The words, I can’t breathe, have now been immortalized by what happened in that horrific act of personal assault and murder by a policeman toward a black man in Minneapolis in May, 2020. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone can watch that scene even for a moment without being repulsed by its anguish! Obviously, by the response of protest, that moment represents the heart cry of a people who have experienced oppression in all kinds of ways for a long time.
This act of aggression demonstrates the insidious nature of prejudice so common to all — sometimes even among those who confess faith in the cosmic Christ who died for the sin of the WHOLE world. The events of this past week bring to the fore, not only the plight of minorities wherever they are found, but the depth of depravity in the human condition. By observation recently, I note a widespread acknowledgement of our moral consciousness, not by an explicit reference to it, but by the universal allusion to the nature of justice. We all recognize when lines of morality have been crossed in some form of injustice toward ourselves or others. Yet, ironically we are most often oblivious to our personal inclination to injustice. In other words, we focus most of our attention in pointing out the injustice of others while ignoring our own. But what’s outstanding in all of this is our consciousness of a moral law that points us to the existence and nature of God.
I would never want to minimize the import of the words, I can’t breathe, as representing the cry of a people who have been oppressed for so long in so many ways. They speak of the immediacy of death in the context of the one who uttered them. But of course, they also speak of the oppression that a people have often experienced by the hands of dominant cultures. That is not to say that everyone in a particular society should be cast in the same mold. For there are many policemen for example (most, in fact), who daily lay down their lives for the blessing and security of every citizen of the land regardless of their identity. We should be thankful and appreciative of those who are appointed for our security and do it with dignity and grace even when some measure of force is necessary.
The tendency to generalize is one of the great problems in the process that is unfolding before our eyes. Citing anecdotal instances of injustice, it’s easy to apply the same in broad strokes to everyone who is a member of a certain identity. Yet, if the truth were known, there are many stellar examples of those who don’t fit the stereotype. We make a mistake, I think, in concluding that the solution to these issues are merely political or systemic in one way or another.
According to the Bible, I can’t breathe is an appropriate metaphor for the human condition because of the effect of humanity’s fall from grace in Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit. What had become life from the Almighty when he breathed into Adam’s nostrils to make him a living soul (Genesis 2:7) was, partially at least, snatched from him when he sinned. And so it is that all of Adam’s offspring live with a very real sense of suffocation in want of air that is everlasting.
Thankfully, God has made amazing provision for us to breathe freely the oxygen that comes by the ministry of the Spirit. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet presents us with a picture of how this will happen “in the valley of dry bones.” In Ezekiel’s vision, he sees a true resurrection happening before his eyes — by bones supernaturally coming together to form human bodies. Yet they are lifeless until the breath of heaven comes into them. It is a picture of Israel’s return to their land and of their ultimate spiritual revival by a miraculous act of God — which many of us believe will be literally fulfilled at the end of time.
But there’s much more in Ezekiel’s vision as well. For it is really a picture of what happens in the lives of those who believe the Gospel — those who recognize Jesus as the Son of God, and put their trust in Him as the Saviour from the eternal condemnation of sin. Surely, this is what Jesus meant when he said he had come that his sheep “may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In a most miraculous way, those who believe are born again of God’s Spirit and finally breathe the air of divine life.
It’s true that there are huge political implications in what happened in Minneapolis and the words, I can’t breathe. And it’s true that all of us need to own our inclination toward discrimination and also to challenge prejudice as it exists in its various forms. But if our efforts only produce political change, there is no doubt in my mind that we will continue to struggle as we have for hundreds of years. In my view, the much greater significance of the words, I can’t breathe, point to their spiritual significance for a world that is suffocating for lack of air from the Spirit of God. The hope for such a reality lies in recognizing the reality of our own spiritual poverty. That is why Jesus spoke of the experience of the higher kingdom as consisting of those who are “poor in spirit,” who “mourn,” who are “meek,” and who “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” (Matthew 5:3-6). It’s only in acknowledging the great paucity of our own spiritual condition that we will experience the breath of the Spirit and the beautiful life that it creates.
As I write these words, I want to be clear in acknowledging my own tendency to discrimination and prejudice in various ways. I am not immune to this inclination merely by virtue of my Christian identity. Certainly too, the church needs to take responsibility for its part in not properly attending to this sin, not only in relation to particular peoples, but in the subtle ways it demonstrates deference otherwise. But at the same time, it’s important not to confuse the true message of the Gospel concerning Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin with a some kind of political liberation. It’s one thing to care for the plight of the downtrodden by seeking their material and physical well-being — certainly an important element in Christian mission and witness. But it’s quite another thing to point them to the One who died and rose again to stop their suffocation because of sin so they can begin to breathe with Everlasting Life.