Sermons from Park Hill Congregational UCC
The Rev. Dr. David Bahr
“I Can’t Breathe”
May 31, 2020
Genesis 2: 7
“I can’t breathe.” But the officer with the knee on his neck didn’t do anything. He calmly and deliberately kept up the pressure. Even after he stopped breathing. For two more minutes.
“I can’t breathe.” But three officers just stood and watched. They stood there and watched. All three calmly and deliberately stood there and watched.
“I can’t breathe.” A 17-year-old girl calmly stood her ground. She bravely and deliberately kept filming so that no one could deny the truth. She will probably wake up from nightmares for the rest of her life, having watched the last breath leave George Floyd’s body.
Gwen Carr saw the news, her breath taken away. Not again. Her son Eric Garner had repeatedly cried out the same words. “I can’t breathe.” Mr. Garner, because he sold loose cigarettes. Mr. Floyd, because he might have used a counterfeit $20 bill – perhaps to buy some Skittles and iced tea. And for that, the officer put his knee on his neck (notice the neck, just like a noose at a lynching) and listened to him cry out to his dead mama. Please help me, he cried. As the three other officers calmly and deliberately stood there and watched, George’s only hope was his dead mother.
In response, the community lost its collective breath. You know how sometimes when you cry so hard you can’t breathe? You know how sometimes when you are so angry, you stop breathing. You have to be reminded – breathe!
And so, once again, the community took a collective breath and went back to the streets. Shouting, “no justice, no peace.” Drawing deep breaths to make their voices heard. Demanding accountability. Black, brown, and white bodies together. It was a scene of unity. We understood that sometimes property damage comes as the “language of the unheard,” as Dr. King described. It may seem absurd. But what is absurd? A life in exchange for a $20 bill?
But it escalated into something more. This is different. This is coordinated. And we realized that some of those white bodies were not there to offer support but to use the opportunity to sow further division. To trot out talking points about black anger. To justify taking the breath away from men like George Floyd.
Immediately the questions came: What had he done to bring about his own death? Had he ever been in jail? And the explanations: he probably had a gun. You mean like those white men with their confederate flags with AK-47s and AR-15s strapped around their necks? He resisted arrest. Thanks to that 17-year-old girl, we know that all those excuses weren’t true.
Ironically, protections against coronavirus meant masks shielded some of the faces, white faces, deliberately provoking violence – not that they were the exclusive reason for rioting and looting. But who stood to gain from the spectacle? Who could now trot out the old and tired canard about law and order? Promising vicious dogs. You mean like those who tore at the flesh of women and children in Birmingham. And promising that “when the looting begins, the shooting begins.” You mean like the promises of white supremacists in the 60s?
Doesn’t it make you angry enough that you have to be reminded to breathe? Aren’t you so destroyed by your tears that you can’t breathe? If it doesn’t, if you can read this without crying, if you can read this without rage, you aren’t paying attention. You haven’t paid attention for years and years and decades and centuries of this same violence playing over and over like a loop.
But I believe that you do care. Perhaps feeling paralyzed. Uncertain. Afraid. What can we possibly do?
We can recognize that this is all about protecting whiteness. White supremacy is not men and women parading around in white robes but the very system upon which our country was built. Our wealth, handed down for generations, includes the profits made off the backs of slaves. Wealth has been passed down because our mothers could buy houses on the desired side of the red line. Our wealth includes the education our families were afforded in segregated schools. Jobs, education, access to capital – though it may have been decades ago – means white wealth is many times more than black wealth.
We can stop saying, “I’m not racist.” If we aren’t anti-racist, we perpetuate the problem. How? Figure it out.
We can keep saying the names. Like we read the names of those who perished on September 11th, we can keep reciting the names of Ahmaud Arbery and Breona Taylor and George Floyd – just those we know about in the last few weeks. We can build a new Vietnam War style memorial to stretch the distance of the mall in Washington DC, to remember the names of Sandra Bland and Walter Scott and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and thousands more.
We can vote. And make sure that every citizen in the country, at every level of government, votes to end systems that perpetuate violence against people of color, whether through mass incarceration or unequal access to health care – both of which are killing people with coronavirus at disturbingly unequal rates.
And we can pray. Pray to the Creator who put breath into the first human being. The second creation story in the Book of Genesis says, “The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of fertile land and blew life’s breath into their nostrils.”
You know how sometimes when you cry so hard you can’t breathe? You know how sometimes when you are so angry, you stop breathing. Sometimes we have to be reminded – breathe! Which simply means, “pray!” Return to the source of breath.
I can’t fully breathe, I can’t take a deep enough breath, if I don’t return often enough to prayer and meditation and worship. Worship that is not about getting into heaven but participating in God’s open, inclusive, just, and compassionate kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Breathe! Because breath itself is a gift of the one who gave us life and sustains our lives. Take a breath. And get into the struggle.
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world