Slavery & The Bible: Why Christians Need To Celebrate Juneteenth

You were made in the image of God.

I was made in the image of God.

African men and women who were ripped from their homes, herded into ships, and forced to become slaves in America were made in the image of God.

Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) is the day we remember Union soldiers arriving in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier, but because Robert E. Lee didn't surrender until the middle of 1865, slaves in the South had to wait for their freedom. Months later, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery nationwide.

But why is Juneteenth important to Christians, especially white Christians? And why should all Americans honor it alongside our Black brothers and sisters?

The easy answer is... slavery is wrong

Both the Old Testament and New Testament condemn the kind of slavery that was common in the early Americas. In Exodus 21:16, the Lord condemns “man-stealing” which is just what it sounds like — kidnapping someone and forcing them into your service. The punishment for “man-stealing” was death. God took it seriously from the onset.

And then later in the New Testament, Paul condemns “enslavers” as being contrary to the Law of God and facing the condemnation of God (1 Timothy 1:10). When Paul says "enslavers" he is referencing the same type of slavery that Exodus was referencing. Beginning to end, Old Testament to New Testament... forcing men and women into slavery is against the will of God.

But didn't the Bible support slavery?

In a word: No.

American slave masters in the 17th century twisted Scripture like Paul's epistle to Philemon to fit their racist worldview. 

You see, Paul was writing during a time when people sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts. And once the debt was paid, the slave was free. In the first century, when Paul wrote Philemon, slaves were not forced into labor, they weren't kidnapped, they were paid fairly (or more fairly than Black slaves in early America), and it wasn't based on race or ethnicity or social status.

And under Roman law, a slave could be punished (or even killed) for running away. Paul asking Onesimus (the slave) to return to Philemon (the owner) was a scary scenario.

But white slave masters and slave owners in America either didn't understand that nuance (less likely) or benefitted from slave labor so much they simply overlooked that fact (more likely).

And we're still getting it wrong, brothers and sisters

Growing up in the South, my early history textbooks were filled with stories about American slavery that made white slave owners sound like fair, merciful masters and Black slaves as people earning room and board in a new, better country.

And I'm not alone. These are just a few of the findings from Vox Media in the last decade:

A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery,” found that more than half of teachers (58 percent) polled weren’t happy with their textbooks and almost 40 percent said that their state offered little or no support for teaching about slavery.
 
And in 2012, an Atlanta elementary school posed this homework question: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week? Two weeks?” And just last year, San Antonio, Texas parents complained about a history homework assignment that asked eighth graders to list positive and negative aspects of slavery. Turns out the activity was directly tied to a textbook used by the school for about 10 years. Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States argued that all slaveowners were not cruel: “a few [slaves] never felt the lash,” and “many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.”

Kids trust their teachers and their textbooks. They don't have the critical thinking skills needed to look at these lessons and ask themselves: "Is this right? Is this really what slavery was like?"

I know I didn't. And it took me going to college and having (hard) conversations with friends and classmates to wise up to the fact that I had been handed an incomplete history.

But it's not too late

There are ways you can pray and engage with Juneteenth this year. Here are some helpful tips from United We Pray:

    1. Thank the Lord for how He has used His people in the past to oppose injustice and abolish institutions like slavery. 

    2. Pray for eyes to see, a heart that hates, and a voice that is willing to speak out against any injustice against anyone made in God’s image, even if that injustice was created to benefit you.

    3. Pray the Lord would bring the unity that Jesus prayed for (John 17:22) and died for (Ephesians 2:14) to His church in America.