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.

Lessons Taught, Lessons Bought

By Julian DeShazier

Growing up, my mother used to always advise me, “Son, better a lesson taught than a lesson bought.” The meaning is plain: mistakes are expensive, and it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own. So growing up I learned the easy way from folks that learned the hard way – thru “run-ins”, addictions – I never judged, especially when I learned that some communities are designed by Evil to make these mistakes and pass them down for a guaranteed exploitable working class. No judgment: I just didn’t want to end up like that. Mistakes avoided: Lessons taught.

And then…I went to Morehouse.

You may not know what happens at Morehouse and I won’t tell you here, but the immediate confidence boost mixed with a deep and protracted insecurity in some strange ways. Almost immediately I started making mistakes of epic proportions: my first sermon I ever preached got me banned from preaching (and saved my life!); a relationship went sour, and got me blacklisted from Spelman for a year; plenty of moments where I grew leaps and bounds and paid for it dearly. Mistakes made: Lessons bought.

Pastoring is a little bit of both. There are many mistakes I don’t make because I learned from others that did (names that, if I told them to you, you’d know there are hundreds of years of wisdom and experience I’ve had poured into me). There are some mistakes that would be outright inexcusable for me to repeat; it would be an insult to my elders. So we’ve done well together, and that’s supposed to be the case when you’ve had lessons taught.

And as we’ve moved into new terrain as a faith community, I’ve sure bought some lessons as well…

Like the time one person dragged me behind the woodshed about all this “walking with God.”

Or the time another person warned that I used a phrase that wasn’t sensitive to folks wrestling with body dysmorphia.

Or recently, when in a celebration of women I too flatly turned it into a celebration of “mothers”, which brings its pain and, quite frankly, could be seen as me participating in patriarchy. Now the person bringing it to me knows damn well that’s not my intent, and was glad to hear the cultural reasons I use “mother” so broadly (almost every woman is a mother to me), but they were right: it’s something I have to be sensitive toward in a community that asks people to show up as their authentic selves.

Many, many other lessons bought that I won’t include here. Suffice it to say: 2018 grew me up a great deal, and I’m still healing from the heavy, heavy cost of mistakes made trying to love.

That hits home, doesn’t it? Mistakes made trying to love. Lessons learned trying to do the right thing…Learning that what we have learned – as a behavior – may not be appropriate within whatever particular context. If you use it right, community can be a place that grows you up with speed and grace.

I’m talking about “growing up” now in the Howard Thurman-via-Revelations sense, where “A crown is placed above our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.”

Or it can be a place that turns you more defensive.
Or more bitter.
Or confirms your assumptions about men, or black people, or white people, or rich/poor people, or power, or religion, or whatever thing you-know-that-you-know…

Because we don’t know anything, and a good community can show us how little we know, how inadequate our cultural upbringing was at teaching us everything (was it supposed to do that?), and how ready God is to teach us what it means to be disciples, how to live faithfully, and how to ground our being in curiosity and love.

This week, as Lent begins, think about how you can make room for God in your life to have judgment replaced with curiosity, have bitterness replaced with love, have busyness replaced with care for the self, have anxiety replaced with faithfulness.

Jesus looked at his disciples, after they could not heal in Luke 9 and said, “You faithless and perverse generation.” To his DISCIPLES he said this!!!

Indeed, Jesus. Indeed. Hopefully soon we will all be able to say…

Lesson learned.




Some time ago my uncle had a house in Gary, Indiana that needed major rehabbing. Though he tapped me — a lazy teenager — to help with these renovations, I still believe my uncle is a decent man. There is nothing on Earth lazier than I was at 13 years old: if it didn’t happen in a classroom or on the baseball field, for my taste it was totally superfluous (read: Why God are  you making me scrape tile from this floor?). In a million lifetimes I will never forget yelling at that forsaken device mislabeled a “tile scraper,” cursing its maker for being so inept.

The day I built enough courage to quit I went to my uncle in tears, hands outstretched towards him to return his infernal scraper. “This thing is no good,” I had calmed myself enough to say, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” My uncle got up from whatever important thing he was doing, walked to the bathroom, placed the scraper on the floor, and swiftly removed the remaining shards of tile. Seriously. He then turned to me, handed over the scraper and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this tool. Just have to use it the right way.”

That statement, my friends, is what you call a “homerun” (in case you were wondering). My uncle was spot-on:  there was nothing wrong with the tool but I was using it wrong. Results come when we use tools in the right way. The tool itself possesses no inherent goodness (or malevolence). It is like a gun that can start a race…or start a war.

One tool in particular has, since its inception, sparked more moral debate than perhaps any other invention in human history: THE INTERNET. One day I was arguing with a friend about whether The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was an actual album or a compilation of b-sides: the internet settled this life-changing debate for us. I can rate doctors and hotels, and find cheap airline tickets: awesome and awesome. But to highlight the ambiguity: I can participate in the denigration of women by watching hours of pornography, and I can copy-and-paste an entire paper for class. Studies have shown that intellectual plagiarism is at an all-time high, while the private life — once held sacred and inalienable — has all but disappeared. The Internet didn’t do a thing: WE DID THIS.

The Internet has never been a stronger or more reliable tool than perhaps over the past couple of weeks, when it was the center of a revolution story in Egypt. The people, tired of their leader, had written revolution songs and made appeals via…the Internet. The movement became so strong that the government SHUT DOWN the Internet, but the people got it back. Then they documented their mostly-passive protest via…the Internet. Most of us were kept current of Egypt’s happenings via…the Internet. Through the web Egyptians were able to create a network of supporters so strong that, seriously everyone knew that Mubarak was going to resign. The struggle of a city on the other side of the world became a local reality, and morphed into an international philosophical debate on democracy…through the Internet. The Internet was how we were able to keep in contact with members of University Church who are living in Egypt RIGHT NOW!

I am impressed but more importantly convinced that every tool has the potential to become a gift. This is why I look at humanity and cannot dare to judge a single life. Indeed, it is why we ought to take a serious look at developing our gifts. For our knowledge and experience is a tool…what if each of us used our tools to their fullest capacity?

Part of my work as a pastor is to help our community be attuned to our spiritual gifts and how we can make better use of them. For throughout history God has taken “tools” thought of for one purpose, then endowed them with the Holy Spirit to do totally new works through them! Take David the shepherd or Jesus the carpenter for instance:  I bet David was a pretty good shepherd, but he had more to offer. The farmer cultivates crops while they are yet underground in a belief that the seed has more to offer. In the same way I believe each of us has more to offer, and I’m hoping we will take the time to cultivate dreams and gifts for the life of our community. Now is the time to prepare (that is what we’ll be doing at the church-wide retreat, March 18-20), and while it is still cold we can ask:  “What more can I be used for?”  “How have I been misused over the years?”

There are some rusty tools that need re-sharpening, and some new tools we haven’t discovered yet! Exciting times we live in!

Your “tool” (in the good way),
 Pastor Julian

Growing Up on Being Gay (a tale of evolution from a straight man)

Growing Up on Being Gay (a tale of evolution from a straight man)

by Julian DeShazier

February 2014, University of Missouri football player Michael Sam came out as gay, and he’s a good enough football player that we can say now that he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL. Besides being another good story line in the soap opera that has become ESPN, his coming out will inspire, well, a range of comments from religious folk. We should look at all of them, because there’s about to be a LOT of righteous talking in the days to come, and you should know where you stand.
I know where I once stood. I was a baptist teenager who was taught that sex belonged between male and female. Except I wasn’t taught that at all…it was mostly assumed. And there were gay people in the church and it was an open secret, including now openly gay friends of mine who I knew even back then were gay. I never really cared, but I also never really knew what I felt about an issue that people always want you to feel some kinda way about. And same gender love is one of those issues that has never been an issue until someone told me I had to make a decision about this.

So I am responding today because the current urging for gay rights in American culture has become so ubiquitous. I am responding to the people in my industry who blacklisted me at the height of my career over the song I wrote for Obama back in 2008, refusing to see metaphor or how I support a man who support ______. [He was a black man from Chicago poised to lead the country. Whatever proves of his legacy, don’t overthink it

] I am responding to people who’ve said I’m soft on sin, and most of all, I am responding to people who honestly don’t know WHERE THEY ARE on this issue.

Let me help you with a few options. You are probably either in the…
–“I won’t judge” camp…or, “he without sin cast the first stone,” or, “I think it’s wrong but everybody has their sin, so who am I?”, or, “God loveseverybody, so will I.”
or the…
–“Kinda judgy” camp…or, “God calls us to be righteous, so we must stand against wickedness,” or, “I’m wrong to let you live wrong,” or, “Correction is a form of love too.”
or the…
–“I have no clue” camp…or, “I really have no idea how to feel about this but I know a lot of gay people, and they seem OK,” or, “What’s the big deal?”, or, “True love for each other isn’t concerned with this.”
or the…
–The “It’s not wrong” camp…or, “you should actually read the Bible because that’s not what it says,” or, “I’m gay, so leave me alone,” or, “Loveme and leave me alone.”

I was in the 2nd, then the 1st, then the 4th, and now the 3rd.

There’s no coincidence that all parties, even in disagreement, are concerned about what it means to love. This is the quintessential question of Christianity, emphasized by Jesus boiling down ALL the commandments (even the ones in Leviticus, but we’ll get to that) to a singular three-pronged commandment that deals with love (God–neighbor–self).

Confession: I don’t know what camp I’m in. I realized this when I filmed a spot for a urban video Bible, and after we were done the director called me [after hearing that I pastored at an Open & Affirming church, or after reading my response to Obama’s “evolution” on gay marriage, or whatever…he didn’t say]. He wanted to know “where I stood” on this, to see if we could continue working together. **ASIDE** Christian Hip Hop is an intense place, mostly holding values that many would call conservative — the irony of this being “hip hop” is an entirely different article, but is not lost on me.

I told my good friend that I “wasn’t sure,” because I had taken a look at the scriptures myself, and I did not take them as EVIDENCE AGAINST homosexuality. I also saw other scriptures that named man and woman (Genesis), but did not condemn the alternatives. [In other words: when I say “Toyotas are good,” you can’t say I said, “Acuras are bad.” That is a simple logical fallacy called the Argument from Silence — when we draw conclusions from the absence of statements. Can’t do that.] So even if EVERY example in the Bible is of a man/woman relationship, this is still insufficient as evidence against same sex love.

I then said I wanted to read the Bible with humility, meaning that I see a text and don’t pretend I know what it means, or that the ancient context suits my context, or that the authors (yes, multiple and people) didn’t have the literary tools we have today, which further obscures knowing what a text MEANS or even SAYS.

So the director shared with me scriptures that were “clear” to him, and I said, “I’m not sure I agree with you on how clear that is,” and he said, “I’m not sure we can work together.”

The video Bible is out, and I’m not on it.

What I call humility he called relativism, and I respect his desire to maintain the integrity of the Bible. I respect yours. I also think “I don’t know” is a perfectly fine answer to the question of homosexuality in the Bible.

So what does the Bible say? I won’t pretend to be thorough here. If you need that, stop now and read Peter Gomes’ The Good Book (1996), and especially his chapter on homosexuality. He moves through all the scriptures that are famously used in support of traditional values, and he raises great concern with each of them. (He was also openly gay, but focus for now on him being one of the best bible scholars in the world). I read that chapter and was forced from mostly ignorant biblical literacy to a place of deep understanding.

I realized that Sodom was about hospitality, not gayness…the men who try to have sex with the visitors at the gate condemn the entire city because of their lack of hospitality to the stranger. Jesus says as much in Matthew 10 and Luke 10. Sodomites are those who do not provide welcome, a tragic irony for Christians who bash gays and quote the Sin of Sodom. “Sodomy” incorrectly alludes to anal sex; it should allude to our immigration laws.

I realized that Paul is not writing about homosexuality, per se, but about self-worship and people who give up their “normal state” to be like the fold. In Paul’s world of Corinth, men who loved women were loving men because of the cultures values. He ABHORRED this, and so do I. Love who you are, even if it inconveniences others, but in all things: authenticity. IF Paul was condemning same gender love as we know it — IF — then he was still responding to a perverse version of it. Sex as he was witnessing it was corrupt (and most sex, not just the gay type, if you peep his views on marriage) What would Paul or Jesus say about two monogamous, loving, and faithful people of the same gender? We don’t know.

Here’s the rub: I love me some Hebrew Bible. And Judaism (in the HB/OT) is primarily concerned with cultural identity as tied to family, or “protecting Jewishness.” So, sex? Yes, for procreation and making more Jewish babies. Inter-racial marriage?  Hell no. Dilutes Jewish bloodlines, endangers the covenant. Same-sex marriage?  Hell no. Doesn’t make Jewish babies. [This needs a significant footnote, but the “hell no” is my emphasis, because they meant it THAT MUCH]. This is for GOOD REASON they feel this way; they want the protection and “chosen” status of YHWH. But Christianity decidedly expands the covenant beyond Israel – PAUL DOES THIS – and what happens to those commandments??? What happens to those abominations???

(SPOILER) ANYTHING that threatened Jewishness was an ABOMINATION, and you can speak today with a young Jewish girl about what would happen if she brought a black man into her orthodox Jewish parents’ home, or the taboo of infertile women.
*that above paragraph is waaay too short.

So context does matter, and ethnic identity is a profound concern for me as a black man, and I like babies. Something feels right about fatherhood for me. But then there’s adoption, unimaginable in the Bible (well, the Book of Ruth???), and there are new ways to define family. And what is not present at all in the Bible has become, thanks to Michael Sam and many courageous others, a question before us.

Or is it a question at all? Who am I to judge??? is one thing, but Who am I to decide what’s RIGHT and WRONG???

I can’t read the Bible literally because it would ask me to hate myself. Any non-Jew understands me, and I can only read and appreciate Jewish privilege in context.

I love humanity and want to give each person their full dignity, as I imagine God does. This is a dignity that includes but is not exclusive to sexuality. I really don’t care that you like women, whether you are reading this as a man or woman. Put it this way: I care, but only as much as I care about the other spheres of your life that make you YOU. I hope that you discovered your truth with integrity, and I hope that whatever you are, you can bring that to your God with confidence and faithfulness. Proper sexuality is a HUMAN concern, not a gay one, and I believe THAT is what Paul was getting at.

If it sounds like relativity, you know better than to think I’m saying, “Whatever you want to do, go for it.” Your happiness means nothing to me. Your integrity in Christ means the world to me. And if that means you are gay, I’d love to have a conversation of how you came to know that. I ask “straight” teenagers the same question all the time.

Righteousness to me is not about right and wrong, and lording over that, but about humility in our approach to life and others. It’s about knowing that something greater than us exists above/around/within us, and knows more than we do, and is constantly flipping the script.

We need to learn to say “I don’t know” more, and see what new possibilities come in the conversation. Michael Sam gives other youth the courage to be themselves, and for that he deserves acclaim. Macklemore gives other youth the courage to be themselves, and for that he deserves acclaim. Righteous moves. And if we are wrong, may GOD find ways to correct us.