The Witness of Freedom

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

This Week at Plymouth, June 21, 2024

Escaping to freedom, purchasing one’s own freedom or that of a loved one, fighting for freedom, offering up one’s own body for the life and freedom of another and dying for freedom were acts of redemption that aimed to restore black bodily and psychic integrity.

—M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom

Last week marked the third year my family officially observed the Juneteenth federal holiday. Although we have attended parades and community events celebrating the holiday, we continue to consider the traditions and practices we want to create to observe it. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to hear the news of freedom from bondage, to experience that dramatic change in your status with the stroke of a pen or a notice from a commanding officer. Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved in the Confederate South, the rebels and enslavers hid, denied, and withheld that promised freedom for as long as they could. Yet, the yearning for freedom never abated. How do we honor that moment presently? How do we define freedom in a way that universalizes the aspiration of the formerly enslaved as a model for the liberation of the oppressed today? How do we witness a freedom that is more than a license to get rich or powerful or to act without restraint?

The meaning and practice of freedom in a nation that was once a slavocracy remains a contentious and complex issue, engaging scholars, theologians, and activists alike. Theologian James Cone lamented the fact that the nation still bears the mark of founders who “defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.” In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that “the goal of America is freedom,” a goal hindered by the persistent denial of the guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Black people. King also preached during the Montgomery bus boycott that “God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.” M. Shawn Copeland expands the transformative potential discovered in the quest for freedom, viewing all endeavors and actions to liberate as redemptive.

Our sacred writings offer some guidance on the concept of freedom. When God liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt, that divine gift of freedom also bestowed upon them the responsibility of service, compassion, and justice. Their freedom was not just a license to pursue individual desires but a model and an invitation to a beloved community that acknowledged its origins and pledged to treat others with the same kindness and justice God had shown them. The freedom they lived and practiced was not an individualistic endeavor that simply allowed them to do as they pleased as long as they didn’t infringe on the freedom of others. Perhaps Juneteenth can be an opportunity to re-cast and redefine freedom in more communal, redemptive ways, making freedom a gift that keeps giving. May it be so.