That’s how crucifixion works. The crucified don’t die from the trauma of their wounds, but from suffocation. Like countless others executed, murdered, suffocated under the weight of the cross of the Roman empire, Jesus had to push his slumping body upward in order to force air into his lungs. Exhausted by the torturous ordeal, Jesus could rise no more. He took his last breath, gave up his spirit, and died while soldiers stood by and a crowd watched. We know this from the story told in the gospels.
George Floyd couldn’t breathe. Like countless others – recall Eric Garner’s dying litany “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” – George Floyd was executed, murdered, suffocated under the weight of the bended knee of the American police state while officers stood by and a crowd watched. We know this from the video shared on social media.
These murders of Jesus and of George Floyd, and of all the lynched who were killed in between, were carried out with impunity. Because the murderers knew that punishment was unlikely because the state sanctioned their acts, they knew they could kill even when there were witnesses and the evidence of their crimes seemed obvious.
And these murders, these lynchings, were meant to send a signal: to use power to intimidate and terrorize those thought to be powerless, and to stamp out and suffocate rebellion and revolution.
This was not unique to First Century Palestine, nor is it unique to Twenty-First Century America. These murders, and their terrorizing effects, are historical and global sins of mortal magnitude.
Now to be clear, there is one significant difference between Jesus’s death and George Floyd’s. Jesus is the Son of God and his death was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. George Floyd’s death is a senseless sin for which his murderer must atone.
That difference notwithstanding, my claim, based on Christian teaching, is this: Because only God has the power to give us breath, only God has the power to take away our breath. Anything else is a usurpation of God’s power; anything else is idolatry, anything else is murder.
For the psalmist today says, “You take away their breath, and they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created” (Psalm 104:30b-31a).
This is the same Spirit that Genesis says was the breath that “swept over the face of the waters” on the first day of creation (Genesis 1:2b).
This is same Spirit that Ezekiel prophesied to the dry bones, saying God will “put breath in you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:6b).
This is the same Spirit, the same mighty breath of wind, the same God the Holy Spirit, that we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of breath, a lot of God the Holy Spirit in today’s Pentecost readings.
There’s the prophesying breath of God the Holy Spirit sent to the seventy in the tent and the two in the camp in the reading from the Book of Numbers (11:24-30).
There’s the powerful breath of God the Holy Spirit sent to Jesus’s disciples and his mother in the upper room in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-4).
And there’s the peaceful breath of God the Holy Spirit sent from Jesus to the disciples hiding behind locked doors on Resurrection Day in the reading from St. John’s gospel (20:19-23).
All this is the breath of the Trinitarian God, which is the Holy Spirit of prophecy and power and peace. It is the Holy Spirit of liberation and life and love.
Have you ever witnessed the first breath of an infant fresh from the womb, when her lungs fill with air and she gives that first cry – that split second or two of anticipation and anxiety and relief? It’s a miraculous moment.
I wonder about the first breath of the resurrected Jesus fresh from the tomb, when the same lungs that breathed their last on a Friday afternoon filled with air the following Sunday morning. There was no one to watch or witness in that split second or two, except, perhaps, the angels.
I wonder if Jesus cried out in surprise like a newborn let loose in the world, or if he cried out in a startle like one waking from a bad dream, or if he cried out in triumph like a champion reveling in victory.
We don’t know how he cried out, but we do know what he said when he saw his disciples:
“Greetings” (Matthew 28:9);
“Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10);
“Why are you weeping? (John 20:15);
“Peace be with you” (John 20:19b).
And it was after that “peace be with you” that Jesus sent his disciples as the Father sent him, that is he sent them in love, echoing what St. John wrote earlier: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).
Jesus sent his disciples to forgive and retain sins – to loose and to bind – empowered by the Holy Spirit that he breathed into them: the Holy Spirit of prophecy and power and peace; the Holy Spirit of liberation and life and love.
There is an un-holy spirit at work in the world, an un-holy spirit that is contrary to the Holy Spirit of God, an un-holy spirit that is the opposite of liberation and life and love. This is the un-holy spirit that murdered Jesus and the un-holy spirit that murdered George Floyd. This is the un-holy spirit that takes away breath and the un-holy spirit that suffocates. This is the un-holy spirit of domination and death and hate, and we know what it looks like because we see it again and again and again. We see it, and we empower it by our sins: by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We have chosen instead to bind ourselves to the American empire and under the suffocating weight of the bended knee of the police state that protects and serves its economic interests. This has the un-holy outcome of making some of us the oppressors – whether we care to admit it or not – and the rest the oppressed. I see no room for neutrality here, no middle ground; although, as Jesus says, things that are impossible for us are possible for God.
Nevertheless, Pentecost invites, no Pentecost compels the Church – her individuals and her institutions – to conversion, to loose ourselves, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, from the un-holy spirit of economic empire we’ve bound ourselves to; and yes, the racism and white supremacy that capitalism created, and the division of the working class that capitalism needs and perpetuates in order to survive. This is the un-holy spirit of domination and death and hate. Pentecost compels the Church to bind ourselves instead to the Holy Spirit, to the very breath of the Trinitarian God.
In the end, Jesus couldn’t breathe either. Until he breathed again when he rose from the dead. May the breath of eternal life promised by Jesus fill the empty lungs of George Floyd and all the others like him who couldn’t breathe. And may the breath of God the Holy Spirit this day of Pentecost replace the stagnant air in our lungs right now and compel the complacent Church, and all humanity, to conversion: conversion from devotion to economic empire and all the sins it asks of us, and conversion to liberation and life and love, so the suffocation stops once and for all. Amen.