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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

"I Can't Breathe"

These were the last words of George Floyd as he was pinned to the sidewalk by police officers, one kneeling purposefully on his neck. For over seven minutes. "Please, I can't breathe ..." He was being questioned about a bad twenty-dollar bill.

Photo Credit: CGTN

This weekend, riots burned throughout the United States, and marchers amassed on the streets of Canadian cities. People feel the outrage of it. To take away a man's breath, to take away a black man's breath, while people have been chanting, "Black Lives Matter!" One demonstrator was caught on camera, facing a phalanx of helmeted riot police, wearing a T-shirt symbolizing the voice of the new protest movement. It read, simply, "I Can't Breathe!"

For Christians, it's all about the breath. Yesterday the church celebrated the Feast of Pentecost. It remembers the life-giving manifestation of the Holy Spirit that some believe marks the birth of the church. This "wind", this "breath", (ruah, in Hebrew, pneuma, in Greek) caught the apostles unaware, transforming them from a dispirited remnant (people without breath) into a dynamic force that would change the world. The difference was this: God's Spirit breathed through them.

There is another account of the coming of the Spirit, in the Gospel of John. Jesus has returned from the dead and stands in the midst of his disciples. He wishes them peace, breathes on them, and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."

Throughout its history the church has claimed to breathe life into the world. Many have been saved, healed, and made new. But it has also denied breath to those it has considered its enemies, or its rivals--Jews, Muslims, apostates and heretics, "witches," and to our particular shame, Indigenous Peoples. It has given life, and it has taken life away.

The church itself doesn't have much breath left. But maybe it's not too late for the church to remember that its life comes from a saviour who gave his life so others may live. The church lives only when it is breathing life into the world, helping others to breathe, and standing up to those forces that conspire to choke off life.

If, in these turbulent times, we fail to stand with those whose breath is being taken away, then truly, there is no health in us. But if we can still seek justice, give a voice to the voiceless, and create communities of hope, then perhaps we ourselves will feel once again the enlivening breath of the Holy Spirit.

No one, ever, should be forced to plead, "Please, I can't breathe."

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