With neighborhood cookouts and concerts, block parties, and art festivals, this is the weekend when communities around the nation celebrate Juneteenth. You might know, this holiday got started in Texas on June Nineteenth, Eighteen Sixty-Five. That’s when Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and announced the news: Slavery is officially over.
This sounds like something straight out of Isaiah! See the spirit of the LORD is upon you, and God has anointed you to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to those who were enslaved and release to the prisoners. You’ve got to tell them, says the LORD. Freedom is come!
Now according to folk legend, even though the Emancipation Proclamation declared the end of southern slavery back in Eighteen Sixty-Three, the news didn’t travel to all the nooks and hollers of the deep south. Even though slavery was pronounced over, not everybody knew.
And here’s a fact: You’re not free until you know it.
The folk legend claims that the people in Galveston were unaware that slavery ended, and maybe that’s part of it, but it’s also the case that General Granger’s announcement was accompanied by Union soldiers who came to enforce the new policy of giving wages to workers. Certainly that helped! But even with the presence of the army, you’ve got to wonder whether the people who had been enslaved were in any position to trust that this general was telling them the truth. They’ve been lied to before! How do they know this is not a trap? What if the whole thing is fake news?!
They had to be asking each other the question that can only be answered by courage: How can we be so sure…
As it turns out, the Emancipation Proclamation was not a lie; the work of ending slavery really was beginning. But it’s also true that slavery was not obliterated all at once. Even after the first Juneteenth in Eighteen Sixty-Five, slavery was still legal in Kentucky and Delaware. Even after the ratification of the thirteenth amendment, slavery is still legal in the United States when imposed as punishment for a crime.
Even after the Civil Rights Movement, even to this day, some of slavery’s signature practices remain in effect. It is simply not the case that slavery is over in the United States. And here’s the thing: people celebrating Juneteenth this weekend absolutely know that. Nobody’s being fooled.
We’re not celebrating Juneteenth because slavery is all the way over; we’re celebrating because we’re choosing to believe the promise of liberation will be fulfilled one day. This is what Juneteenth has in common with our faith.
We know what it is to go out, and crane our necks, and catch a glimpse of what God is imagining for the world. Once you do that, don’t say I didn’t warn you when God’s dreaming goes and gets into your dreaming. Because anybody can believe what has already happened; that’s just relying on verifiable data. Choosing to believe in a promise that’s still fragile and brave? That’s something else!
When we choose to celebrate the end of slavery, what we’re doing is making the end of slavery that much more possible. We’re giving our power to the promise of God.
Chances are, the story that Georgia read came into being in order to answer a question. I like to imagine an ancient gaggle of grandchildren asking their grandmother what we’re all wanting to know: How can we be so sure…
You told us when God looked at the world and saw the violence of human people, it broke God’s heart, and it made her cry. You told us God decided to exterminate every living creature except for the refugees on the ark. So the next time God gets upset, how can we be sure she won’t do this again?
It’s a good question. The grandma leans back in her chair and crinkles her face like she does when she’s thinking. You’re right, she tells them. It’s not like the people have done anything to deserve this. It’s not the people who turn away from violence; it’s God.
It’s as though God regrets drowning all of creation. It’s as though this also made God cry! So God blessed Noah and his family and gave them new laws to walk in. Then God announced the promise to every breathing creature, every person, every platypus, every porcupine, every pelican. I will never wipe out the world again, says the LORD. I’m choosing a new path…
But these kids don’t miss a beat! How can we believe God this time?
And you and I know they’re not wrong to ask. We know there are people who abuse their partners who promise: I will never hit you again, only to do exactly that or worse. We know there are people dealing with addiction who promise: I’m clean now, I’ll never use again, only to relapse. And maybe the promises were disingenuous from the start, or maybe the people really tried to keep them and just couldn’t. Either way, we know what it is to believe in a promise only to have it get broken, so how can we be so sure?
And what the grandmother could have told them is, we can’t. We can’t be sure. We’re not in charge of God’s choices. But faith is something more than being sure.
It’s going out and craning our necks in order to catch a glimpse of what God is dreaming for the world only to see the shimmer of color that makes the Spirit of the LORD thrill in gladness —this ribbon is shining in your soul too. It’s as though what God desires in the heart of their heart is coming into harmony with what you desire in your deepest heart, and faith is choosing to believe in this dream while it’s only fragile and brave…
But the grandma doesn’t say all that. When the kids are pressing her: How can we be sure God will make good on his promise? She turns it right around, oh yeah… When God says, he’ll never destroy the world again —what if he’s right?
So what happened was the LORD our God handed over their weapon. They decommissioned their bow and hung it in the clouds with the blessing: Never Again. Now anytime they see the rainbow, God will remember their intention. Anytime we see the rainbow and decide to believe it, we’re giving our power to the promise of God.
These days, there’s rising interest in re-imagining the work of policing. If you’ve been following recent events of the Rock Island City Council then you know. Communities like ours are engaging in meaningful conversation about the purpose of police, and the Church has a stake in this discussion.
Around the nation, police departments are being challenged to re-evaluate appropriate use of force. Under the federal Program Ten Thirty-Three, police departments have been eligible to receive surplus materials from the military including weapons designed for war. In recent months, there’s been an outcry to discontinue this program. Last summer the United Church of Christ was a signatory on a letter to congress urging this action.1https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/01/rights-groups-urge-us-congress-end-1033-program-demilitarize-police#_ftn12
These days reformers are calling for a re-balancing in police training so that more hours are devoted to strategies for de-escalation. According to an article in the Harvard Political Review by David Gutierrez, on average, police departments require sixty hours of firearms training while offering only eight hours of training in conflict mediation.2https://iop.harvard.edu/get-involved/harvard-political-review/why-police-training-must-be-reformed
Alongside equipping police officers with skills and tools for nonviolence, there’s a push for officers to collaborate with social workers and for communities to increase mental health resources. Now when someone is in distress, the police have more options than simply making an arrest.
In some cities, law enforcement agencies are pursuing these initiatives on their own. For example, last summer, the Moline Police Department reached out to the Center for Youth and Family Solutions to establish a partnership between police officers and social workers. Of course, on the other hand, some of these reforms are being imposed on departments like it or not. Either way, we can understand how heading down this path could seem risky.
There’s no evidence that Program Ten Thirty-Three makes communities safer. At the same time, it’s a tall order to ask police departments to give up their weapons! Surely, they’ve got to worry that this could change their public perception. What if this makes them look weak? What if they lose authority?
Only thing is… What if exactly the opposite happens?
It could be this is where the Church has something to offer because we know: Choosing to disarm is not an act of defeat. It is an act of power. We know if police begin to claim peacemaking as their priority, well that happens to be our mission too, now we’re on the same team. Authority is earned by trust, not by force. When we see the police beginning to take steps toward nonviolence, imagine if that could earn our trust, and imagine if the Church could help foster these efforts…
Every Juneteenth celebration chips away at slavery and makes the promise of liberation that much more vivid.
Every act of police reform that prioritizes compassion more than compliance, this makes the promise of peacemaking that much more clear and present. You’re right, it’s true: We’re not free from violence until we know it, but what if we know it… This is our faith.
Every rainbow reminds the LORD our God that she doesn’t have to wipe out the world again, because who knows, maybe the people will turn away from their wickedness and learn how to set each other free. Maybe they’ll see the rainbow too and maybe…
Maybe we’ll believe it! May it be so.