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A 'Double Heartedness' View of Juneteenth
The following is a reflection by Rev. Dr. Johnathan Richardson, Pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in New Orleans.
Being a Christian who is Black is a strange adventure not without its struggles. However, pertaining to Juneteenth, there is a benefit.
Juneteenth when Americans, specifically African Americans, commemorate the time when, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, those enslaved descendants of Africa residing in the far reaches of the Confederacy got word they were no longer enslaved.
In this moment, there lies an opportunity that I hope to take advantage of so that my fellow Christians may understand ourselves better in a North American context. A context, "Where people have absorbed just enough Christianity to inoculate them against the contagion by the real thing."
Some with good reason wish to dismiss the fact that Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. These detractors see President Biden's signature on the bill making Juneteenth a national holiday as an empty gesture. Citing attacks on voting rights to the debate on whether or not critical race theory should be taught in public schools, critics of the law-making Juneteenth a federal holiday are not moved.
As a man of African descent, I understand their sentiment. I, too, could join their critical chorus with some caveats of my own. At these moments, I feel most acutely what that great scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois meant when he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk about the 'double consciousness' that resides in every African American.
The content of my 'double consciousness' is, at least at this moment, not the same as in DuBois’ account based upon the fact that I am a Black man forced to navigate between what America thinks I am and my thoughts about myself. Rather my feelings about Juneteenth are complex because I am both a Black man and a Christian. Seen in this way, the dilemma I face in reflecting upon Juneteenth is a 'double heartedness' rather than a 'double consciousness'.
In a state of 'double heartedness', the struggle is not to appropriate the meaning of Juneteenth as that which attends to, in another register, the DuBoisian question such a reflection envokes in Black people. "How does it feel to be a problem?" My grappling with the idea of Juneteenth is best understood within the context of answering another question, "How does it feel to be a Black Christian within the tension that exists between church and world?" This question is at the center of my 'double heartedness'.
James Baldwin has rightly stated that History is not so much what we read or commemorate, but instead, History resides in each of us. Baldwin contends that History directs our everyday actions without our knowing. Baldwin's wisdom serves as a starting place for how Christians should find meaning in Juneteenth.
However, as a pastor, I do not have the luxury of only thinking about the psychological implications of History and our actions. If the Methodist Church is a place where we teach each other how to think theologically as we move about globally. I am called upon to guide how to do this when the historical weight of Juneteenth comes upon us.
The central question for Christians is not whether or not we should listen to African Americans' concerns that the Juneteenth holiday ingenders? We should. Nor should the ultimate question be if Juneteenth exposes the value gap that exists between American History as African American History and American History proper? It does.
The vital question should be how are believers in Jesus Christ to ascertain that type of thinking which makes these questions possible? Of import is that Juneteenth and the questions and critiques its existence poses should serve as a moment of reflection upon whether or not Christians have been faithful in conveying in the social space where we stand regarding the telling of time.
One area of concern that the Juneteenth holiday makes paramount in the hearts and minds of those formed by God's story is, have we left too much to chance where the issues of how faith and History relate? Perhaps the fact that Christians have been tossed to and fro by every wind of cultural doctrine concerning Juneteenth exposes a dearth of understanding of how Christians view time.
Perhaps the meaning of Juneteenth and the discomfort or unease that accompanies it is an indictment upon how we have left our culture without the tools needed to effectively live under the claim that all time is time we have been given.
Therefore, Juneteenth reminds us that we have not adequately reckoned with the notion that not only have we used this gift of time without witness to Christ, but we do everything we can to deny that time is a gift in the first place. I wonder maybe that the real meaning of Juneteenth and our varied reactions to it if we react at all, lies in the fact that we do not know where our memories should abide. We use our memories to provide us false comfort as a means to cope with the fact that the histories working themselves out within us are not of our own choosing.
My heart remains in a doubled state as I work through the Christian meaning of Juneteenth. One thing I am sure of is that faith and time relationships are essential to how Christians account for the church's witness in our world. Since, according to Baldwin, Juneteenth lives inside of us. I hope we begin to adopt practices of Christian formation that equip us in such a way that we may orient Juneteenth's internal presence towards a more robust witness to the truth of the gospel.
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