We Can’t Breathe: Where’s the Spirit?

John 20:19-23   

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

I’ll take a breath right now because I can. If you have the chance, take a breath. Because you can. We take breathing for granted, don’t we? Have you ever been really stressed and distracted, and maybe your heart started racing, your head hurt, you felt awful? Did you take a moment to pause and consider, “Am I breathing?” Probably not. But if you were capable of doing that pause thing, and if you noticed your breath, you would probably find some relief. The moment you started paying attention to your breath and then if you were intentional about being in tune with your breath, wow. You feel more at peace, alive, better.

We take breathing for granted.

We obviously take life for granted.

See, there’s nothing I can say right now to ease the pain, sadness, and anger of Black people across the United States. They are struggling to breathe. Why? Because yet again, they are reminded that their lives are not valued enough and that U.S. institutions like police departments do not value Black lives. They cannot breathe, because George Floyd couldn’t breathe, in Minneapolis, MN while a white cop held him down. Black people in this country feel the knee of all of the systemic racism embedded in this country’s history, pushing down on their necks, not letting up. They feel the sting of bystanders and other police who are supposed to protect and serve, watching it happen and doing nothing. They are traumatized because videos of Black people being murdered circulate all over social media. They can’t breathe. And who can blame them?

Honestly, I don’t have much that I can say. I know what I feel, which is nothing close to what my Black friends and colleagues feel. I feel sad, angry, frustrated. So imagine how they feel. They are asphyxiated. They cannot breathe.

I came across an article written by Riana Elyse Anderson Ph.D.

riana elyse anderson (@rianaelyse) | Twitter

In her article in Psychology Today, entitled “Why We Can’t Breathe: Three ways shocking acts may be making it harder for Black people,” Dr. Andersen mentions Amy Cooper (a White woman), who threatened birdwatcher Christian Cooper (a Black man) in a New York City park, promising to call the police. She invoked Mr. Cooper’s skin color in the call, “apparently as a means of heightening the stakes of his fear.” Then, the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. And before that, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—both killed by white people. Dr. Andersen thoughtfully reflects on what Black people feel now—with both covid-19 and the continued killing of Black people in the U.S.

She explains why it is harder for Black people to breathe right now:

First, ‪COVID-19. Inequality show itself in many ways. For example, environmental conditions and living contexts. Black people have contracted, transmitted, and died from this respiratory system-attacking disease at higher rates than others. Many, because of the conditions the live in, are more susceptible to conditions like asthma and respiratory failure. Some are not able to social distance either.

Secondly, the witnessing of various intentional restrictions of air, be it a banned chokehold or kneeling on a person’s neck. Black people are subjected to the forceful and intentional deprivation of air by police and other authorities.

Lastly, she mentions the constant triggering of the sympathetic nervous system. The SNS is a useful system for both determining the severity of a threat and then acting on it. The SNS regulates automatic processes that we take for granted, like breathing. We take breathing for granted. Imagine, though, if you are a Black person who is constantly on guard. Every social media post, news publication, police encounter. The SNS is on high alert, all the time. This, Dr. Andersen states, leads to eroded physiological and psychological processes (e.g., heightened cortisol and stress responses) and dysregulated breathing.

Literally cannot breathe.

This caught my attention, because I do my best to pay attention to my breath. I try to regulate myself when I feel stress or anxiety or fear. I breathe. I intentionally breathe. But I’ve also never had the sensation of someone bearing down on my neck with their knee, so as to asphyxiate me. I used to have pretty bad asthma when I was a teen. During asthma attacks, I can tell you, it is scary. I couldn’t breathe.

But I DON’T know what it’s like to be in a constant state of alert because of fear that I will be attacked or asphyxiated. I don’t know what it’s like to be living in a constant state of “I can’t breathe.”

Families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery release ...

Terrible but necessary segue. Today, for most Christians around the world, is the celebration of Pentecost. It’s the Greek name for Shavuot, an Israelite spring harvest festival. For Western Christians, it marks the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, after his death. The Spirit is described as being like tongues of fire, or, a wind. Or, in the case of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of John, the Spirit is a breath. Jesus breathed on the disciples. Then, he said: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you release the sins of any, they have been released to them, and if you hold (the sins) of any, they have been held.

The breath of Jesus was like fresh air, living water, renewed existence. It was beautiful. It was available to all. But just after breathing such a beautiful thing, Jesus had to mention that if we as human beings keep cycling through our hate and passing it on from generation to generation, nothing will change. The Spirit won’t fill us. We won’t breathe. Those who have done wrong to others and then passed that wrong from generation to generation—there is no forgiveness. For Jesus, forgiveness was about saying sorry or feeling shame or feeling guilty. Forgiveness was about releasing a debt, lifting a heavy burden, freeing people from bondage. And so, Jesus breathed Spirit but made it clear that there would be none of this Spirit unless debts were released, burdens lifted, and people were freed.

Friends, racism is evil. It is not political or about taking sides. Racism is evil. It is pure hatred for another human just because of the pigmentation of skin and false beliefs and non-scientific propaganda that’s been passed down throughout the centuries. Call it what it is. Racism has asphyxiated us. It continues to choke us, to force its knee to our necks, and it doesn’t let up. Racism steals the oxygen of all humanity.

I just returned from the march in Philly earlier today. The image above is from it. I met a man who was there with his 19 year old daughter. He was sharing with me his experiences as a Black person, seeing systemic racism throughout his life, being fully aware of it, and choosing to work with others to combat it and to change the systems that propagate it. He shared the challenges he has with his daughter who really is encountering racism for the first time. She went to a multicultural school in Philly, has friends from all sorts of backgrounds. She’s not been focused on the whole Black-White thing. But now she’s seen the videos and she’s been awakened to the systemic mistreatment and scapegoating of Black people in this country. She’s angry, she’s sad, she’s aggressively asking why. That man I just met was there to support his daughter and to stand with her.

All I can say is that if we truly want to build a world in which children and youth can thrive without focusing on skin color and more on a person’s character, it’s up to all of us who have privilege to help make it happen. We can’t sit on the sidelines. We can’t be silent. We can’t make passive aggressive comments or social media posts that distract from the racist tendencies that we’ve all been raised with. We cannot support racist politicians or businesses or churches or any racist institution. How and where we spend our money and our time matters. Who we are friends with matters.

Everyone deserves to breathe. Everyone deserves to breathe.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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