I Can’t Breathe: Acts II

Robin White

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“This is the day that God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, was breathed forth into our church, but now a viral pandemic rampages as we wonder and worry if there will be enough respirators and ventilators to provide life-giving breath. How long will there be breath? For 100,000 of us, there is no longer breath. And now, as Pentecost recalls to us the breath of God, we hear someone, one of us, one of our marginalized, crying out, ‘I can’t breathe!’ as his body is ground into the asphalt by the very people who have been entrusted with the task of watching over and protecting us. ‘Please, I can’t breathe; everything hurts; help; I can’t breathe!’—and not one single police officer on the scene intervenes.”—Robin White

Wing + Prayer

By The Reverend Robin White

Minneapolis protester carries the carries a US flag upside down, a sign of distress, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez.)

Minneapolis protester carries the carries a US flag upside down, a sign of distress, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez.)

Robin White Weekly Hubris

ANDERSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 June 2020—Pentecost is both a beginning and an ending, both alpha and omega. It is an ending because it concludes the Easter Season with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the promise of the resurrected Christ. It is a beginning because it comprises the account of the inception of our Church: Pentecost is the Christian Church’s “creation story.” 

We call Pentecost the Birthday of the Church and, for centuries, it has been celebrated as such. Pentecost, in the Christian tradition, occurs 50 days after Easter, and has long been a time of festivity and joy. Likewise, Pentecost was one of the three most important Jewish festivals and was known as the Feast of Weeks because it was observed seven weeks after Passover. It was celebrated on the 50th day after the sabbath on which Passover began: thus the word Pentecost (50th).   

In Christian practice, Pentecost has been a time of celebration: no fasts are observed throughout the church, but it has long been the practice to pray in a standing position to symbolize the Resurrection, the rising, of Christ.  

I am in no mood to celebrate on this Pentecost Sunday. I stand before you, yes, but I don’t feel like standing as an act of praise. 

I confess to you all, on this blessed day, I rage as I observe on our doorsteps arrogant and selfish, bare-faced Americans partying together and ignoring the clear science behind social distancing and mask-wearing, while tens of thousands of us die of a highly contagious virus. 

I confess I seethe as I acknowledge that most of those who are dying are our most vulnerable, the elderly—our elders (who have survived so much in their lifetimes); the immunocompromised (those who had to fight for their lives every day due to other illnesses before COVID appeared); health care workers (who risk their lives 24/7 to do what they have been called to do), and the economically and racially disenfranchised (those who are so busy struggling to keep their families’ heads above water every single day that they cannot afford proper health care).

Black and Hispanic people are at disproportionate risk because they comprise the workers who prop up all systems, all institutions, all services, in America. They are the ones not able to find protective gear; not able to be reliably and regularly tested. 

“George Floyd, Me,” by u/acrylicskies88.

“George Floyd, Me,” by u/acrylicskies88.

I rage and I seethe, I tell you, and I will not be comforted today.

Director of Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, Reuben C. Warren—drawing parallels to moments like the Tuskegee syphilis study—says that, at this moment in the pandemic, governors are choosing “who shall live” by reopening states. Warren explains why reopening as the numbers of cases explode is a matter of ethics, and a false choice between health and economics, as the issue of Black distrust only worsens.

Once again, the very vulnerable—those who nurtured us, our grandparents and parents; those who serve us and care for us, our essential “front line” workers and our doctors and nurses; and those we have marginalized, either tacitly or more subtly, with our long, deep silence—are those “paying our way” through this crisis.

In a very real sense, the pandemic is not equally shared. Some of us—so many of us, and so many with power over us—are using the vulnerable as a virtual human shield.

No, I’m in no mood to celebrate this Pentecost.  I stand before you—yes, I stand—but I do not feel like standing as an act of praise. 

This is the day that God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, was breathed forth into our church . . . .  but now, a viral pandemic rampages as we wonder and worry if there will be enough respirators and ventilators to provide life-giving breath. How long will there be breath? For 100,000 of us, there is no longer breath.

Protestors demonstrate with an "I can't breathe" sign at Minneapolis’s 3rd Police Precinct. (Photo: AP.)

Protestors demonstrate with an “I can’t breathe” sign at Minneapolis’s 3rd Police Precinct. (Photo: AP.)

And now, as Pentecost recalls to us the breath of God, we hear someone, one of us, one of our marginalized, crying out, “I can’t breathe!” as his body is ground into the asphalt by the very people who have been entrusted with the task of watching over and protecting us.  

“Please, I can’t breathe; everything hurts; help; I can’t breathe!”—and not one single police officer on the scene intervenes.  

I, myself, can barely breathe as I watch the video footage recorded by a brave, 17-year-old bystander in Minneapolis; as protesters take to the streets and are met with rubber bullets, and flash grenades, and tear gas. 

As theologian Alicia T. Crosby notes, “I can’t shake how profoundly evil it is to tear-gas folks protesting the suffocation of a man by the police during a pandemic driven by a respiratory disease.” 

I myself can barely breathe as I watch heavily-armed white men storm a state capital claiming their civil rights have been violated because they can’t get a haircut or meet their bro’s at a bar for a beer.   I myself can barely breathe as I observe these acts of terror perpetrated by the privileged met with calm, disciplined restraint by police officers, while riot gear, mace, and flash grenades greet those marching for justice after the murder of an unarmed, Black man accused of trying to use a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. 

Says the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II, one of our true, living holy men: “Black man with no gun ends up dead. White protesters go into state houses with long guns & AK-47s and aren’t even arrested.”

I myself can barely breathe, but I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional suffocation and spiritual exhaustion of my Black siblings, my Black elders.

“Trayvon Martin,” by DEMAR DOUGLAS ART – Blaqwata Studios.

“Trayvon Martin,” by DEMAR DOUGLAS ART – Blaqwata Studios.

In our Lectionary reading for today, this day of Pentecost, we find one of three references in the New Testament to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and we are told that Jesus’ followers had gathered—perhaps sequestered, perhaps self-isolated–in a house in Jerusalem. It may have been a reunion of sorts, as these believers huddled together to mark the feast day. They were undoubtedly in fear of the local authorities and, most certainly, unclear about what was to come next in their lives. 

What happens to them there, in that place, on that fiftieth day after the Resurrection, is inconceivable.

The noise of the wind is deafening and the vision of tongues of fire spectacular. The ear-splitting noise and the dazzling sights resonate with those Jews who associate Pentecost with the anniversary of the giving of the law on Sinai. The imagery is reminiscent of other moments of divine revelation, divine intervention.  

In the midst of that conclave, heavy with the weight of ambiguity and despair, something they later label “Spirit” rushes in and, like a tempest, blows open doors and windows. It is a visible, audible, unmistakable display of the presence of God; of the intoxicating and undeniable breath of God; of Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek; the great wind, the mighty breath  with the power to set things in motion and sweep things away before it.  

Now, they know what to do and they are empowered to do it: to live out the message, to speak out the message, loudly and boldly.  

If we believers claim the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, then we, too, must know what to do, AND we are empowered to do it:  to live out the message to speak out the message. Those of us who are white must recognize that our very own knees crush the necks of Black people. We must acknowledge the very real presence of systemic racism and white supremacy in America, and our silent complicity in it. We must acknowledge and confront and proclaim and disrupt and learn and attempt at every turn to undo these terrible realities. We, white people of privilege, have this urgent task.  We, white people of privilege who call ourselves people of faith, must stand up, must remove our knees, and our feet from the necks of our black and brown siblings.

“Emmett Till Memorial Triptych,” by Art Nomad Sandra Hansen.

“Emmett Till Memorial Triptych,” by Art Nomad Sandra Hansen.

In her article, Black People Need Stronger White Allies—Here’s How You Can Be One, Stephanie Long quotes activist and community organizer Leslie Mac, whose work is rooted in helping white people become better allies:

The goal is not just to have people learn about white supremacy, but to understand how their personal lives support it.  White people need to do a lot of introspective work to understand the ways in which they personally contribute to, benefit from, and tolerate white supremacy.  This isn’t about shame.  I find shame to be a useless emotion that will keep people stuck where they are and focused on their own feelings.  Guilt is something true allies need to confront on a regular basis.  Not just the feeling of guilt, but what needs to be done in order to take action because of the guilt they feel. 

What if the guilt we feel, is, in some bizarre and ironic way, God’s breatha hurricane-force wind with the power to set things in motion.  

What if the rage we feel as we witness the selfish, arrogant injustices and evil in our society actually comprises tongues of firethe prompting of divine revelation?

What if the conflagration of rage in Minneapolis/St.Paul is fanned by the breath of God?

What if “the fire this” time actually changes something? Ends something? 

During this Pentecost season, may we give rise to beginnings and endings.

May we be willing to standin prayer; in actionintent on efforts to release the millstones from the necks of our Black and Brown siblings. May we readily acknowledge the part we each play propping up institutional racism and commit to learning and living out better ways of being. As we begin a new day, may we pay close attention to the sights and sounds of God’s breath in our midsteven as we remain sequestered behind closed doors for the health and well-being of others. May our endeavors to speak outlive outloudly and boldly, the message of God’s unrelenting love, justice, and mercy for all, become visible and audible displays of the Divine presence with the power to change.

This past Friday, President Barack Obama wrote this: “It’s natural to wish for life ‘to just get back to normal’ as a pandemic and economic crisis upend everything around us. But we have to remember that for millions of Americans, being treated differently on account of race is tragically, painfully, maddeningly ‘normal’—whether it’s while dealing with the health care system, or interacting with the criminal justice system, or jogging down the street, or just watching birds in a park. This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal.’ If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.”

Take a deep breath, my friends. Stand up.

Editor’s Note: The Rev. White and Elizabeth Boleman-Herring revised the lyric of “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” to read: “Were you there when they murdered Emmett Till? . . . Did you know Trayvon Martin was a child? . . . Have you prayed in that room with Dylan Roof? . . . Is your knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd?/Can you hear them cry out, ‘I cannot breathe!’/Will you hear them cry out, ‘I cannot breathe!’/Oh, these days, it causes me to tremble . . . /Oh God, hear them cry, ‘I cannot breathe.’”

Robin White

About Robin White

About Robin Kaye White grew up in a farming community in Central New York State: she is descended, on both sides of her family, from dairy farmers, and is most alive, still, in rural North American landscapes. A voice major, she studied Music at Ithaca College; then earned her MDiv at Lancaster Theological Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary and The Theological Institute of Advanced Theological Research in Jerusalem, Israel. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), White was recently a Co-Moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians, and currently serves North Anderson Community Church (PCUSA), and its diverse, inclusive, compassion-driven congregation. Over the church door is inscribed the word Ephphatha, or “Be opened!” (Mark 7:34), and the congregation lives out that mandate. White is passionate about liturgy—“the work of the people”—and preaching. In her sermons, she strives to illuminate the original context of scripture and tease out its messages for the fraught present. She has had the privilege of “holding space” for the dying and their loved ones and experiences this ministry of presence as a gift: she is most willing to go with people as they journey to desert places. She states: “I have lived my life by adhering to Paul’s words in his letter to the church at Rome, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’” She is just as likely, though, to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” A Lesbian-Pescaterian-Presbyterian, Reverend White is most alive out of doors, whether hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing . . . or just sitting on a rock. (Banner and Author photos by E.B.-Herring, taken at Pendleton SC's Liberty Hall Bed & Breakfast)
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