Juneteeth & Emotional Freedom

Juneteeth & Emotional Freedom

by Julian DeShazier


In 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there were still slaves in Galveston, TX who had not heard about their freedom. A group of Union troops came to deliver the news, and the last slaves were finally freed. This under-noticed occasion should be celebrated as a holy day in American history – I’ve gone on record many times crusading for Juneteenth to be a national holiday – and there is much wisdom to be found in our recognizing it now.

First, it’s important to debunk any romanticized notion that after they got the news, the newly freed slaves all dropped their tools and started partying in the middle of the field. All of our records re: the response after June 19, 1865, indicate a decidedly mixed reaction from the newly freed Galvestonians. This is not hard to imagine – have you ever received overwhelming news before? – some were overjoyed, others frightened at what this freedom meant for their new life (sounds like the disciples post-Resurrection), and many, many, many people simply went back to work. Even though they weren’t in bondage, they continued to work and live like slaves. They chose captivity because, of course, they saw no other options. But they were free.

Freedom is a complicated reality.

Of course, America making Juneteenth a national holiday presents a tragic irony because slavery is in no way dead. Debt continues to bind poor people to powerful institutions, wealth still depends upon exploitation, and non-white bodies are still etched in the American iconography as “workers.” (Oprah: look how hard she had to work! Bill Gates: look how smart he is!) The fact that black wealth and success is still seen as exceptional is proof enough that, if slavery is indeed dead, it “died” as a caterpillar dies to become a butterfly.

By all means, we need to work on these institutions that reinforce slave realities – the criminal justice system, the divorce of “Body” from “Spirit” (so the body can be exploited without losing one’s righteousness), the rejection of black ownership (from property to the right to vote) – and recognize that these among many other realities keep us enslaved to racism: free, but still captive.

But there’s an internal freedom that is threatened on an almost daily basis as well. These are your emotions, and we (all of us) have people that fuse to us emotionally, whether they say mean things, or simply want us to feel what they are feeling. They want to share their hurt, maybe because they think you hurt them, or because they don’t trust they can hold those emotions on their own. They know what to say to get you. The cliché is “misery loves company” but there’s wisdom there: some people want to hold you captive (because they are sociopaths) or need to hold you captive (because they are insecure). It is a common trait/tactic found in abusive relationships and I’ve experienced it personally (in case you’re wondering, yes, it is quite common/expected for pastors to be held responsible for people’s own emotional systems). So I’ve been a hostage before, and I’ve also been a captor in my own personal relationships.

Truly, frustratingly, I’ve been a slave to emotions and responses that were in no way healthy for me, and it had NOTHING to do with another person: I held it and nurtured it myself. I’ve had conversations in the shower with people that weren’t there, multiple strands of the same conversation (“if they say this, I will say this”). I’m not talking about debate prep here, folks: I’m talking about being an emotional hostage, giving my peace over to another person or situation.

Don’t laugh at me: freedom is a complicated reality.

But the truth is as easy to comprehend and difficult to realize as Juneteenth itself: YOU. ARE. FREE. Some people and situations have a special kind of access to your emotional/spiritual system, but you are free to feel what you need, to protect yourself, and to not be scolded for your feelings. You are free to ask, “What is going on with ME to create this response and do I want to live this way?”

Your body is free and belongs to you. You are free to ignore the trap being set for you, without hating the person setting it, or perhaps even finding compassion for them. Remember what Christ said when you feel a hostage situation approaching: “They know not what they do.” You are free.

As a liberation theologian I can’t emphasize this next point enough: I’m not saying if you feel violated that’s your fault, or that you should never share with those you feel violated by. Nor am I abdicating the responsibility of the traumatic experience. I am simply inviting you to share responsibility, as the writer of Proverbs 4 does (“Guard your heart; everything you do flows from it”), or Philippians 4 (“The Peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”), or John 14 (“Do not let your hearts be troubled”), or Galatians 5 (the Fruits of the Spirit, which have no law against them and nothing to prevent them from existing deep within us)…

…or Howard Thurman, who described freedom as “the ability to deal with the realities of one’s own situation so as to not be overcome by them.” They are all sharing the same, difficult Gospel: in affliction, yet we remain FREE in spirit, held accountable by an all-loving God to protect our spiritual and emotional independence.

What may be triggered by outside is also nurtured within, and until we find the courage to seek help – therapy, abuse and violence resources, better boundaries – not to help THEM but to HELP OURSELVES AS FAITHFUL ACTION (!!!)…until then we will be freed slaves still going about the work of our masters. If you need help, or don’t feel safe, no more violence: reach out and let your church find you some resources to help. If you are reading this, you know we will do this.

Because you are free. God has made it so, and we are still finding out years later. I’m so grateful for today’s reminder. Happy Juneteenth.

God, thank you for making me free. Thank you for making me, beautifully and wonderfully, and for your Spirit reminding me that nothing has happened, or will happen, that can remove me from the freedom found in you. I don’t want to be enslaved by the past or even by people I love dearly; I want to live free in you. Amen.