Breath is the Body Preparing Us to Live
Where does the impulse to breathe originate in newly formed and exposed human beings?
After we’ve been liberated from the warm, nourishing, and protective womb and have made our traumatic passage through the birth conduit, breath by faith is our sustaining life force—without it, we struggle to survive. We know from Genesis 2:7 that the Lord breathed breath into dust and the-would-be-dust-in-the-wind turned into human flesh—a full living being. As the breath of life is instilled in us, we instinctively make an effort to inhale and exhale. In living, we eventually learn that breathing is an automatic reflex that is controlled by the nervous system. But we also know that in faith and loving Divine spirit, breath will carry us through. With breath comes possibility; “I Am” because God’s breath or Spirit is of us, moving in and through us, and in the world.
It’s hard not to think about breath and breathing during these tumultuous times. We breathe to sustain life. We breathe to speed up life. We breathe to slow down life. We breathe to clear our minds, to regulate our emotions, and to renew a right spirit within us. We breathe to meditate and offer up prayers. We fight for breath when our command center indicates our neuro-physiological systems are compromised by nature or at the hands of others who have the power to steal our breath, and we cherish our breath in the sense that it brings new life.
In the year 2020, it seems that all of God’s creation has been groaning and crying out a collective gasp for breath. “I can’t breathe,” or in some cases “We can’t breathe,” is the refrain people all over the world have been hearing for several years. However, lately the roaring chant has grown more familiar and to many, more urgent. More specifically, its resonance over the past twelve months in the United States of America has become widely recognized as a wailing call of suffering, pain, anguish, frustration, helplessness, anger, rage and anxiety for a host of growing reasons. And these emotions are not likely to subside anytime soon.
From mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, August 2019
“I Can’t Breathe” | Our Neighborhoods Can’t Breathe”
To climate change extreme weather disasters across the nation, fall 2019
“I Can’t Breathe” | “The Atmospheric Pressures Can’t Breathe”
Climate strike protests, spearheaded by Swedish environment activist, Greta Thunberg, September 2019
“I Can’t Breathe” | “Mother Earth Can’t Breathe”
COVID-19, Winter 2019 to present, with more than 180,000 deaths
“I Can’t Breathe” | “God’s So-Called “Marginalized Communities Can’t Breathe”
These catastrophic events have, no doubt, heightened our concerns, and have perhaps moved most people to more prayerful intercessions, for the welfare of our individual relationships, local communities and the nation.
But in a life-changing moment, what stopped most of us in our tracks, and took away our collective breath, was the televised reporting of the violent aggressive acts meted out by those in power who dominate and oppress people in communities that are intentionally designed as disadvantaged and under-resourced. The fatal or near-fatal police shootings of unarmed Black and brown men, women, and children in disregard of human life, and the racialized verbal assaults and threats hurled day after day at non-white people cause neuro-physiological damage, mental anguish and sheer exhaustion for those on the receiving end. Together, these realities of racism and anti-Blackness run alongside the COVID-19 crisis as the parallel pandemic that has revealed gross inequities and racial disparities in every section of our society.
Take for example the Amy Cooper, Christian Cooper (no relation) incident that lit up the Twitterverse and then some in May 2020. A White woman exerted her privilege by refusing to abide by the law by having her dog leashed in an area reserved for birds and birdwatchers in New York City’s Central Park. When the extremely well composed (almost Zen-like) Christian Cooper, an African American man, asked her politely to restrain the animal, Ms. Cooper disregarded his request, and became somewhat agitated when Mr. Cooper attempted to offer her dog some doggie treats. Whether she felt challenged, threatened, entitled or superior, what transpired was a combative, calculated and dramatized attack, meant to cause harm to Mr. Cooper.
Captured as a digital recording, words and thoughts supported by measured, and later hyper- pitched breathing rolled seamlessly from her lips. Ms. Cooper revealed her plan to recruit the authorities in an attempt either to frighten Mr. Cooper to leave or force him to submit to her punitive commands and actions, and her historical racialized thinking, anticipating an outcome in her favor.
To Ms Cooper’s dismay, the digital recording went viral. Movement in the breath of spirit reversed course—and the winds of change resulted in an unintended outcome that upset Ms. Cooper’s life in unimaginable ways, including loss of livelihood, home, and for a moment her dog. And in June, the New York State Assembly passed a bill inspired by Ms. Cooper, that grants victims of unwarranted police calls based on racial or other biases the right to sue their accusers in civil court. There is also discussion of passing a law that recognizes such false police calls and report filings as hate crimes.
The following day, the unthinkable was televised on screens across the nation and globe. A live lynching, and days thereafter, the indelible heinous act that lasted 8 minutes and 46 seconds, played on an endless loop, actualized in Minneapolis, Minnesota. George Floyd died due to compression and asphyxiation, from the impact of the body weight of former police officer Derek Chauvin, on Mr. Floyd’s neck and upper back. In a plea for life, a relief from suffocation, Floyd uttered his final words, “I can’t breathe,” and called for his deceased mother. A crucifixion. Breath that prepared and sustained his purpose-driven life, was targeted, silenced and succumbed to the evil whims of men. Fragile breath, gone—stolen in 8:46.
Other significant murders that ushered in Mr. Floyd’s death also deserve recognition and analysis, among them: Breonna Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky; Ahmaud Arbery, Brunswick-Glynn County, Georgia; Rayshard Brooks. Atlanta, Georgia; Elijah McClain (d. August 2019), Aurora, Colorado; Jacob Blake, Kenosha, Wisconsin; and so many more. Each person represented the Black community, and the coverage of their violent deaths continue to spotlight race in America, the criminalization of the Black body, and the ways White privilege and White supremacy principles are upheld in our nation’s systems, structures and institutions.
The incidents that occurred in the month of May, in the lead-up week to Pentecost, were quite striking—perhaps even biblical, as they set off a groundswell of primarily peaceful protests and demonstrations—in every state and in geographic locations around the globe.
George Floyd’s breath may have been taken away and his earthly life ended on that ignominious day, and Christian Cooper’s Black male humanity may have been threatened just hours before, but in the feast and season of Pentecost, God gives voice to the undeniable, and injustices often emerge. These two examples epitomize the words of John 20: 21-22, where Jesus in his resurrection visits the disciples, providing evidence of his crucifixion. More importantly, Jesus bestows a righteous riff on them as he says “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
That Holy Spirit is the breath of life—a sharing in the resurrection. Pentecost represents that incomparable breath blown over the earth, empowering ordinary men, women and children to do supernatural things. It is the breath that prepares the body to live.
The events thus far of 2020 have exposed a number of painful truths. When the holy breath unleashes boundless power and explosive energy and if the body lives into the breath, action, self-reflection and transformation can occur. The tragic experiences of Floyd and Cooper (and so many others), became catalysts for the massive world-wide protests we now witness daily to denounce police brutality and racial injustice.
What takes away your breath today, and how will you prepare your body to live? And how will you fight to sustain your supernatural power and the collective breath?