“I can’t breathe” were some of the final words uttered repeatedly by George Floyd as a Minneapolis police officer crushed the breath and life from him. Floyd’s neighbors standing nearby begged the officer to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck so that he could just breathe. But the officer persisted in pinning his neck to the asphalt as he lay handcuffed on his stomach until an ambulance came to take his lifeless body away.
Floyd’s killing follows just weeks after Louisville police shot Breonna Taylor in her own home, and three white men chased down Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog and one of them shot Arbery to death.
Today we sit between Floyd’s slaying and the Church’s celebration of Pentecost when the first disciples experienced a dramatic infusion of the Spirit, long associated with “breath” or pneuma in the biblical tradition. I’ve been inspired in my Pentecost preparations this year by Ashton T. Crawley’s 2016 book, Blackpentecostal Breath. Crawley describes whiteness as “a violent encounter, an encounter and a way of life that is fundamentally about the interdiction, the desired theft, of the capacity to breathe. Eric Garner is but one example of this.” Now George Floyd is another.
“We are asphyxiating the Body of Christ by the violence and violation that has become our way of life.”
“I can’t breathe.” The words are reminiscent of the last words of Jesus, “I thirst” (John 19:28) – simple, pleading, desperate.
And I’ve come to think “We can’t breathe” is an apt Pentecost prayer of white churches in the coming days – simple, pleading, desperate.
Crawley writes, “As a way to think the world and one’s relation to it, whiteness is about the acceptance of violence and violation as a way of life, as quotidian, as axiomatic.”
We are asphyxiating the Body of Christ by the violence and violation that has become our way of life – a way that we’ve accepted as axiomatic and quotidian. We expect – even as we dread – news of another murder of a George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery to come across our screens any day. And among the myriad feelings we have when it happens, surprise isn’t one of them.
“We can’t breathe.” We’re suffocating in our systemic legacy of white supremacy, and we’re killing our black siblings in the process.
I write to and about white churches because I’m a white pastor. I want to do better. I want to be better. I want to help lead churches in paths of anti-racism and dismantling the structuring of our way of thinking the world through lenses of white supremacy. And I’m searching.
I can increase my commitment to allyship with BIPOC-led organizations. I can do another one of the “75 things white people can do for racial justice.” I can go to another workshop for white people confronting racism or read another book or write another article or preach another sermon. I can practice care for my black friends and colleagues. I want to keep doing all of these things. But I can’t fool myself into thinking that any of these is going to produce an anti-racist algorithm that will stop another black person from being murdered by the police next week.
Trying and striving and working harder are important. But it’s the simple, pleading, desperate prayer of the dying – “We can’t breathe” – that we must pray now.
Because we’re dying.
It has been said repeatedly, but the truth still needs to be said and heard: The system isn’t broken; it works just as it was designed. Our accumulated centuries of white supremacy and abject racism produced the deaths of Floyd and Taylor and Arbery. The careful cultivation of our ways of “thinking the world” through an “acceptance of violence and violation as a way of life” produce our white siblings’ ready rejoinders to outcries of racial violence: “But let’s get all of the facts!” “But he was ‘acting suspiciously!’” “But if he hadn’t resisted!” “But…”
And it’s killing us.
Yet Pentecost invites another way of thinking the world. One that isn’t devoid of trying and striving and working. But one that is fully conscious of our dying state, unable to breathe, devoid of the Spirit’s animating movement in and through us in this hour. Pentecost’s way is one that Crawley describes as “otherwise possibility, thinking and desiring more than what we have.”
“We’re suffocating in our systemic legacy of white supremacy, and we’re killing our black siblings in the process.”
In weeks like this, it’s difficult to imagine that there are “otherwise possibilities.” The axiomatic and quotidian ways seem too inevitable. But Pentecost stands as a witness to the otherwise possibility, whether we believe it’s possible or not.
To paraphrase Acts 1:8 a bit, the promise of Pentecost is that we will receive power when the Spirit breathes new life into us. And, according to the testimony of the disciples, that power – that Breath entering the body – will feel like fire.
Perhaps you’ve felt it before. I hope you’re feeling it now.
At Pentecost, the Spirit’s fire sets off what Willie Jennings describes as a prodding toward “boundary-crossing and border transgressing” that is the hallmark of the Spirit’s movement, leading disciples “to go to those to whom they would in fact strongly prefer never to share space, or a meal, and definitely not life together.” And sets off nothing short of a revolution.
The Spirit’s fire summons us with a call, a prompting, an insatiable desire to be witnesses to an “otherwise possibility” of new life that the Spirit, in us and through us, is breathing into the world.
We need that Breath in our bodies, that fire in our bones, that vision of an otherwise possibility that bespeaks sheer revolution and not a measured tinkering with a supposedly “broken system.” We need it now more than ever.
Because right now, we can’t breathe.
Related to this topic:
Paul Robeson Ford | Ahmaud Arbery and a pandemic of injustice