“I can’t breathe.”
Those were the last words George Floyd spoke before he was crushed to death by a Minneapolis police officer.
The city of Minneapolis burns this week. Literal flames consume a local store while rage engulfs the community and breaks out in wildfires of violence and vandalism.
These two words are supposed to be symbols of life this week. It is the week when followers of Jesus celebrate Pentecost. This is the celebration where we remember that the Holy Spirit shook the house full of fearful disciples with a mighty wind and ignited them with tongues of fire.
On that day a massive crowd of Jewish people from all across the world gathered in the city square, representing diverse cultures and languages.
Peter, a common Galilean, stood before that diverse crowd and spoke in way that everyone heard him in their own language. His words pierced them, convicted them, and encouraged them to catch the fire of God’s love, and breathe in God’s grace for all people.
Pentecost is supposed to celebrate the reunion of all people as we breathe together the breathe of God’s life, grace, and forgiveness for ALL nations.
I can’t breathe.
A mass of people gather in Minneapolis this week, wearing masks. They want to breathe together a breath of protest, yet in this very act they endanger themselves and the broader community.
This tragic event happens in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Floyd’s death adds a compounded pressure upon the necks of everyone. We have experienced over two months of isolation, uncertainty…
…and a fear of breathing.
I can’t breathe.
It is not surprising that Floyd’s death has ignited this outrage. The black community has been under the knee of the white community for centuries. Again and again instances like this accentuate the deep-seated institutional racism that grips our society around the throat. Black people cry out, but the weight of the oppression crushes their lungs. White people who see the oppression want to speak, but the breath is choked by ignorance, separation, and a sense of helplessness.
I am choked by my own place in this story.
I am a white, middle-class, suburban man. I was born into privilege and am blind to most of it. These events do not impact my immediate life. I watch them on the news and feel a numbing detachment. The pain is so deep. The racial divisons and inequity is so pervasive and insidious that I am overwhelmed by what it would take to make the changes that are so necessary. I think of the 50+ years since the Civil Rights Movement and realize how little it has actually affected the deep psyche of our society. It is so easy for me to look away and pretend it isn’t happening.
I have family and friends who are police officers. I respect and deeply value the work of the police department. We need them. We need law, order, and justice. The majority of police officers are good people who are just trying to do what is right. Like all systemic racism, the issue is bigger than individuals. We all get choked by it.
I don’t want to take sides. I don’t like conflict. I want to hide.
I can’t breathe.
Yet, I am a spiritual leader. I am supposed to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven for ALL people. I am called to follow in the path of Jesus and love my neighbor as myself.
AND, I have been told to stay home, to be separated from my aging parents, from my co-workers, and from my faith community because our breathing is dangerous.
I can’t breathe.
I must breathe in two ways.
First, I must simply, consciously, intentionally take slow, deep breaths. The intentional practice of breathing is the first step of meditation, contemplation, transformation, and action. Deep breathing slows our heart rate, reoxygenates our brain, and aligns our body, mind, and spirit to be receptive to God’s voice and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Breathe with me. In and out.
Second, my breath must become my voice. I, as a white man and spiritual leader of a predominantly white congregation must boldly proclaim:
BLACK LIVES MATTER!
I know this has become a controversial phrase. The common retort from the white person is either, “All lives matter” or “blue lives matter.”
Of course they do. That’s not the point.
Black lives have actually not mattered in our society for most of the past 500 years. This racism is so deep, so pervasive—so much the air that we breathe—that we just don’t see it, hear it, or taste it.
To say “Black lives matter” is not to say other lives don’t. It is to say that we must wake up to the systemic racism and do something about it.
This is the heart of the Gospel and the major objective of the Apostle Paul as he tried to bring reconciliation and healing along these same fissures in his society.
Our text for this week is 1 Corinthians 12:1-13. Read verses 12 and 13.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Paul identifies two major social divisions in his culture:
Jews and Greeks
Slaves and Free
The first is an ethnic division. The second is a socio-economic division.
Today we can replace these terms with:
White and Black (and all people of color)
Rich and Poor
Paul goes even further in Colossians 3 to say:
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
The Good News proclaims and a mighty breath that we are all equally created in the image of God and worthy of breath.
I can’t breathe…on my own.
COVID-19 has kept us isolated, masked, and socially distanced.
Systemic racism has kept its knee on the necks of all black people and choked and blinded white people so that none of us have any breath.
We must breathe.
The same Spirit that blew through that fearful room in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and ignited the disciples is still moving and burning today.
My prayer is that this COVID moment, that this #georgefloyd moment, will stop us and force us to exhale the pain, fear, bitterness, blindness, junk…
…and breathe in the breath of God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Come, Holy Spirit, breathe in us—All of us—today.