12 For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)
Getting reacquainted with Ecclesiastes
Time to circle back to Ecclesiastes, the book I promised I’d finish back in May (ha, ha). I want to return to it though, because I find it to be both comforting and grounding, and we all could use more of that right now. There’s an urgency and a gentleness to Ecclesiastes, and there seems no better time to tie that, Christian Humanism, and Juneteenth all together.
Let’s start by reacquainting ourselves with the book: It is a wisdom text attributed to Solomon. A wisdom text shares wisdom with us (surprise!), and differs from earlier narrative books (like Genesis) and later prophetic books (like Isaiah) in that being its focus. Throughout Ecclesiastes the author is referred to as Qohelet, which generally means teacher (more about author in my post on Chapter One.) It’s a short book, and we’re smack in the middle with chapter six, which is all about setting up a question that is answered by the wisdom poems in the following chapters. Basically the question asked is this: what is the best way for humans to spend their short time on earth?
The short-answer to this question is in chapter eight: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (vv. 8:7,10) Herein lies the gentleness and urgency: Qohelet wishes us joy and happiness, but also needs us to make the most of our work, whatever it may be.
One of the most disturbing things to Qohelet is the man who cannot enjoy himself, even though God has given him everything he needs for a good life, as discussed in vv. 3-6 of this chapter. Such a person’s lack of happiness could be argued as an affront to God and all Xyr generosity: they have the means, but cannot be satisfied. (A quick aside: I don’t think this is a condemnation of depression or mental health concerns. These readings refer to people who have everything at their fingertips, but still have an insatiability and discontentment of their own making.) Happiness may be our God-given right, and, as Eunny Lee points out in her book The Vitality of Enjoyment in Qohelet’s Theological Rhetoric, it may be our God-given responsibility as well. Indeed, we are ordered in the passage from chapter eight (and elsewhere) to “go and be glad” or some words to that effect.
Christian Humanism: Hope and Immediacy Combined
Which brings me to Christian Humanism, something I’ve discussed before. The more I’m at this Bible reading project, the more I feel “Christian Humanist” is probably the best summation of my beliefs. I hate falling back on Wikipedia as a source, but I can’t deny their summation is an excellent one: “Christian humanism regards humanist principles like universal human dignity, individual freedom and the importance of happiness as essential and principal components of the teachings of Jesus.” If we are to follow Qohelet’s lead, personal happiness is of the utmost importance to a full Christian life: we are to go and eat our food with gladness, drink our wine with a joyful heart. But personal happiness does not just mean our own personal happiness, it means everyone’s personal happiness. And that is where the working with all our might comes in: we are called to end things that may get in the way of other people’s happiness: racism, sexism, environmental exploitation, economic exploitation-anything that infringes upon the rights and human dignity of another person has got to go.
The Humanist Society of New York states “we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for ourselves and all with whom we share this fragile planet.” While different from Christian charity in its origin (and also hopefully free of some of the worst lingering effects of colonialism and racism), both Humanist and Christian charities are trying to make a better world for the people who live in it, here and now. Humanists do not believe in an afterlife, so this is our one shot, and I kind of like that urgency. I think Qohelet would appreciate it, as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have great hope in the coming resurrection and find much comfort in contemplating Jesus returning to make it all right. But shouldn’t we be doing as much as we can, now? Maybe my hokey cleaning house analogy will help: We might not be able to do everything a professional cleaning company can do, like steam the rugs and squeegee the the second-floor windows, but we can do a lot to make things nice before the professionals get there. Just because we can’t steam the rugs and squeegee the windows doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything. No, we tackle the messes that we can, and it does makes a difference. The return of Jesus may wipe away the tears from every eye, but we need begin ending sorrow, now.
So what’s all this have to do with Juneteenth? Let’s back up; what the heck is Juneteenth? Juneteenth commemorates the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX – a final strong-hold of white slave-owners (and their slaves) – to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. This happened a full year and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, but that’s the soonest Union Forces had enough power to back up the law. I, personally, think that Juneteenth should take on all the celebratory nature that July 4 currently has; And July 4 should become a day of service and remembrance, when we work to make the ideals espoused by the Founding Fathers come true, while acknowledging the fact that these ideals have never been lived up to by or available to everyone in this country. But that’s just my opinion.
So back to why I want to close out my post talking about happiness and Christian Humanism with a nod to Juneteenth is this: it is a holiday that has a duality to it. Just as Ecclesiastes is both gentle and urgent, just as Christian Humanism is both hopeful and immediate, Juneteenth is both celebratory and bittersweet: we have come so far, yet we still have so far to go. We have work to do, as Qohelet reminds us, as Black Lives Matter reminds us. Oh, yes, do we have some work to do! But we can celebrate at the same time. Let’s celebrate our victories, like marveling at just how many people took to the streets in protest and solidarity in the past weeks, and in last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that expands protection for LGBTQ workers, and, on a much smaller scale but of personal importance to me: how many of you have expressed interest in helping end police discrimination through my nascent lobbying campaign (details on my Instagram). Please don’t get me wrong: there is a time for anger, a time for sadness (as Qohelet so elegantly reminds us in Chapter Three), and I’m not trying to tone-police anyone here. But even this hard work is work we can do joyfully.
I hope your Juneteenth was a celebratory day. And if you missed it, may it be a celebratory day for you next year. We cannot know what will happen under the sun after we are gone. We cannot know what next year or even tomorrow holds for us, but I feel a joy, a conviction, that we are moving in the right direction. Let us all do our work, and be glad.