Knowing Freedom Part 1: Life and Liberty

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness…”

I open this series with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. He penned this profound document at just 33 years old and later became governor of Virginia and ultimately president of the United States in 1800. Jefferson’s knowledge spanned science, philosophy, geography, and politics. Yet, his perspectives often seemed contradictory. Have you ever contradicted yourself? I do often. For example, I’m a gardener who loves growing tomatoes but won’t eat them fresh. Ketchup? Yes. Fresh tomatoes? No. It’s a contradiction I embrace.

The Complexity of Jefferson

Jefferson, too, was full of contradictions. A clear example is his stance on slavery. In “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), a precursor to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson states that the “abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies” and calls for ending slave importation from Africa. However, in the Declaration, he accuses King George of inciting slave rebellions against the colonists, seemingly opposing the slaves’ fight for freedom.

In “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1785), Jefferson expresses a troubled conscience about slavery: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever…” In 1814, he wrote to Thomas Cooper that he would sacrifice anything for a practicable plan to abolish slavery. Yet, Jefferson was a slave owner, buying and selling as many as 600 slaves. In the same “Notes,” he suggests that Black people are inferior to whites, which he saw as an obstacle to emancipation. Jefferson was a walking contradiction, reflecting the complex values of his time.

Jefferson’s Contradiction and Juneteenth

Jefferson’s struggle with slavery underscores the significance of Juneteenth, a day many have only recently become aware of. Formally known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, it honors the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth combines “June” and “nineteenth” and commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Texas, the last Confederate state to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all slaves free. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” finally became a promise for all, including Black Americans.

In 1865, newly freed slaves in Texas initiated the earliest Juneteenth celebrations within churches. These gatherings gained momentum across the South and later spread during the Great Migration to Northern cities and the Civil Rights Movement. Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday in 1980 and a federal holiday in 2021. A typical Juneteenth celebration includes a picnic or party with Texas barbecue, delicious desserts, fun, fellowship, gratitude to God, and honoring those who came before us. Growing up in Texas, my parents celebrated Juneteenth. For my mother, now in her 80s, it was the one day they could access public parks and pools during the Jim Crow era. Regrettably, she remembers a sense of joy and pride as Juneteenth approached, while also experiencing great sorrow and shame at the subsequent return to segregation just a day later.

The Christian Connection

It isn’t surprising that Juneteenth was first celebrated by Christians. Like Memorial Day, it’s a day when Christians celebrated God’s blessings while remembering those who suffered. But could it be that some of us today feel an internal conflict about formally recognizing this day, much like Jefferson felt conflicted nearly 300 years ago?

You may embrace the concept of life and liberty yet struggle with acknowledging the perspectives and interests of those who haven’t always enjoyed these privileges. Could recognizing Juneteenth more broadly, especially within the Body of Christ, help resolve this contradiction?

Parenting my teenagers often reminds me of this. When my daughter points out my contradictions with, “But Dad, you said…” I realize I need to do more than just expect her to follow my words. I must acknowledge my flaws and seek improvement with Christ’s help. This honesty fosters respect and understanding.

Christ Gives Life and Liberty

In Knowing Freedom, Chris Hippe and Peter Mahoney highlight that Christ’s freedom brings transformation. Christ aims to restore our identity (2 Corinthians 5:17), soul (Psalms 23), life (Ruth 4:15), spiritual life (Galatians 6:1), joy (Psalms 51:12), wasted years (Joel 2:25a), and health (Jeremiah 30:17). Christ offers life and liberty, which we all desire and need.

For descendants of slaves, Juneteenth represents a seed of transforming freedom that Christian truth exemplifies. Acknowledging this freedom need not be a contradiction. It may stir feelings of remorse or discomfort, but as redeemed Believers, the concept of life and liberty should resonate deeply with us, regardless of race or ethnicity. Jesus makes it plain that He came to give both life and liberty (Luke 4:18; John 10:10).

As we consider Juneteenth as an SBC church body this year, let’s strive to reflect Christ, not contradiction. We should consciously, morally, and spiritually affirm that all men are created equal, endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. May we recognize and celebrate the freedom granted to American slaves that is honored by their descendants on Juneteenth National Independence Day. On June 19th, take a moment to thank God for the freedom He gives us in Him (John 8:36) and for the freedom of your brothers and sisters in Christ and all those who descend from slaves.


Sam Melvin


In our next installment, we’ll explore God’s blessings with our country’s independence in “Knowing Freedom Part 2: The Pursuit of Happiness.” View previous Holidays articles, including those written about Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day.