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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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 Brian E Pearson
Brian E Pearson
Jun 01, 2020

Your post breaks my heart, Roslyn, with the awful truth to which it points. The church has acted like every other powerful organization in the face of accusations of wrongdoing on its watch--it has drawn in close, to protect the organization. I recall thinking, in the wake of revelations of sexual child abuse in the cathedral church in Kingston, that the best sign the church could have offered the world, after restitution to the survivors, was to dismantle the cathedral, literally, stone by stone. When an organization's needs trump the needs, and the rights, of individuals, it loses any moral right to exist, and that includes the church, whose purpose, for God's sake, is to be a sanctuary, s safe…


Jun 01, 2020

Thank you for this. I would add to the ways in which the Church has taken the breath of others (including the Anglican Church) in the abuse of children (many, many pre-puberty boys) over the years and in its unwillingness to create a space in which these former children could tell their stories and be heard. The path at the moment in the Canada church seems to be an expectation that individuals need to take it to the police or go into the halls of power (a terrifying prospect for most) ... and still ... little if anything happens. There are models now in the US - ECUSA as well as individual dioceses that are opening up to hear the…

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