by the Rev. Dr. Lisa Fortuna
As the Gospel of Luke tells, it, at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…
He reads to the people from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah the same words that we just heard: “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Then Jesus proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” According to scripture, this was not well-received Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes. He was not able to do healings in that place and the people could not see a new future—they were enraged. In fact, they were keen on pushing Jesus off a cliff.
As we now mark and celebrate the Juneteenth holiday, otherwise known as the day of Jubilee, Liberation Day–What does the fulfillment of Black freedom look like? What does the fulfillment of our freedom look like, and how do we find our way there? Black liberation is a destination notyet reached (AND deeply threatening, unsettling for some, ), yet Black America celebrates the freedoms we have in our joy, in our dreams, in the little ways of everyday living as we fight for true equity and full emancipation.
Firstly, liberation requires freedom from the persistent bondage of our bodies.
In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem speaks about how emancipation was an opportunity to begin to see black bodies as different. He writes, “In the enslavement era, colonists created whiteness which enabled them to soothe dissonance among white bodies: to delegitimize, dehumanize, and totemize Black bodies; to create a culture of white body supremacy; and to build institutions, processes and relationships that maintained this culture. The white body became standardized, normal body; other bodies, especially Black bodies, were defined as aberrant” (p. 73).1
When the thirteenth amendment was ratified and enslavement became illegal in 1865, “there was a brief period in which some racial barriers fell, and white bodies began to struggle with accepting Black bodies as normal and human –this trend reversed sharply in the south in 1877, when the first Jim Crow laws were enacted—enforcing the segregation of Black and white bodies, thus renewing and legitimizing the war on Black bodies—notably lynching of thousands of Black bodies” (p. 73). 1
Forty acres and a mule was supposed to be the resources granted to every slave to help them transition from slave to free person. We realize that black ancestors did not get their forty acres and a mule but were mainly the recipients of one empty promise after another. However, there were those who knew that resources must support freedom for slaves and so there were white allies and in the civil right movements later, again critical white allies, including the freedom riders.
It is 2021, 154 years since Emancipation and The Covid-19 pandemic– wounding down- yet in a recent survey 31 percent of black adults said they knew someone who had died from Covid-19, compared with 9 percent who were white. How will we respond? The opportunities that are presenting themselves to us as individuals, as a church, and as a nation will be with us for some time. We stand this morning between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July—two celebrations of freedom, one until now largely ignored, the other a national holiday long observed. In this in-between time, we can explore how we might use freedom to move our nation and ourselves toward the more perfect union.
Let us begin with reflecting on Independence Day. In a speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; 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, 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 denunciation 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” He further says, “The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in its connection with its ability to abolish slavery.” 2
He quoted the Presbyterian theologian, Albert Barnes, who said, “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”3
When the Civil War ended, it was not until June 19, 1865—thirteen years after Douglass’ chastising speech, that the abolition of slavery was announced in Texas. Juneteenth marks that announcement and more generally the end of slavery in the Confederate South. Of course, it wasn’t until the 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 18, 1865, that slavery was abolished in Kentucky and Delaware—slave states that had not left the Union and therefore weren’t covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. 3
Independence, freedom, equality came with struggle, with opposition, black and white struggle. People fought a Civil War, marched for women’s suffrage, faced jail and injustice and violence and murder, debated and voted and petitioned and protested out of the faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For black America—the African diaspora–every piece of freedom ever won has freed others–meaning Black liberation will liberate everyone.
This morning as we continue to hear reports of new incidents of police violence and racism, one feels those words with which Douglass calls the church into account could have been written last week.
This is where we can look to Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit ( 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 ).
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, we stand this morning between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July—two celebrations of freedom, one until now largely ignored and now a national holiday, one longstanding since the birth of our nation. We are not held captive to the past but are set free to explore new ways of faith and action. The gift of freedom is the ability to choose and shape a new future. Such freedom is central to the good news that Jesus announced.
The Rev. William Barber II, of the People’s Movement has called us to move further, beyond a Juneteenth holiday, and has asked, “how about we go further and pass healthcare and living wages for all, a fully restored Voting Rights Act and reparations?” “Let’s make it a holy day of repentance & reconstruction. How about we go further?”
There is still so much work to be done. Much of it is not flashy or attention grabbing. It is getting out the vote. It means doing the hard work of policymaking.
It is abolition of all things that bind black bodies, imprison black bodies, police black bodies, black children, black families…abolishing what binds us.
Mayou Angelou, in her poem, On the pulse of the Morning4, offers a prophetic message on just this idea of a new dawn of opportunity for freedom. She writes.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, Need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon The day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream. Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into the image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.
My Brothers and sisters,
Remember, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Bring good news to the oppressed and brokenhearted
Comfort those who mourn.
Proclaim liberty to the captives and the year of God’s favor.
Nurture and defend that freedom for all people.
Continue the work begun in Christ.
- Menakem, R (2017), My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press.
- The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860 Philip S. Foner, International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950
- Barnes, Albert. The Church and Slavery. Philadelphia: Parry and McMillan, 1857. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities, 1969.
- Angelou, M. (1993). On the pulse of morning.