christ.
And so the state of Virginia could legalize the racist and heretical claim that “the conferring of baptisme doth not ater the condition of the person as to his bondage.”
We’ve never repented of this history. Not really.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes,
[We] are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are “of the past” because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others — of African Americans — wrongly accused, convicted and condemned. It is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.
Each of us would strongly agree about the wickedness of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration. But consider again the statistics from the beginning of sermon. Do they not betray our ongoing belief in the narrative of racial difference?
In an op-ed in last week’s LA Times Jonathan Katz wrote about our current immigration crisis :
Photos from a Border Patrol processing center in El Paso showed people herded so tightly into cells that they had to stand on toilets to breathe. Memos surfaced by journalist Ken Klippenstein revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s failure to provide medical care was responsible for suicides and other deaths of detainees. These followed another report that showed that thousands of detainees are being brutally held in isolation cells just for being transgender or mentally ill.
Also last week, the Trump administration cut funding for classes, recreation and legal aid at detention centers holding minors — which were likened to “summer camps” by a senior ICE official last year. And there was the revelation that months after being torn from their parents’ arms, 37 children were locked in vans for up to 39 hours in the parking lot of a detention center outside Port Isabel, Texas. In the last year, at least seven migrant children have died in federal custody.
The narrative of racial difference that allowed white enslavers to baptize the women and men in their possession remains at work today. Perhaps not in our intentions, but certainly in the outcomes we’ve all agreed are the reasonable collateral damage of our empire.
If God is a God of freedom than we must ask, Are we on the side of freedom?
Whose captivity are we benefiting from? Whose exploitation props up our privilege? Whose enslavement are we willing to tolerate for our comfort?
Whose bodies are we willing to sacrifice to the demon of incarceration? Whose families are suitable to be torn apart by border walls? Upon whose vulnerable ancestral lands will we condone drone warfare, debilitating sanctions, and the first devastating impacts of climate change?
If we are to be sent by the liberating God to confront captivity with freedom, we must confess our failure to reflect God’s intentions.
If the crucifixion of the son of God reveals anything it is that God intervenes in situations of captivity and enslavement.
God’s wrath was poured out on the people who claimed his name while re-enslaving their fellow-Hebrews. This intervention feels like condemnation to the oppressor and like liberation to the captives.
It is the oppressor’s instinct to separate spiritual salvation from physical freedom. But the God encountered by those women and men who celebrated the first Juneteenth pronouncement made no such false distinction. Spiritual freedom was physical salvation.
Jesus said of himself, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36] We have been conditioned to imagine a kind of spiritual freedom when we hear this promise. And that’s true, it’s just that spiritual includes everything. After all, when we see God’s passion for liberation in Jeremiah 34, we have to conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, carried that same passion.
He was born into captivity. His families knew generations of exile and occupation (. He grew up among the lynched bodies of his countrymen hung from crosses along highways. He watched generational land taxed into the hands of foreigners, religious leaders in the pocket of the Empire’s representatives, and political leaders beholden to those whose fortunes came from the plunder of war.
So what did the outcasts and the marginalized hear when Jesus pronounced freedom?
Did they satisfy themselves with heavenly promises of a one-day salvation? Did they imagine a God who cared nothing for their suffering as long as their souls had been saved? Were spiritual songs and well-delivered sermons an adequate response to state-sanctioned murder and theft? Within a situation of captivity in which they were made the laughing-stock of the empire, was it enough to know that God loved them… spiritually?
Or did they hear something else when Jesus spoke of freedom and salvation?
Could it be that when Jesus said, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free, the Galilean peasants heard echoes of Jeremiah’s God? [John 8:32] The God who judged the enslaver; who refused to forget the Sabbath year of liberation and restoration, the God who pronounced Jubilee over captivity?
Might they have remembered their ancestors’ stories and songs of the God who spoke to Moses through a burning bush, who said to him:7 “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. [Exodus 3:7-8]
Is it possible that when Jesus stood in the synagogue and proclaimed, The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, those in the crowd who’d been made poor thought he was talking to them? And when he went on to claim that God, has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, those who’d been bound and bruised by the empire understood that their liberation was at hand? And when he concluded that he had come, to set the oppressed free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the entire crowd woke up to that ancient vision of Jubilee, when no one was without land, home, or dignified work; where no one oppressed or exploited their neighbor? [Luke 4:18-19]
History records that after the Juneteenth pronouncement on that summer day in Galveston, TX in 1865, some of the enslavers tried to talk the women and men they’d exploited and abused into staying.
But when a captive people who’ve encountered the liberating God hear freedom pronounced, there is no confusion about what to do next. When a people who’ve been made captive understand their true identity as the children of God, understand that God alone is sovereign and no so-called slave master can claim actual power over your life, there is no confusion about what to do next. You get free! You live free!
Because God intervenes in situations of enslavement, we can confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom.
The liberating God sends us to confront every earthly captivity with divine freedom. We live between Christ’s resurrection and his return. We live between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth Celebration. Victory has been won. Slavery and captivity have been abolished. And yet the spiritual forces of enslavement and captivity still plot their insurgencies, still coerce sinful exploitation and plunder.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. [Galatians 5:1] And yes Christ has set our souls free from the spiritual captivity to sin, but let us never reduce the liberating work of our Savior to the interior status of our souls. After all, he is the one who touched the lepers’ wounds, and rubbed healing mud on a blind man’s eyes, and offered fish and loaves to feed multitudes of hungry people. He’s the Savior who drew near to the outcasts, spoke words of life to the peasants who’d been driven from their land, and allowed his body to be rolled over by the bloody wheels of the empire… for us and our salvation.
It is for freedom that we have been set free. In a world that hasn’t heard of its emancipation, we are called to be a Juneteenth people. Among a people who assume their captivity to be final, we have been sent to proclaim freedom. To the enslavers, exploiters, kidnappers, and thieves, we are sent to brazenly and bravely announce the judgment of the God who sides with refugees and migrants, children who’ve been separated from their parents, and parents whose children have been snatched by state-sanctioned and politically-orchestrated violence.
The liberating God is looking for a generation of free people to proclaim freedom over every place of captivity. Will you go? Will you resist the tendency to so spiritualize your freedom that you pose no threat to enslavers and captains of empire? Will you proclaim the singular Lordship of Jesus Christ in response to every idol and ideology? Will you remember the chains that held you back- back from the God who created you, back from the flourishing future for which you were created? Will you remember, as the Scripture says, that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm?
The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the desperate migrant and the landless refugee. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every child whose future is assumed to be written by underfunded schools and intentionally segregated neighborhoods. Will we join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over the sisters and brothers whose ancestors built this nation’s wealth with their blood and bodies. We will join him? The liberating God is proclaiming freedom over every single place of captivity, over every single dehumanized image-bearer of the holy God. Today this God sings songs of salvation, freedom, and deliverance over this captive world. Will you join him?
I wrote the following for our church newsletter in anticipation of our Juneteenth Worship Service this coming Sunday. I offer it here for those who aren’t familiar with this important tradition with the hope that others will see the many theological implications of this commemoration of freedom.
On June 19th, 1865, the Union commander of the Department of Texas arrived in Galveston, Texas and went to a prominent home at the center of the city. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years earlier, but slaveholders in Texas had kept the news from the women, men, and children they enslaved. From the balcony the commander read out General Orders Number Three.
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
Having been declared legally free years earlier, Texas’ African Americans now learned of their freedom. June 19th immediately became a day to commemorate freedom, and in the ensuing years Juneteenth became an essential holiday for a people whose freedom within a racist nation could never be taken for granted.
In a chapter about Juneteenth, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes about the importance of Juneteenth to formerly enslaved people’s memory.
The powerfully subversive collective memory that former slaves and their descendants preserved found its way into public space almost every year, a reminder to the nation that African Americans, while sharing a common history with white southerners, did not bow to the icons of Confederate bellicosity or deny that freedom was immensely preferable to bondage.
The free women and men who left behind enslavers and captivity made their way in a nation that rarely recognized their freedom. They were met instead with a narrative that sanitized those who had kidnapped, exploited, and tortured them. They were told that their lives were better during slavery. They walked beneath hastily erected monuments to heroes of the Confederacy.
Within this white supremacist culture, Black people’s decision to publicly commemorate Juneteenth with parades, speeches, and special church services was a conscious act of resistance, a choice to develop a “powerfully subversive collective memory.” This memory would cut through racist retellings of history. It would tell the truth about African American dignity and freedom. It would put the dominant culture of white supremacy on notice- though it had grown powerful through theft and exploitation, it’s deceptive rationale had been exposed.
Celebrating Juneteenth was not only a bold declaration of freedom for the captives, its existence was a word of righteous judgment against white supremacy and all those who buttressed it’s malicious narrative and benefited from its deadly plunder.