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“I can’t breathe!” — The racist assault upon the breath of God


America is being smothered by multiple traumas. The COVID-19 pandemic – which has taken over 200,000 lives in America and thrown over 40 million into unemployment, is overwhelming on its own. But at the end of May, a Minneapolis police officer was charged with the brutal murder of a Black man, George Floyd, while other officers did not intervene — a horrific tragedy that rips the scab off a centuries-old festering wound of white supremacy. The thousands who are protesting illustrate the power of this heinous act to bring people together. When the white policeman riveted his knee into Floyd’s neck and pushed the air out of him, that cop seared on to the American consciousness a lasting symbol of the injustices that communities of color have submitted to since their coming to these shores. But it also revealed how when marginalized communities are disproportionally impacted by disease and unemployment, they find themselves with the knee of systemic racism to their necks. It is all of one piece.

When Colin Kaepernick was seen taking a knee as the national anthem was played at the opening of an NFL game, he was doing so to protest America’s racist policies — and his days as a professional football player were effectively over. When Minneapolis cop Dereck Chauvin pushed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes, he may have thought he was doing his job. However, what he did will be forever a symbol of a structure of white supremacy, deeply rooted in our nation, despite relentless efforts to be rid of it.

We have heard from many thought leaders, influencers and politicians. Their words, with few exceptions, have been wise, honest and challenging. I write as a pastor-scholar who searches the Scriptures for what to say to guide and nurture the church as we attempt to be faithful to our God in this time of trauma. I am struck by how words do not come easily now. We are stuck mute by the enormity of our multilayered disaster. Mere words cannot encompass it. The reason we cannot put our heads around it is because these current traumas sink into a place in us that words cannot reach: into our hearts. But to my surprise, we do find in the Bible persons who speak to hearts that are occluded by trauma.

The writers of the Old Testament used the same word for breath as they did for neck. This combination communicated in a sharp, vivid way how any danger to the neck was a threat to breathing. The person who is afraid of drowning, for example, cries out in Psalm 69:1, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” Other texts show how the neck, along with the back, were often the targets when conquering armies wanted to drive home their domination. In Psalm 44:24-25 the cry goes out to God: “Why dost thou forget our affliction and oppression? For our neck is bowed down to the dust, our body cleaves to the ground.” This imagery of domination is meant to be taken literally. It informs speech in Isaiah 51:23 where God quotes Israel’s victorious enemies “who have said to your neck, ‘Bow down, that we may pass over.’” That this command is meant to be carried out physically is confirmed by what follows: “You have made your back like the ground and lie in the street for them to pass over.” It is quite clear that the captors intended their prisoners to become the roadbed for their victory parade.

The memories of the people of God contain numerous moments such as this that witness to times when they are crushed, shamed and violated. What happened to George Floyd – and all the others who have been targets of racist belief and action – is of a piece with heart-wrenching cries coming out of Scripture, charging God with inattention to the plight of the dominated. To experience such calculated violation of basic human dignity drives many to reach the only conclusion available: that God has abandoned them. Nevertheless, we note with astonishment that these suffering ones continue to call out to their absent God, as in Psalm 69:13-15: “O God, in the abundance of thy steadfast love answer me. … Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.” It is as if they have no other choice but to hang on to an absent savior.

These examples make clear that parts of the Bible’s story ring true with the rage over the horrific crimes of police brutality piling up in this country. Yet, are we not struck with the odd behavior of those so traumatized as they continue to call out to that One whose failure to save compounds their misery? Why should they keep calling out? Any answer worthy of consideration must also address two current questions: Why, in the face of 400 years of bondage in North America, should people of color persist today in calling to God for justice? How, in the face of 400 years of being complicit in enforcing and benefiting from systemic racism, can white people have any moral standing to join in cries for justice?

We know from our foundational creation story that humanity only came into being when God blew breath into an earthly object. “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). Breath is all that is required to certify my humanity. Therefore, “I can’t breathe” means: I can’t be a human. You are taking away my basic humanity. You do not recognize me as a human being in every way like yourself.

Breath comes from God, and when God takes away our breath, we die. God owns breath; we do not. Therefore, “I can’t breathe” means: To dominate me is to usurp the place of God. To dominate me is to assert your will over my right to live. To dominate me makes me pay for your future.

Such racist ideology is countered by the very act of breathing. Breathing testifies to the God who is the sovereign fount of breath. In the face of racist assaults on the sovereignty of breath, there is only God to whom to appeal. Breath keeps us bound together with our Creator and Preserver and with each other. Therefore, our prayer and protest (“I can’t breathe”) must continually be made, even if God appears absent or impotent, so that we avoid capitulating to the domination of the mighty, and so that we avoid forfeiting our identity as human beings living in shared air.

This structure of meaning comes to quintessential expression in the death of Jesus. Jesus died by crucifixion, which, among other tortures, deprived him of his ability to breathe. With a loud cry he hung on to a God who abandoned him. God became very small and inferior in Jesus. His worth as a basic human being was crushed under the weight of both the empire’s dominance and religious privilege. As such, it is to him alone that people made victims by any ideology of supremacy can turn with complete confidence, because they are in the company of a fellow sufferer. Jesus – bleeding, suffocating, abandoned – reveals himself as one who knows.

When God raised this Jesus from the dead, all supremacy ideologies were upended and nullified. One of Jesus’ actions on that first Easter day was to enter a room of his disciples who were cowering in fear and inferiority and breathe on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). At creation God breathed into a clay object the breath of life, setting humanity upon its feet and commissioning us to a life of fellowship and fruitfulness. The resurrected Jesus breathes upon frightened, sequestered, silent people his breath, changing and recharging our lives and commissioning us to be a force for love and advocates for justice. In the words of a hymn from the Caribbean, “Earth can breathe again!”

The Apostle Paul points to that gift of the Holy Spirit when in Romans 8:26-27 he addresses squarely times like the present one when we are at a loss for words. Paul has in mind how his readers were forced to feel inferior by the Roman Empire’s domination of their lives: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword. This catalog of threats bears down on us in our fragility (“I can’t breathe”). In times of such emotional trauma, our breathing becomes shortened and irregular. These threats provoke “sighs too deep for words.”

This condition is engaged by the Spirit who “helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” When we do not know what to say, the Spirit matches the abyss of our muteness with the depth of divine understanding and speech. To this point, consider a reading of Proverbs 20:27: “The Lord watches over the breath of humans, God searches all the innermost parts of the body.”

Thus, Paul comforts us with the assurance that God gathers us up when we are under tremendous pressure and have gone beyond the limits of conceptualizing. Furthermore, Paul claims that God responds to our being swamped, as things are going to pieces, with that which works to our good. This claim fills Paul with awe and joyful confidence to persist.

 I am keenly aware that in the context of the compounded traumas raging now, statements about God working all things to our good can be deeply problematic. As the virus rages on, to say that God is working to the good will be repudiated by many. While this is understandable, I can only say that Paul’s statements have moral standing only by God’s singular stroke of raising Jesus Christ from his evil and unjustified crucifixion and our utter trust in the gospel that he is the One in whom all things are raised to new life. In the light of the gospel, we are both chastened by our sorry record of living out its new opportunities of abundant life and equipped to begin again that commission in hope.

How do we take in the breath of the Spirit? In the present pandemic crisis, we are recognizing afresh the potential of worship to anchor people into the fount of life and the wind of change. The intelligent interpretation of Scripture, prayer, the practice of the sacraments and ritual, the rhythm of the liturgical calendar and the power of music and movement all conspire to give us “breathing room.”

We serve our present crisis by creating worship that encourages voiced pain and lament as we bind ourselves to the crucified Christ and, at the same time, worship filled with eschatological joy from the resurrected-crucified Christ, which bursts the cocoon of being frozen in our rage or our historic guilt. Jesus, whose torture deprived him of breath, is raised to breathe upon us, his spirit-starved disciples, and make our hearts glad over the possibilities of a future set out for us in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Warner Bailey is theologian-in-residence at St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and director of Presbyterian Studies at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. He is the author of “Aliens in Your Native Land: 1 Peter and the Formation of Christian Identity.”