“I Can’t Breathe”

Breathing is our most fundamental spiritual, soulful, and embodied work. None of us can live beyond minutes without breathing; inhaling and exhaling. This simple gas exchange of receiving oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide as alveoli interact with capillaries is critical for the whole body. If I cannot breathe oxygen, then I cannot live. Our autonomic nervous system causes us to breathe without conscious and active instruction. It just happens, organically, unless and until something obstructs the process.

Breathing allows oxygenated blood to circulate to every cell. There is life in the blood, because there is oxygen in the blood, until there’s not. Cells die without oxygen. We have unrelenting circumstances that threaten our ability to breathe, to live. 

Understandably, anxiety has risen. Rooted in fear, anxiety can be a crippling experience. Some have defined it as ‘a fear of the future;’ fearing that some awful, unstoppable, imminent harm will come and you are powerless to stop it or even prevent it.

Last Tuesday, I scrolled through news headlines on my phone. My eyes lingered at a dreaded caption above a picture of another black man, George Floyd, prone on the ground while a white cop, with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, unmercifully listened to Mr. Floyd declare that he could not breathe. Mr. Floyd is now dead. I am angry, sad, and nauseous. Likely, your mind, like mine, immediately drifted back to Eric Garner whose declaration was probably heard around the world, “I can’t breathe,” as he was put in a choke-hold by a cop. For many of us, we have a macabre experience of watching Mr. Garner and, now Mr. Floyd’s, oxygen supply being obstructed.

Suffocation, as with all modes of death, is an unnatural way to die. COVID-19, a lurking terrorist, has been slowly and painfully suffocating people, and people of color, at alarming rates. The terror of being deprived of our most fundamental need is disorienting. We are in layered trauma and trauma disorients its victims, who sometimes survive and sometimes die. Suffocation is defined as, “the state or process of dying from being deprived of air or unable to breathe; difficulty in breathing; a feeling of being trapped or oppressed.”  We are suffocating, literally, and never metaphorically. 

Eric Garner and George Floyd, off-spring of the African Diaspora, are the most recent victims we now associate with a soul cry, “I can’t breathe.” We feel the impact of their haunting words because it resonates in our spirit, soul, and body. We know that we are suffocating, too. I wrote this article, and you are reading it, because we have not yet reached the end stage of suffocation’s death march toward us, in us, over us, around us, and through us. The brain cells die first, then all other cells and systems.

God breathed life into mankind and it simultaneously became a person and a life. Death and dehumanization are the results of the life-effacing rampage of white supremacy. It’s an ideology, albeit false, that is both destructive and seductive. It does precisely what its creator intended; with pride, it steals, usurps authority, kills (people, planet, and potential), and decimates. It’s usually done in the name of Jesus. No, it’s not the actual historical Jesus of the Bible whose family and community were a marginalized group of folk who lived under terrifying oppression of an expansive Roman empire. No, it’s not the actual historical Jesus of Holy Scripture of whom the government had activated a plot to murder in his childhood; nor is it Jesus of the sacred texts whose very presence so intimidated the fragile ego of religious and political systems that it incited them to crucify Him, the Savior. Good theology and psychology teach me to grapple with the details. 

Death by crucifixion is horrendous and humiliating. I thought of this suffering Savior after having a brief but stunning realization that, across space and time, Mr. Garner and Mr. Floyd’s last words were identical. Last words, last moments, last images, whether gruesome and/or glorious, tend to linger in our body, soul, and spirit. Considering the last day of Jesus’s life, he was betrayed, apprehended, incarcerated, charged, assaulted (physically, emotionally, psychologically, racially, and yes, sexually), and murdered via crucifixion. The Breath of Life began to suffocate on a cross. What a paradox! He was, indeed, the suffocating Son of Man. That is, until He “gave up the Ghost.” Jesus is intimately acquainted with Mr. Eric Garner and Mr. George Floyd. He is intimately acquainted with us!