Movement for Life: Why we won't stop breathing
By Kenneth Ngwa, PhD
BREATHING IS A DIVINE ACT, a gift of the highest order. Therefore, the world is under divine mandate to breathe. The act of breathing, the organs that perform it, and the conditions that enhance or inhibit this act have compelled human and divine attention since ancient times. As civilizations emerged and social systems developed, the life-force, the breath, that animates and inspires human and non-human beings and flourishing has remained a subject of unrelenting focus and attention. We have developed language to name it: pumzi in Swahili; qi in Mandarin; chi in Igbo; nchuwi-ntǝ in Bafut; ruah in Hebrew; pneuma in Greek; spiritus in Latin; honhom in Twi; respiración in Spanish; etc. Theologically, this is what connects created life to the Holy One. As humans, we have developed institutions, traditions, and rituals to structure this relationship of shared life, and to permanently connect it to other humans, to non-human creatures, and to the Divine; we have created systems to codify and regulate the power of breath and its physiological and social necessity; we have created religious, spiritual, and moral values to enhance its security and longevity, and to improve and celebrate its quality. We learn to share life in communal living, we work to enhance the quality of life, we resist the erasure of life, and we commit to renew shared life when it is in danger of becoming breathless – we BREATHE.
On May 25, 2020, a 46-years old African American man, George Floyd, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when a police officer used his knee to apply the weight of his body on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd struggled and groaned and pleaded to be let go. In the end, he died. The physical and mental image of the officer’s knee on Floyd’s neck violated Floyd’s human dignity and his rights to life. Racism and health inequities converged in that moment. Floyd’s tragic, televised demise was horrifying, and illustrated how racism and black morbidity are intimately linked. The historical trail of such deaths is long, but it also tells the story of a fight for life. In the fight for his life, Floyd repeatedly uttered words that have become a rallying cry against systemic racial injustice: “I Can’t Breathe.” Those words, released as some of his last vocalizations, have mobilized a national and international movement for reforms and justice. That movement is benefitting from the enduring work of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a movement and mode of communal breathing, the #BLM, founded by three Black Women – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi – has become a powerful communal and global lung that reaches deep down into systems of national and international citizenship, and pumps breath into the contorted or suffocating human and social bodies.
From the beginning of its canonical pages, the biblical text – or I should say, the biblical writer who is speaking and perhaps experiencing difficulty breathing – invites the reader and audience to see, hear, feel, and contemplate an earthly, communal, body that is “formless and void.” We see and hear a contorted body whose lungs and face have been knotted and covered by a deep history of colonialism and chaos. It is a body that God wants to revive (Gen. 1:2). Through repeated use of divine vocal cords, God releases breath into the formlessness and void of the earth and its watery bodies. The divine spirit and the spoken word are linked; they are breathing subjects creating other breathing subjects. The movement expands. God summons the earthy and earthly body to begin producing seed – new life, breathable forms – that reflects the inherent goodness of its variety (Gen. 1:11-12). This divine work of catalyzing good variety extends to the waters and to the heavens (Gen 1:20-22). When humankind joins the earth that is being created, that divine act receives particular commendation: humans are created in the image and likeness of God. This distinction and status helps to anchor the mutual relation between humans and the non-human world (Gen 1:26-30). The wellbeing of humans cannot be fully appreciated apart from the quality of life inherent in the “preexisting” world to which they are assigned. The divine creator, hard at work producing a holistic world, is pleased to see integrated living and wellbeing: God saw all that was made and it was “very good,” very healthy. Divine, human, and non-human breathing have changed the view/image of the contorted body. It now breathes.
Floyd’s death occurred at a time when the coronavirus further exposed the relation between preexisting social health determinants and inequities, and resultant public health outcomes. Now hunted by a virus that threatened their modes of breathing, allies of Black Breath encountered in COVID-19 something of what Black people have routinely encountered in racism – a choking substance that creates anxieties about engagement with the public spaces, that disregards the content of character in its pursuit of a victim. It compels partial self-masking as a routine sine qua non for survival, and that forces fragility and unease into otherwise normal intimate social interactions. In the face of that reality, Whiteness saw itself in the mirror of reflection, but allies also saw themselves in a sunken place, trying hard to breathe together responsibly. They came out in mass, deciding to no longer be silent regarding the loss of Black lives. A new social trope emerges. To adopt and modify language and metaphor from Ralph Ellison, Black Breath is largely no longer Invisible; it is not unbreathable – and never has been – but now its invaluable character and quality is being fully recognized. As Floyd’s family – and the world – reclaimed his body, large segments of the world community had watched Floyd take and release his spirit. The world decided to “embrace” that Black breath and join a movement.
8 minutes and 46 seconds. That’s how long Floyd was choked; that’s how long he fought; that’s how long he vocalized and released angst into the social body. The trauma of the moment was emblematic of the entrenched causes of racial and health inequities. That’s why it felt like eternity.
History is also replete with systems and ideologies and traditions that diminish or extinguish our individual and communal breath. Colonialism, racism, genocide, lynching, environmental pollution, and sexism are ready examples. By definition and function, such systems are choking mechanisms. In the choking-murder of George Floyd, that system manifested itself anew. While the officer and the racist system knelt on the black body, the world heard the black voice being choked. In its last releases, that breath told us it was being stopped in its tracks. In 8 minutes and 46 seconds that felt like eternity, Floyd spoke again and again, “I Can’t Breathe” … “I Can’t Breathe.” That repetition echoed around the world and across time; it stirred up other choked voices. From New York, Eric Garner’s 2014 amplified the sound of the stifled flow of breath; from Cleveland, Ohio, Tamir Rice’s silenced voice amplified the sound in 2014; from Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria, captured Secondary School girls amplified the sound in 2014; from Texas, Sandra Bland’s 2015 voice amplified the sound; from South Africa, in 1976, Hector Pieterson and hundreds of peaceful protesters were shot to death, but they amplified the sound, etc...
Racism’s systems of horror – its colonial, chattel, segregationist, or ritual acts of choking – draw attention to a visual body that has been captured or imprisoned or placed in a dungeon or in a colony or plantation. But in addition to seeing Floyd and many other brutalized and hurt bodies, we also hear the Black voice being choked. Triggered without justifiable cause, racism hunts the black skin and tackles it to the ground, or shoots it from the back as it flees, or calls 911, or hurls a racist epithet, or burns the communal body to the ground, or forces it into a colony. What racism is really after is not just the black skin, but most of all Black breath – its movement in the public space, its economic and intellectual creativity, its production of democracy, its spirituality and religion, and yes, its biological and physical labor. That is why Haiti was forced to pay France an equivalent of $21 Billion in 1825 in exchange for freedom from the choking hand of colonialism (here); that is why, in 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina, experienced the overthrow of a democratic election, the reassertion of White supremacy, and a plan to kill Blacks and dump them in a river, even if it meant that such action would “choke the current of the Cape Fear river with carcasses” (here); that is why black Wall Street was burned down in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 (here); that is why many African countries are still paying France after the official end of colonialism (here); that is why Martin Luther King Jr. noted that the most segregated hour in Christian America was 11 O’clock on Sunday mornings, and described such segregating as contrary to the spirit (aka the breath) of Jesus Christ (here); and much more. Black breathing is what racism, whether systemic or sporadic, is trying to choke; that is what segregation and red lining and family separations at the border are all about.
The late African theologian, John Mbiti, argued that African-descended people think and live in phenomenon time as much as in statistical time. So, in the longstanding homeostatic tradition of transforming trauma into trauma-hope, we must transform the horror of 8 minutes and 46 seconds as statistical time – how long can one survive a choking knee? – to the generative response of phenomenon time: how must we remove the systemic knee from the neck? This work of generative phenomenon time has been picked up by religious and social commentators, including the Rev Al Sharpton of the National Action Network (NAN) (here). In phenomenon time, as many times in the past – from anticolonial movements or the civil rights movement to protest movements after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor and many more – the world is sucked into Floyd’s experience, and highlights the intersection of racial and health inequities. In response to this terrible event, Never Stop Breathing aligns with many other antiracist and anticolonial movements. Why a body might stop breathing, and how, and where, are long standing concerns and questions that have fueled movements and created systems of communal health. This is so whether that body is human or ecological or social or religious. In this mode of movement of phenomenon time as resistance to choking, resurrection becomes a spiritual and theological metaphor and manifestation of the power and ongoing work of God. The health of theological and social work, and the health of persons and communities, depends on creating cultures and practices that enhance systemic breathable worlds. That is part of the Never Stop Breathing pledge.
Reverend Dr. Mary White offered a prayer of comfort during Floyd’s funeral in Houston. I remember being moved and inspired by her prayer, which she introduced as a gathering to “talk to God for a minute.” A lasting theological and spiritual framing of her prayer ensued, as she launched into a soul-full theological and social commentary on some of Floyd’s words – when he called to his mamma in deep agony. Dr. White heard that call and prayed on it and about it:
“We thank you for the life of George Floyd, O God, that at a moment when he called out for his mamma, we believe that the ears of mamma’s across this nation reared up; that the ears of mamma’s across this world heard him cry. Even though he called for one mamma, all mamma’s began to wail. We began to wail for our children. We began to wail for our grandchildren. We wailed for men across this world because of one mamma’s call. God we thank you…” (here). This is a theological reflection, ritual, and commentary about awakening in response to a call. It signifies the movement of the breath, the movement to keep it flowing, to ensure that it lives beyond the moment of its choking.
If racism and colonialism and other such ills and tragedies feel and function like choking machinery, there is also a history of resistance to such choking mechanisms. To borrow the language of Paul, we are called to refrain from quenching the spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). And, like the exilic prophet, Ezekiel, we are called to speak to the wind – to release it through our words so that it can infuse the choked and dry bones that litter our streets and churches and nations and prisons and towns and history. “I Can’t Breathe” is the modern version of the ancient cry, “let my people go”; it is the latest rendition of “let freedom ring.” From Moses to Harriet Tubman, from Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita to Malcolm X, from the 16th Street church bombing (1963) to George Floyd (2020), and everything between and beyond, movements towards enhancing human and social breathing continue to inspire new worlds. The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians (The Circle) heard that cry and responded. Other organizations, including the African Association for the Study of Religion (here), the Society of Biblical Literature (here), and individual faculty (here) responded, among many others. These awakenings continue to galvanize a movement that insists, that calls, on us all to Never Stop Breathing. In our ideal forms of social, religious, ecological, and political behavior, we have learned to survive and thrive by breathing better together.
Ashon Crawley has shown in his book, Blackpentecostal Breath, that narratives of struggles for freedom can, and should, be read as narratives about individual and communal breathing – the excitement and the incitement of the otherwise enslaved body, compelling it to move and breathe (here). Breathing is as important to religious thinkers and practitioners inside and outside of their institutional spaces, as it is to medical professionals in a research lab or an operating room, as it is to black, brown or white racial justice activists on the streets. The great religions of the world have learned – and continue to learn – how to focus on the quality of breathing, the conditions under which it thrives, and the challenges to it. Through legislation, ritual, stories, agriculture, dieting, entertainment, scholarship, art, politics, and more, these religious traditions have forged and nurtured sacred links between the Holy One and earthly experiences of breathing that succumb to the fragility of time, or the brutality of sporadic and systemic violence. Good breathing is as much a function of the lungs as it is a function of air quality. Oppressive regimes and systems understand this truth, and often deploy tear gas to repress public advocacy for racial and health equity; the gas inhibits vision and breathing. Such action is bound to provoke outrage. The response, “I Can’t Breathe,” is as much a righteous protest and resistance as it is a charge to create systemic justice. Such work infuses human, social, and ecological bodies with clean air, but also functions as communal lungs for giving life.