It was God who first breathed life into George Floyd, but it was a police officer who took away Floyd’s breath a week ago. It all started when police were called, with the report that Floyd might have used a counterfeit bill in a store. Forty-six-year-old Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Even when Floyd cried out, “Please. Please. I can’t breathe,” and bystanders pleaded, the officer did not let up. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, officer Chauvin’s knee prevented Floyd from breathing. Finally, Floyd stopped moving.
The four officers who were present were later fired, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin had eighteen previous police misconduct complaints against him, without any disciplinary action. Breathe on us, breath of God, fill us with life anew. (UM Hymnal #420, adapted)
Floyd’s death is but the latest in a string of troubling incidents that have reignited the simmering cauldron of racism that continues to haunt our country. Earlier that same day in New York City’s Central Park, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police, claiming that a black man had threatened her. Evidently, the man, Christian Cooper (no relation), who was birding, had simply asked the woman to leash her dog, which is required in that area of the park because of the wildlife. Before she made the call, Amy Cooper warned Christian Cooper that she was going to call police and tell them that an African American man was threatening her, thereby setting him up. Fortunately, Christian Cooper recorded the incident on his cellphone, and Amy Cooper was fired from her job. That we may love the way you love and do what you would do.
On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia, was allegedly shot to death by former police officer George McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, each of whom has been charged with aggravated assault and felony murder. Breathe on us, breath of God, until our hearts are pure.
And just a few weeks ago, DarQuan Jones, a 22-year-old black man and warehouse worker from Des Moines, was viciously assaulted by three white men in front of his girlfriend’s house. They shouted racial slurs and accused Jones of breaking into a nearby home. Chasing him into a nearby field, they choked Jones and dragged him to nearby water, where they held his head under the water and cocked a gun. “I can’t breathe.”
Fortunately, two women heard Jones’ screams and ran out of a house to help, which prompted the assailants to flee. DarQuan Jones was left with five fractured bones in his cheek and a broken wrist and nose.
A tense protest last night outside the Des Moines police headquarters ended peacefully when police agreed to take a knee in prayer with protestors in honor of the memory of George Floyd. Until our will is one with yours, to do and to endure.
“On the day the Lord God made earth and sky before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land; the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Genesis 2:5-7, CEB) Breathe on us, breath of God, till we are wholly thine.
The same breath of God that breathed life into you and me continues to create and recreate and offers to each one of us the power of the Holy Spirit. John 20:19-23 (CEB) tells the Pentecost story, “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.’” Till all this earthly part of us glows with thy fire divine.
Breathing is a powerful and involuntary instinct. But what happens when entire groups of people cannot breathe? The United Methodist Church is very clear about the evil of racism. “Racism is the combination of the power to dominate by one race over other races and a value system that assumes that the dominant race is innately superior to the others. Racism includes both personal and institutional racism. Personal racism is manifested through the individual expressions, attitudes, and/or behaviors that accept the assumptions of a racist value system and that maintain the benefits of this system. Institutional racism is the established social pattern that supports implicitly or explicitly the racist value system.” (2016 United Methodist Social Principles) Breathe on us, Breath of God, so shall we never die.
The most important rituals of The United Methodist Church, among them baptism, confirmation, and church membership, include this question, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
In addition, the Ordering of Ministry liturgy at Annual Conference includes these words of responsibility and accountability from the examination of elders about to be ordained: “to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.”
My prayer is that we will use this moment in history to be clear about and work toward the positive change that we are called to make in our world. That includes ensuring that all people, no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak, or where they live, are free to become who God created them to be. Only then will George Floyd not have died in vain. Freedom implies the responsibility to be empowered for good and create a more just and compassionate world. But live with you the perfect life for all eternity.
May the words of African-American poet, novelist, fiction writer, and playright Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Let America be America Again, lead us into a future where all people have the opportunity to discover and use their gifts to make a positive difference in the world (as referenced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 31).
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose –
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
God of might and mercy, we confess to you our human struggle to live together as your beloved children on this earth and the deep harm we have caused by our refusal to create “the land that never has been yet – and yet must be – the land where everyone is free.” Purify our hearts, sharpen our senses, and give us the courage to embody the admonition to which you call us: to accept the freedom and power You give us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Breathe on us, breath of God, till we are wholly thine. Till all this earthly part of us glows with the fire divine. Amen.