Justice and Juneteenth

Juneteenth has become a popular holiday in the United States, marking the day enslaved people were liberated in the United States. While the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863, it was more than two years later — June 19th, 1865 — that slavery’s abolition was finally announced in Texas. With that, the proclamation reached the last of the slave-holding states. The holiday was honored in Pasadena by a Caravan for Black Lives at the Rose Bowl, an event organized by the Pasadena branch of the NAACP. It represented one small part of a wave of actions decrying racism that are taking place across the nation.

Alongside other faith leaders and many of you, I have joined in the public protests following George Floyd’s death, both in Pasadena and in downtown Los Angeles. One of those gatherings was a faith-based candlelight protest at Pasadena’s City Hall on May 31st co-sponsored by Knox Presbyterian Church and 13 other area churches. Near the end of that event, more than 1000 of us shouted, clapped, and made as much noise as we could for eight minutes and 46 seconds. This ritual recalled the length of time a white officer in Minneapolis had pressed his knee to a black man’s neck, ending his life.

The City Hall protest called to mind other faith-based demonstrations in Pasadena against racism, like the annual Palm Sunday Peace Parade. In 2015, members from Knox and other area congregations marched from Reformation church on Orange Grove Boulevard to the Paseo Colorado. From there, we walked to the 700 block of Sunset Avenue, and stood where the 19-year-old African-American man Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by police officers in 2012. We held a vigil and called for the public release of a report on McDade’s shooting from the Office of Independent Review.

Calls for justice reflected in such demonstrations have a longstanding tradition in Scripture and Christian discipleship. Justice, as the Bible so often frames it, is not simply about how one person might look at another — and whether or not they hold bias in their heart. Justice, expressed in Hebrew terms like mishpat and tsedeq, and in the ministry of Jesus, looks at communities and larger systems as well.  The call of prophets like Amos, who envisioned “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing steam,” poses questions like these: are goods and resources justly distributed?  Are some people marginalized or oppressed by the way things are currently?  And if things are not how they should be, how can we help to make things right?

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination of which Knox is a part, has made a host of public statements calling for justice related to racism.  The 2016 General Assembly approved a church-wide policy entitled “Facing Racism: A Vision of the Intercultural Community.” The document professes, “As followers of Jesus Christ, we stand against racism in all its myriad forms. As Presbyterians, we have specific resources in our tradition that can be useful in turning away from racism and towards the diversity and justice that God desires: in particular, we have received wisdom regarding sin, confession, and repentance.”

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Kendrec McDade, and others call me, the Christian church, and the nation as a whole to the kind of transformation the term “repentance” evokes. There is much work to be done in identifying, confessing, and turning from the sin of racism — not only as it relates policing, but to other systems and structures of which we are a part.

As faith leaders and congregations, this is a moment to lift our voices in protest. It also a time to engage in that long, hard work of repentance. The Knox congregation is taking steps to address the issue of racism not only through partnerships with other churches and organizations working for social change, and in addressing the issue in our worship and education. We have also formed a new team to deepen our work in this area for the long haul. The group is co-led by three of our High School students and two of our young adults, all of whom have been engaged in anti-racism efforts and initiatives. As similar Knox teams have helped us embrace more faithfully the work of immigrant accompaniment and housing justice, I pray this team will help us delve deeper into the kind of personal, congregational, and national turning to which our faith calls us.

With trust in the God who liberates those long oppressed, and calls us all to repentance and new life,

Pastor Matt