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No Room to Breathe

Rev. Daniel A. Smith (with Jean Dany)
Sun, Dec 07

Amidst all the arresting images in the news lately, one in particular has been haunting me since Wednesday.  It was last thing I read on my iphone as I was turning it off for two nights of a silent retreat this past week.  The image comes from the Rev. Jeff Hood, a minister at the Cathedral of Hope, UCC in Houston.  He said: “I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.’ It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.'”  Hood continues: “I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."

Forgive me for the quick dive into the deep end, but I wonder if this image resonates for you, and at what level.  Given the season, I’m tempted to connect the idea of a choke-held church, and of a choke-held Christ, to a message of Sabbath-restoring resistance to the breathless pace of our days, or maybe to a righteous rant about how our carbon footprints have left a permanent boot on the throat of our planet. But I too can't stop thinking of Eric Garner saying those words, and now of Jesus saying them too, right there with him, and even right here with us.

The idea of Jesus not being able to breathe is not new.  Scholars tell us that when he breathed his last, the actual cause of death was not crucifixion per se but asphyxiation. Though it was the strong arm of a Roman Empire that nailed him (and tens of thousands of his fellow Jews) up in the first place, it was the weight of his head and body hanging down upon itself that eventually crushed his air passages.  It’s entirely plausible that the words “I can’t breathe” were going through his mind if not his lips, just before he died. 

Eric Wasserman offered a similar commentary in a Globe editorial cartoon this week, a picture of Lady Justice, on her knees reading a headline “Police kill unarmed black men; no charges brought.”   Usually depicted in statue raising a sword in her right hand and the scales of justice in her left, here she was pictured fallen to her knees, her sword and scale on the ground by her side. The caption over her head was “I can’t breathe.” 

In a Youtube video, we hear Eric Garner saying it twelve times: “I can’t breathe.”

In our scriptures, we can imagine Jesus speaking it, then as now: “I can’t breathe.”

In our country, we see Justice on her knees crying out: “I can’t breathe.”

If none of them can breathe, how in Christ’s name can we?

Our scripture from Isaiah foretells a world when uneven ground will be made level, where God’s glory will be revealed, and all people shall see it together.  The prophet is heralding good tidings that will come at the end of times, good tidings that will be manifest when we do our part, when we prepare the way, when we make a highway for God’s justice and peace and the Messiah to enter our world. “A voice says: ‘Cry out!’ And I say ‘what shall I cry?”

What shall I cry?  What shall we cry?  If only we could breathe.  Those of us who have been stunned into silent grief and rage by these two recent grand jury verdicts can relate to the question.

And yet I wonder.  I wonder if what we’ve been hearing in the streets lately isn’t the start of an answer.  What shall we cry?  Could it be that we are already hearing it, in the crying out of “hands up, don’t shoot” or in the chants of “twelve times” and “I can’t breathe” and “you can’t breathe?”  Maybe it’s in the voices telling us that Jesus can’t breathe, and Justice can’t breathe, or to take one from the climate march this past September, that our planet can’t breathe. These cries are coming to the point where they seem to have a certain end-time urgency, do they not?

In Advent, we look both to a new beginning, to the first coming, to the birth of Emanuel, which means ‘God with us,’ but we also look back to that apocalyptic, end-time imagery that foretells God’s first, second and every coming.  Although this kind of imagery may seem like a foreign language, it may be much closer to our experience than we imagine and far more helpful to underscore the urgency of taking action now.  That’s the thing about apocalyptic moments in history. They bring out the hairshirt crazies – God bless ‘em! – like John the Baptist, who calls us to repent our every conscious and unconscious appeal to power and privilege, for a new Kingdom is coming that will overturn and replace the old one!  People start lying down in the streets, start marching on highways, start calling out the imperial regimes for being the ‘withering grass’ that they and we are. 

Writing in 1965, the great Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, one of those truly “terrifying angels” as a friend of mine used to call him, puts it this way:

The Evangelists, preparing us for the announcement of the birth of the Lord, remind us that the fullness of time has come…It is the time of repentance, the time for the fulfillment of all promises, for the Promised One has come.

But with the coming of the end, a great bustle and business begins to shake the nations of the world. The time of the end is the time of massed armies, "wars and rumors of wars," of huge crowds moving this way and that, of men "withering away for fear," of flaming cities and sinking fleets, of smoking lands laid waste, of technicians planning grandiose acts of destruction. 

Maybe all that end time talk is not sounding so foreign or irrelevant after all.  For what else but an end-of-the-world urgent call to transformation can make straight the wildly crooked path our country and planet is now on?  Merton continues: 

The time of the end is the time of the Crowd: and the [end time] message is spoken in a world where, precisely because of the vast indefinite roar of armies on the move and the restlessness of turbulent mobs, the message can be heard only with difficulty. Yet it is heard by those who are aware that the display of power, hubris and destruction is part of the kerygma (message). That which is to be judged announces itself, introduces itself by its sinister and arrogant claim to absolute power. 

Consider the armies of police and SWAT, the restlessness of the protests we've seen, the unchecked authority of our justice system and prison industrial complex that is the ongoing product of a largely white and wealthy aristocracy.

Merton only later shares the more spiritual dimensions of this end-time frame for making meaning amidst our chaos. He writes:

We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space. As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.  As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

In other words, there is no room to breathe!

“Into this world”, Merton continues, “into this world, this demented inn, where there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited.” 

Whether or not we “believe” that these are the end of times, can we at least begin to appreciate the transformative urgency that this, our ancient language and sacred tradition, offers at this time of year when we prepare to remember the birth of Christ, our Messiah, our Savior, who comes, again and again to conspire with us, to breathe with us and in us, as together we resist the chokehold of power and privilege that separates us from ourselves, from our neighbors, from the very source of our breath and being in God.

There are different ways that we can resist. There are different ways we can grow in the “awareness of our state,” the state of our “demented inn.” We can read and try to know intellectually of the scourge of racism on our American culture. From the Ta-Nehisi-Coates Atlantic article we shared this summer:  “250 years of slavery.  90 years of Jim Crow.  60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining.” We can turn to statistics, that blacks are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, that there are over 1 million black bodies in US prisons today, more than were enslaved before the Civil War in 1850, that a full 1 in 3 black men between the ages of 18 and 28 are in prison, jails, on probation, or awaiting trial. We can share blogs and posts. We can hit the streets, in protest and die-ins. We can help rebuild Ferguson. This church is already sending money to the church of Michael Brown that was burned to the ground last week, reportedly by White supremacists.  We can organize and act together to demand police and prison and educational reform and even reparations.  At least as importantly, we can engage in those often awkward, pain-staking, soul searching conversations that raise our self awareness of the daily privileges many of us take for granted, that raise our compassion for the daily pains others endure, that raise our sensitivity to the careless “oops-es” and the biting “ouch-es” our conversations about race often bring.  We can and must resist our tendencies toward the apathy, complicity, denial and fear that severely limits the number of authentic conversations and interactions we have. 

I close with a story.  I was in meeting on Tuesday with some of you that have been part of our ongoing Building Beloved Community group and our Witness Against Gun Violence and Inequality group.  As part of our post-Thanksgiving check-in, we shared our reactions to Ferguson.  I spoke of my utter ambivalence and even disgust at watching my colleague, the Rev. Liz Walker of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, and the veteran CBS news anchor, holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a vigil we attended the day after the Ferguson decision came down. With an inner rage in my heart, I thought: what the hell kind of world are we living in where she needs to hold that sign!?!  On a lighter note, or so I thought, I then shared about how I was proud of my son Julian for joining with over 1000 high school and college students in a die-in protest on Mass Ave this past Monday.  It was even covered on NPR. Cool, right? We continued our check in and rounds, and then came Jean Dany’s turn.  He similarly shared a reflection and spoke about his son Cesar, who is in our high school youth group and who also attends Cambridge Rindge and Latin with Julian. With Jean Dany’s permission, I share what follows.

Though he wasn’t the first to shed tears in this meeting, when he started speaking, he almost immediately began to weep.  The same student protest was on his mind. At it turns out, he had spent most of the last night wrestling with it and eventually pleading with Cesar not to go to the protest. This wasn’t because Jean Dany doesn’t believe in the cause. He believes in it with every bone in his body; it broke his heart to try to keep Cesar away! And yet, he could not help but be afraid for Cesar’s safety.

Here’s the thing: it never occurred to me that Jean Dany and my experiences could have been so different.  It never occurred to me that Julian would be in any danger as a part of a protest, even if he had been arrested. Since Cesar’s been in our youth group for these past two years, I think of him as one of my kids too.  Maybe if we lived in Ferguson.  Maybe if we lived in Roxbury or Mattapan.  But in my pristine white privilege bubble, Jean Dany’s totally understandable fear of his kid being hurt or arrested or worse could not have been farther from my mind or heart, until I heard him speak and witnessed his tears. An experience that began as a source of pride for me was a source of gut-wrenching anguish and fear for him.  It was a profound recognition of the invisible gulf that fundamentally separates a white and black man’s experience of their children.  I was ashamed I hadn’t seen it before he spoke, but the tears that several of us exchanged around the table in my office were and are a painful yet deeply precious gift, a teachable of a moment, to say the very least.


Thankfully, Jean Dany’s and my conversation did not start nor end there.  We picked it up yesterday when I learned that he’s been writing haikus about his experiences. He is here today and I’ve asked him if he would share a few with us.  We are indeed privileged that he is willing.  Jean Dany is a poet by profession, awarded the designation “Poet Populist” of the City of Cambridge from 2009-2011.  In his words, of haiku, in the syllables and in the spaces between, may we all find room to breathe and inspiration to con-spire, to breathe together, a new life and a new world -- into our poetry, into our protests, into the still unfolding stories and legacies of all of our children.   Jean Dany…


America why?

With such abundance of wealth

But lack of justice


The grand jury speaks

Ferguson calls for the guards

Black folks are concerned


The news is all out

The cop is free to move on

I weep in silence


Protests erupt all over

Come on Lord, why this again?

A bitter verdict!


Black lives matter too

What do we tell the children?

Is that justice?


What were you thinking?

My lawyer friend says 

That’s the way it is


There was Rodney King

And also Trayvon Martin

Then Eric Gardner


No justice no peace

It ain’t our nation’s first

It’s a mad disease


This is the struggle

My hands are up please don’t shoot

I can’t trust no more


They care for their kind

That’s the way the game is played

It ain’t racism


No justice no peace

One more protest is scheduled

Blacks are humans too



My son asks again

How did I do at his age?

My fear chucks my words


This divided line

Isolates folks on both side

Blacks and Whites equal


I’ve seen enough tears

And desolation on faces

How far can this go?


Stop shifting the blame

Some say blacks too are racist

Let’s just get along


You can’t kill them all

Memories don’t just vanished

Justice is the way


But make no mistake

Even the sun needs a break

This too will soon stop


Power comes and goes

And its wheels for sure do spin

Time doesn’t matter


Some truly don’t know

But comfort in the system

Does silence many  


Wake up God’s people

Yes for sure that day will come

For equality


Yes, we do have laws

I wish everyone could know

They don’t work for all


Lord that pain again

Is it rage or repression?

Please tame my anger





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