A commemorative plaque in Galveston, Texas, highlights Juneteenth; erected by the Galveston Historical Foundation and Texas Historical Commission. PHOTO BY WILLIAM C. TELLER/CREATIVE COMMONS

Commentary

Faithful, Watchful Citizens: Celebrating freedom and denouncing bondage

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” in states that were yet in rebellion against the United States “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free[.]” Yet, these historic words would remain ineffective in the State of Texas for another two years. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived with his troops into Galveston further declaring that “in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

While this day was met with great joy and celebration by those held in the captivity and barbarity of slavery, those who had been enslaved were asked to “remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

Earlier this week, people around the country continued in this celebration of Juneteenth that is now 157 years old. As Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts noted in his Juneteenth statement: “It’s a day we should all celebrate. On Juneteenth, we reaffirm the truth that all men are created equal as we celebrate the blessings of liberty.”

And celebrate we should, without hesitation.

At the same time, our celebration must be accompanied by the memory of the atrocities that preceded that Galveston summer day in 1865. And we would be remiss to think that the atrocities that preceded the first Juneteenth somehow immediately ceased. As we well know, the plight of the Black community has included an ongoing experience of racism, up until our own day. As the U.S. bishops noted in their pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, “[R]acism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart.”

As the U.S. bishops acknowledge, while the racism that undergirded slavery is not the same racism present in our culture today, racism is still a prevalent reality and one that we have a moral obligation to eliminate. One might rightly say that racism still holds us in bondage, even if in new and different ways from those of slavery. As Pope Francis notes in his encyclical Fratelli tutti: “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding and lurks in waiting.”

Francis Cardinal George, former Archbishop of Chicago, noted as much in a pastoral letter he wrote in April 2001 on the 33rd anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. In that letter, Cardinal George recognized that “[t]he face of racism looks different today than it did thirty years ago. Overt racism is easily condemned, but the sin is often with us in more subtle forms.” He noted that the sin of racism could be with us at a personal level, but also at a social, institutional and structural level.

To respond to this sin, then, as with any sin, we need “a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society,” as the U.S. bishops proclaim. Such a conversion is possible “in Christ” who gives us “the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.”

While we cannot spell out all the ways to combat the sin of racism that continues in our own day, I do want to point you to further resources that can help form your conscience and find the appropriate avenues for taking action.

Besides the resources mentioned above, you might consider the following:

The Word on Fire Institute, led by Bishop Robert Barron, just issued a six-part series entitled “Racism, Human Dignity, and the Catholic Church in America,” featuring Gloria Purvis.

Before Gethsemane Initiative (BGI) is a lay-led initiative co-founded by a local Catholic of the Diocese of Lincoln, Maria Benes. BGI “refers to Jesus’ prayer for unity and conversion before He leaves for the Garden of Gethsemane” and has the mission “to promote racial reconciliation, healing and awareness about racism and xenophobia from an understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person from conception to natural death.”

On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Restoring God’s Vision of Race and Discipleship, written by Father Josh Johnson, is a recent book issued by Ascension Press. In this work, Father Josh “draws from the riches of Scripture, personal experience as a Catholic of color, his priestly ministry, and the wisdom of the Church to encourage Catholics to understand more deeply the call of Christ to make disciples of ‘all peoples and nations[.]’”

As we take time to celebrate Juneteenth this year, I hope it provides the opportunity for deepening our understanding of God’s desire for unity and peace in society among all people. And, in doing so, may Juneteenth help us further denounce the subtle and not so subtle forms of racism that still hold our country in the bondages of sin.

Tom Venzor is the executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. Email him at tvenzor@necatholic.com.