"I can't breathe."
The world watched last week as George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, cried out in desperation. Handcuffed and immobilized, Floyd pleaded for air as Derek Chauvin, a White police officer, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Crying out for his mother in his final breaths, Floyd, 46, breathed his last. His killing became the latest in a pandemic of violence against people of African descent that precedes the birth of the United States.
"I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh . . . and they shall prophesy."
On the Day of Pentecost, which churches remembered last Sunday, Peter used these words to explain how the disciples of Jesus were able to speak about "God's deeds of power" in the languages of the nations. On that Day, some mocked and sneered at those who cried out, supposing them to be crazy. So, Peter stood up and began to speak. "These are not drunk," but prophesying by the very breath of God (Acts 2:1-21).
Then, Peter proceeded to talk about Jesus, a fellow Jew who had been crucified by the Roman imperial authorities, with the consent of the people (Acts 2:22ff.). Unjustly condemned, Jesus suffered the most humiliating of deaths. Beaten and bloodied, he bore the beam of his cross beyond the city, a shameful spectacle for all to see. There, arms nailed and bound with ropes, he was "hung on the tree" (Acts 5:30, 10:39). Arms outstretched, bearing the full weight of his body, he gasped for breath. Crucifixion. Death by asphyxiation.
"I can't breathe."
Aided by the Scriptures, he cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." And finally, "Father, into your hands I commit my breath" (Psalm 22:1, 34:5; Mark 15:34; Luke 24:46).
In Jesus, God joins the company of the condemned, accused, abused, abandoned. "We crucified him . . . but God raised him up" (Acts 2:23-24). God vindicated the life of Jesus. God justified him. God declared him righteous. And God made him the source of the life-giving breath by which all peoples might become one in justice, love, and peace.
So, we lament, we repent, we hope, and we sing:
Breathe on me, breath of God.
Fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.
Editor's Note: Mennonite Church USA has posted two commentaries on its response to the George Floyd murder and protests against systemic racism. One commentary written by staff is "Prayers of Lament; Responding to the Violence of Racism." You can find it here.
The other commentary, "We need to engage in more costly peacemaking," is written by Glen Guyton, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. You can find it here.