It was a terrible image that we wish we could forget. The pleas of a man lying on the street with a knee on his neck. “I can’t breathe.” Every time someone uses that phrase, the image of George Floyd comes rushing back to me. I don’t take it lightly, and I have a visceral reaction when it has been used by more powerful people to decry their perceived loss of rights when it was most dramatically spoken by a man who was crying for his life.
This statement, however, has become an anthem … perhaps a dirge … in our time in history. We struggle to breathe as we witness the harm done to the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. We continue to see … and participate in … political and cultural strife as we demonize others and seek to be the ones on top. We see how our nation and our world is struggling to breathe amidst the demagogues who rise up among us and continue the stir the cauldron of hate.
We see how creation itself is struggling to breathe with the devastating effects of climate change brought on by our own flawed notions of progress and entitlement. To those who deny it and say that they don’t believe in the science, my response it that it appears that science believes in us … more precisely, science doesn’t really care. The consequences of our globally collective actions since the industrial age are a planet that will finally be inhospitable to us. If the planet can’t breathe, neither will we.
Then the whole pandemic has us afraid to breathe the wrong air. As we have witnessed people struggling to breathe … who are placed on ventilators that will breathe for them, I have begun to ask myself some important questions. What if the air we are breathing carries the contagions we fear the most? What if the air we are breathing leads to our very last breath?
Breathing itself becomes an exercise in caution and fear these days.
But we are people of faith who know something that might help us move forward. It was in that second account of creation found in Genesis 2 where God was molding us from the dirt. We were just mud. In that moment, I have this image of that first human struggling to move … to breathe … to be. And then we are told that God leaned down even farther … like a rescuer offering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation … and breathed life into us.
The breath isn’t our own … the breath we breathe is God’s. That’s the simple message, and it is the best message of hope I think we have.
The issues we face are complex. They require us collectively to work toward justice for our planet, for humanity, and for all of creation. The tasks of this type of justice-work loom large before us, and I am in no way saying it will be easy.
What I am saying is that it starts with a breath. When we begin to see that the breath for which we long is the breath of God that already is, we will have taken a significant first step. Consider the person you despise the most and know that they are breathing God’s breath. Consider how it is that we might better share this holy breath without harming each other or creation itself. Consider what it might mean for us to work toward breathing justice and love into a world filled with injustice and hate.
It all begins with a breath. So to quote the old hymn, “Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that I may love what Thou dost love, and do what Thou wouldst do.”