Juneteenth as a holiday recalls the liberation of slaves in Texas when federal troops finally arrived after the Civil War. But it also signifies the advance of Christian civilization with its ethos of equality and human dignity.
That advance, amid the swirl and bile of human depravity, is long and crooked. In its valleys and bends it’s not always discernible. Sometimes it needs a mountaintop perspective.
Some Texas slaves in June 1865 celebrated. But others did not learn for many months, as masters hid news of their liberation. Some masters smuggled their slaves to Cuba or Brazil, where slavery continued another two decades. Others spitefully killed their slaves. Most slaves, lacking clear alternatives, stayed with their masters, as ostensibly free laborers but not with improved conditions.
Such are the cranky wheels of human progress. Slavery existed for thousands of years without much serious moral critique. The Christian ethos slowly eliminated it in Europe by the Middle Ages. How could Christians enslave their brothers and sisters in faith? But demonic justifications allowed for a new slavery based on race, as Europeans bought Africans from other Africans for transport across the Atlantic. After all, these Africans were not Christians. Arab slave traders likewise reasoned about non-Muslims.
Pennsylvania Quakers in the mid-1700s were among the first to argue publicly for eliminating slavery universally. After all, isn’t God universal, and aren’t all his creatures equally His image bearers? These idealist Quakers were marginal but persistent. Methodists and other evangelicals in England later adopted their themes, joined by non-religious and religiously heterodox social reformers who accepted the Christian understanding of human equality.
The Great Awakening, with its stress on everyone’s capacity to know and experience God intimately, accelerated the anti-slavery movement and inspired black Christians, especially clergy, to make public arguments. A cause considered radical became mainstream, at least in the north, killing one political party and creating another. Lincoln’s party, when elected in 1860, not daring to dispute slavery where existing but opposing its expansion, never dreamed that within five years the Constitution would ban it everywhere in America, at the price of 700,000 dead.
U.S. abolition made abolition in Latin America inevitable. British colonialism, driven by idealism and greed, helped eliminate slavery in Africa and most of Asia. Saudi Arabia banned slavery in the 1960s. Mauritania was the country to do so in 1981.
Freed slaves did not become socially or even legally equal in law anywhere. That process unfolded across centuries and decades and still unfolds. Western and global culture in many ways has been defined by this unfolding. It is driven by the Christian ethos that assumes each person is intrinsically as valuable as everybody else.
It’s an irony and a sort of victory that many persons who are religiously skeptical or even sharply opposed to Christianity are among the loudest advocates for human equality. They cannot really explain the justification for their dogmatic claims, yet onward they push, sometimes doing God’s work despite themselves. Providential progress deploys unlikely hands, and often relies on struggles among peoples unaware of how their labors will advance human equality.
In its self-absorption, fallen humanity is often unaware of ongoing providential progress and will even loudly reject the premise. There is odd self-satisfied comfort in believing instead that the Devil is actually prevailing in all fronts. Some devout prefer to believe that God’s victory is only distant, or that His vision is only for apocalyptic judgment with redemption for perhaps only a few.
With similar if not greater myopia, many secularists insist there is human progress but based on invisible laws of history whose advance is irrational and inexplicable. They are often surprised by unscheduled setbacks and disasters.
Christian providentialism expects disasters, failures, surprises. Human cupidity has no limits, but even more so neither does God’s mercy. There’s no reason for human slavery not to have continued indefinitely. Its defeat was, by historical standards, almost rather sudden and unexpected. Why should anyone not exploit others if able to do so?
The Christian ethos of human equality is more powerfully subversive than any system of human exploitation. Christianity worships a man who was a victim, abused more than any other, degraded, and executed. He preached that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Under God’s justice, the victimizer will serve the victim.
This message contravenes human interests and wisdom, yet it surpasses and outflanks both. It can be resisted for a time, yet it ultimately bursts forth and drowns the resistance. Slave owners once sat at the apex of society. Now they are gone, and their slaves are historically exalted as icons of injustice and survival.
Juneteenth is a providential holiday reminding us that no oppression endures, while God’s justice does not sleep but sometimes waits. The spirit of Juneteenth is the most powerful political force in the world. Let’s see what it does next.