This month, America observes two landmarks of liberation that occurred more than a century apart. Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, the day that word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Galveston, Texas, freeing the last enslaved people. On June 27, the annual New York City Pride Parade celebrates the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. In that spirit, this week’s clergy shares stories of liberation from their religious traditions.
Israel M. Gordan
Cantor, Huntington Jewish Center
It seems almost unfair to ask a Jewish clergyperson about our faith’s most powerful liberation story. For the Jewish people, the central narrative is the Exodus from Egypt, and much of our tradition is built from and based on remembrance of that formative event. It has also been used throughout history by other peoples and communities as a story of inspiration.
While there are many important ideas in Judaism related to the Exodus, what I want to share is how so much of our religious observance is based on this event. On numerous occasions, the Torah requires us to protect the widow, orphan and stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. When studying ancient Near Eastern law codes, it is almost universally held to protect the widow and the orphan.
What Judaism introduced, however, is the need to protect the stranger as well. This is not just some old story that we tell around a seder table on Passover. Because of these shared events in our people’s history, we must always remember the most vulnerable among us and protect them. That is one of the central ideas that Judaism is based on and has shared with the rest of the world.
The Rev. Marie A. Tatro
Vicar for Community Justice Ministry, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island
The Exodus is likely the most famous biblical liberation story. But lesser known is the prison break by Paul and Silas in Acts 16. As punishment for driving a demon out of a slave girl — hence making her fortunetelling less profitable for her owner — they are stripped, beaten and imprisoned. Paul and Silas fervently pray and sing hymns throughout the night. Suddenly a violent earthquake shakes the foundation, the doors open and their chains unfasten.
The jailer, knowing he will be killed for "allowing" their escape, prepares to kill himself.
But Paul shouts, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."
The jailer begs for the same salvation, and it is given to him and his family. He washes their wounds and becomes a believer. The slave girl is freed from her demons, Paul and Silas are freed from prison, and the jailer is transformed, liberated from his own toxic role in the empire.
Episcopalians have a prayer for prisons that includes, "Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous." As we continue to re-imagine policing in this nation, this liberation story speaks to our potential for transformation, with God’s help.
The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr.
Pastor, Church-in-the-Garden, Garden City
Many people of faith in this country acknowledge and celebrate Juneteenth. They rightfully view it as the intersectionality of sacred texts and a society that, in many ways, still is reckoning to bring systemic freedom, inclusion and justice to its masses.
However, some Christians still labor to see the divine correlation of salvation and society. I find it incoherent to talk about salvation for humanity today and divorce it from the reality and historical context of the biblical actors in antiquity. Indeed, all Scripture points to the freedom of humankind, and specifically, those groups (i.e., the poor, LGBTQ+) who have been oppressed, marginalized and bear the brunt of an unjust society and culture.
As my clergy colleagues have noted, there are foundational texts that beautifully illustrate the liberation motif many hold sacrosanct. I understand the Bible as a liberational body of work inculcated in Jesus Christ.
The essential liberation story for me then would be the life, message, ministry and the redemptive and liberating acts of Jesus. Christ’s story is the embodiment of the Scriptures: God is with us, seeking to overthrow wicked systemic injustices and change the hearts of humankind to right relationship with self and neighbor.
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