On the morning of Pentecost, 31st May 2020, I checked my inbox and discovered a transcript of the last words of George Floyd, the African American killed in the USA by a police officer kneeling on his neck.  This is part of that transcript:

I can't breathe officer

don't kill me

they gon' kill me man

come on man

I cannot breathe

I cannot breathe

Shortly afterwards in our morning worship we were invited to sing the beautiful hymn associated with Pentecost, ‘Breathe on me, breath of God,’ which draws on the gospel reading set for the day:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  (John 20:21-23)

These words are spoken after Jesus has appeared in the locked room where the disciples are hiding, afraid of the authorities.  Jesus has shown them the wounds in his hands and side, the aftermath of great violence done to him which resulted in his death, events in which those petrified followers were so caught up that they feared the same fate may await them, hence the locked door.  We move quickly away from Good Friday, impatient for Easter, for Pentecost.  It is hard to look on violence, to bear witness to it.  But sometimes we must.  We need now, as Christians, to bear witness to the pain of Black communities around the world as they protest this very public death, one of far too many.

Separated as we are by time and history from that first Easter, it is easy to feel removed from that context of fear, anxiety, and terror which the followers of Jesus inhabited.  When Jesus first appeared to them in the locked room, he said ‘Peace be with you.’  Then he showed them his wounds, confronting them again with the reality of what had happened to him, the physical trauma he had endured, the maelstrom of events that had led to it.  No doubt they were plunged straight back into the horror and the helplessness.  Yes, Jesus is saying to them, this really happened.  We do not know how long it took for them to gain their composure, but we do know that after they had been exposed to the reality of Jesus’ brokenness and death, it was necessary for Jesus again to offer them peace, after which he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ 

Breathe on me, breath of God is a Victorian hymn, written by English theologian Edwin Hatch.  It is a prayer set to music, a plea to God to fill us with the Holy Spirit that we may become a people who are completely and utterly in step with the purposes of God.  It asks God to change us, to convert us, that we may be agents of God’s will on earth, living the perfect life of eternity here and now. 

Breathe on me, Breath of God
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure;
until with thee I will one will,
to do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
till I am wholly thine;
until this earthly part of me
glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God:
so shall I never die,
but live with thee the perfect life
of thine eternity.

Each verse begins with the plea, ‘Breathe on me, breath of God.’  And singing those words with the last words of George Floyd in my mind, words transcribed from a film taken at the scene, words uttered over seven long minutes during which passers-by and paramedics tried to intervene, was heart breaking. 

It is worth reading the final words of George Floyd, however difficult they are, in full.  Some of his words might be deemed offensive, but they are words uttered by a man slowly losing his life in the custody of the police and so they are words that we need to bear witness to. 

"It's my face man

I didn't do nothing serious man

please

please

please I can't breathe

please man

please somebody

please man

I can't breathe

I can't breathe

please

(inaudible)

man can't breathe, my face

just get up

I can't breathe

please (inaudible)

I can't breathe sh*t

I will

I can't move

mama

mama

I can't

my knee

my nuts

I'm through

I'm through

I'm claustrophobic

my stomach hurt

my neck hurts

everything hurts

some water or something

please

please

I can't breathe officer

don't kill me

they gon' kill me man

come on man

I cannot breathe

I cannot breathe

they gon' kill me

they gon' kill me

I can't breathe

I can't breathe

please sir

please

please

please I can't breathe"

 

After these final words, George Floyd’s eyes closed.  He was pronounced dead shortly afterwards. 

The police officers involved were all sacked in the aftermath of the killing, and one has subsequently been charged with murder. 

In response to this death, anger has been ignited, and protests have erupted all over the USA, and have now spread to England.  There have been a number of high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of the police in recent years, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter Movement.  The anger at these killings, and over years of frustration about socioeconomic inequality and segregation is real and some of the largely peaceful protests have been highjacked by violence and looting.  In some cases, entirely peaceful demonstrations have been cleared with violence actions by the police.  Priests at the Episcopal Church of St John in Washington have spoken of how the peaceful protest was ended by law enforcement officers firing teargas and concussion grenades to clear a way for President Trump to stand outside the church for a photo call.  A bishop in the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican communion, described these events as ‘blasphemy in real time.’ 

Writing at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, Martin Luther King Jr., said this, "Living with the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation, some ghetto dwellers now and then strike out in spasms of violence and self-defeating riots. A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored."

In the protests spreading across the USA today we might recognise the outworking of these words.

In the reading from Acts 2 recounting the Day of Pentecost following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter stands before the crowds and quotes from the Book of Joel.  Joel is addressing a community that have experienced a crisis of great magnitude.  A plague of locusts has destroyed all the crops the community depended on.  The community are called to a day of fasting and prayer, and because of this turning to God, the community is delivered and promises are made, not just for the harvest to come, but for the future in which God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people.  It is a story of crisis, and deliverance from crisis, and it calls on the people to tell and retell the story of God’s deliverance, beginning with the call to tell the children what God has done.

Peter preaches to the crowds using Joel as his text.  He invites them to discover the story of what God has done in Christ.  He begins by recounting the extrajudicial killing of Jesus of Nazareth, in a night-time trial drawing on the testimony of false witnesses.  Peter pulls no punches, speaking of Jesus as the one, ‘you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’  But God raised Jesus from the dead for it was impossible for Jesus to be held by death’s power. 

Hearing Peter’s testimony the crowds were ‘cut to the heart’ and asked what they should do.  Peter calls on them to repent, everyone of them, and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ so that their sins may be forgiven, and they may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, for God’s promise is for ‘you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls.’

When we sing ‘Breathe on me breath of God,’ we ask God to fill us with love that we may love as God loves.  We invite God to purify our hearts that we may will what God wills.  God wills that all people know God’s love and compassion.  God wills that no one has their breath taken from them.  God wills that no one dies by the roadside, handcuffed, with a knee pressing into their neck, rendering them unable to breathe.  God wills that people are not discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, their racial profile. 

The BBC describes the widespread racial turbulence and civil unrest in America as the worst since the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King in 1968.  And as we watch from afar, it is easy to characterise this as their problem, not our problem, but the protests that have taken place in this country should invite us to consider that all is not well here.  In 2017 Reni Eddo-Lodge published her book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.’  It addresses the structural racism in British society, the racism that we all participate in unknowingly.  It begins in school, where black boys are routinely undermarked by their teachers, marks only corrected when papers are passed to outside examiners.  The structural inequality persists, all the way through school, university and in employment.  A person with a non-British sounding name is much less likely to be called to interview than one with a white British sounding name.  It is unlikely that a young black man will escape contact with the police.  Black men have died in police custody in the UK.  Recently a black man holding his five-year-old child in his arms was tasered by the police.  We live in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal which saw people who had come to this country by invitation to rebuild society after the ravages of war deported. 

The health outcomes of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the UK are less good than for white people.  We know now that Covid-19 disproportionately affects BAME people, it takes away their breath at a higher rate than that of white people.  The reasons for this are not yet understood.  Poverty may be a factor, with those in poorer communities have less able to access health care.  BAME people are more likely to be employed in the essential roles that bring higher risks, for example transport, care workers, cleaners.  One in five people employed in the NHS come from BAME back grounds, and this figure is higher for nurses and doctors. 

And racism also exists in the seemingly harmless assumptions we make.  The follow up question when inquiring about where some one comes from that goes, ‘But where are you / your family originally from?’  It is uncomfortable talking about race, but our discomfort doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have this conversation.  One of the strands within the Ministry Experience Scheme is to address the inequalities in the Church of England about the structural racism within the church.  As with the rest of society, the leadership of the Church of England at every level does not reflect the diversity of the population, or even the makeup of many of its churches. 

Pentecost is a joyful festival, full of energy and colour, but it is also a call to repent and to become transformed, to be enlivened by the breath of God that we may become at one with God, serving God’s purposes in the world.  The crowd that gathered to hear Peter speak were from around the known world.  It is extremely unlikely that many of them played any role at all in the events leading to Jesus death, yet Peter tells them that they too played a part, shared in the corporate sin and brokenness that thwarts the purposes of God and is death dealing instead of life breathing. 

Sometimes we are required to face ourselves squarely in the mirror, to acknowledge that we are part of the problem, however unthinkingly, however unaware of the prejudices that play out in our name in wider society.  I am a white, educated, middle class woman.  If I do not recognise my privilege, the ease with which my skin colour allows me to pass through society, I am part of the problem.  And so, I assert that #BlackLivesMatter in challenge to the many ways which the structures of our society say that they matter less.  I commit myself to listening to and learning from the experiences of my black brothers and sisters.  We, as individuals and as a church, are called by God to work for justice and equality, to stand for the right of all people to live with dignity and worth, to know the peace-giving breath of God breathing in them bringing abundant life.

May our prayer this Pentecost be that God breathe on us and equip us to work for the justice and freedom God wills for all people.