I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing lately.
How could I not?
When George Floyd lay dying with a policeman’s knee on his neck, video recorded him as pleading, time and again, “I can’t breathe!”
And he was telling the truth. He couldn’t breathe, and he died.
In protests around the country that followed, many carried signs or wore masks emblazoned with “I can’t breathe!”
As the trial of Derek Chauvin went on day by day, it felt as if we were all collectively holding our breath, waiting to see if or how justice was served.
Many feared that Chauvin would be exonerated, as many others who have killed unnecessarily in the line of duty have been.
When the jury brought back verdicts of “guilty” on all three counts, many of us breathed a sigh of relief, but for others it was much deeper than that.
I received an email from my dear friend, Leo Thorne, that night. Leo is a distinguished Black man of about my age who served as professor of English at Farleigh Dickinson University for 30 years and as a senior administrator for part of that time before taking a communications role with the American Baptist Churches USA.
Leo is now retired: One would think he could walk or drive without fear.
Yet, he wrote, “As a Black man in America, I can breathe, at least for now. But who knows when my turn would come to get the knee on my neck? Over the past few months, I have heard some of my Black brothers, some of whom I would have never suspected of holding in their own breath when they left their homes, confess that they, too, exist on a prayer while outdoors.”
He went on, “I am not sure that America really comprehends, or wants to comprehend, for that matter, the toll that this racial environment is taking on Black men and their families. There is economic cost, psychological cost, medical cost, emotional cost, spiritual cost, deeply personal cost, among others. The larger cost is that America is depriving itself of the enormous contribution that Black men and women, and all people of color can contribute to making this country so much more than what it already is.”
And he’s right. My first impulse is to say, “He’s dead right,” but that euphemism no longer feels appropriate.
The importance of breathing came again to mind when Susan and I got up before dawn last Friday to watch NASA’s SpaceX Dragon “Crew 2” astronauts ride a towering pillar of fire into orbit.
They had to carry their air with them, compressed in tanks.
I’ve been a space nerd since I was 10 years old. I wanted to be an astronaut, but all of the early astronauts had been fighter jet pilots, and I knew my poor eyesight would put the kibosh on any such career for me.
Still, I watch in wonder and imagine what it would be like.
On Saturday, I was up before sunrise again, watching as the Crew Dragon homed in on the International Space Station and docked safely. It took a couple of hours to get everything ready before the four new crew members could open the hatch and join the other seven astronauts aboard the space station.
The combined 11 people aboard included nine men and two women from four different countries: the U.S., France, Russia, and Japan. One of the Americans is Black, the Japanese are obviously Asian.
The astronauts work in harmony because they share a common and peaceful sense of mission.
The docking process involves pumping air into the passageway between the station and the arriving capsule, then carefully equalizing pressure between the three before opening the hatches.
People in space are intensely aware of how important it is to breathe.
So do people down below who live in a state of fear, concerned that their skin color alone makes them a target of suspicion and violence.
It shouldn’t be that way.
The beautiful story of creation found in Genesis 2 depicts a scene in which God formed a man from the dust of the earth and then “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
Breath makes us alive, and the Bible attests from the beginning that our breath is a gift of God – a gift to all people.
The Bible contains several imaginatively inspired accounts of creation. We find extended stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and in Job 38-41. Poetic accounts of varying length appear in Psalms 8, 19, 29, 65, 104, and 139. Even the prophets often used creation imagery.
In none of those accounts is there a suggestion that God created humans as different races, and the often egregiously misinterpreted account of Noah’s sons in Genesis 9 clearly does not imply race as a later tweak on creation.
Biologically, genetically, we are all one race: the human race. Despite our different ethnic identities, beneath the skin and beyond the culture, we are one human race, and we all need to breathe.
It’s a travesty that some of us are privileged to breathe so much more easily and confidently than others.
Surely, we should all be willing to work toward a world in which all people can breathe easily and not even have to think about it.
Let’s take a deep breath, do our own thinking, and do what we can do.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.