Halfway through the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And so it was, more than 150 years ago this month, that every slave living in the Confederacy was declared free. Many of them, however, were unaware of it.
How could they have known? They were behind enemy lines. Most couldn’t read. They continued to live under oppression, in chains, and wrapped in a matrix of injustice that a few words on a faraway piece of paper could do nothing to untangle. Enter a man named John Murray Forbes.
Forbes owned a collection of railroads and founded an investment company that still bears his family’s name. In addition to his great wealth, he was a great abolitionist who was working to see African slaves in America liberated. So, he had thousands of pamphlets printed that contained Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
These little brochures, containing only a few hundred words, were then given to Union soldiers and others who were along the front lines. They distributed and explained the Proclamation to slaves as they went, and its truth began to break slavery’s chains: “All persons held as slaves shall be thenceforward and forever free.”
This Proclamation has the echo of Scripture about it. As Dr. King once opined, “Its contribution to civilization is imperishable,” as that “imperishable,” ringing truth harmonizes with the words of Jesus and of the Apostle Paul: “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed…And it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
Liberty is not an American or a Western value. It is a gospel value. Freedom is not the invention of the Founding Fathers. It is the divine intention of God. Living a life unfettered, a life of love, service, and true contentment is not made possible by the documents stored in the Smithsonian. It is made possible by the will and power of Christ, as he has “truly set us free.”
Yet, the work is undone. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” to quote the Brit, Leonard Courtney. Or as the Apostle Paul said, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of bondage.” Slavery – in it’s varied physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, socio-economic, and institutional manifestations – is a constant and ever-present danger.
Returning to Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “All tyrants, past, present and future, are powerless to bury the truth, no matter how extensive their legions, how vast their power, and how malignant their evil.” And then, addressing individual responsibility he said that one formerly enslaved, “Plays a significant role in his own liberation, though it is an epic of battle against frightful odds.”
But what choice do people have? And I mean people of color, the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted, the indigenous, and the silenced. There is only one way forward. Perpetual, peaceful resistance “against frightful odds,” and the never-ending telling of the truth: “All persons shall be forever free.”