Jubilee & Juneteenth

6 07 2006

Okay, I am a month late with this, but bear with me:
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln that slaves in all slaveholding states that were at war with the union would be set free on January 1, 1863. Freedmen (i.e., free blacks, usually in the northern states) in the North went to their churches in droves on December 31, 1862 to have WatchNight services, where they would “watch” for freedom.

However, the message of freedom did not reach the slaves in Galveston, Texas until June 19, 1863. To this date, the sons and daughters of former slaves in this country celebrate “Juneteenth” (as the freed slaves in Galveston came to call that special day) on annual basis. It is a huge deal here in humble Oberlin, Ohio, the center of abolitionism back in the day.

The watch words on the mouths of the freedmen in the north when they first heard the rumor that the slaves would be set free, as well as the slaves finally hearing about the Proclamation, was, “This is the Year of Jubilee!”. They were referring to a passage in Leviticus 25 that spoke of debts being canceled and slaves going free. This was exciting indeed but based on poor exegesis, because verses 44-46 has God saying that it is okay for His covenant people to own slaves, but not of their fellow Hebrews, but only from amongst the gentiles. A fellow Hebrew could only be a bond servant, but would have to be set free during the Year of Jubilee.

However, this all flip flops in the New Testament where Jesus develops a new community and new people whom He calls His Church. Now, all of us who claim Jesus as Master are part of the covenant community.  This means that God’s original intention for Jubilee is to set everything right for everyone. There are not to be any slaves at all, and God wants all of His people to be heirs of the Kingdom, not debtors or slaves to the State.

Jubilee then is about a new kind of community based on right relationships and justice. So those former slaves actually had it right.

In a deeper sense, Jubilee is about reconciliation between God and us, and with one another. It is the dropping of barriers between Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and  female, illegal immigrant and citizen. Jubile is really about the Kingdom and Jesus’ Reign. This is why Jesus died, to bring us to God and to one another.

I really believe that for us to truly understand the meaning of the Kingdom and the purpose behind the very idea of Church, we must lean into what Jubilee and Pentecost are really about. If we are not reconciled in every sense of that word then we are not really being the Church that we are called to be.

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