By Rev. Anna Blaedel
When it feels like the world is ending…
When grief is raw, and pain is pressing…
When the too muchness of sorrow fills the space within and around and between…
When I don’t know where or how to begin the practice of meeting life as it is…
I have learned to do two things: drink water, and breathe.*
Everything else begins here. Drink water. Breathe. The most basic necessities of life. Drink water. Breathe. How life is sustained. How prayer begins. Water is Life. Breath is Spirit. Ruach. Pneuma. The origins of life. The beginning of all that is possible. Water. Breath.
To offer another water is a holy and lifesaving act of hospitality.
To breathe together is to be together, to literally conspire together in life, for life.
When we hear someone cry “I can’t breathe!” we bear an urgent and vital responsibility to allow absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to continue as it is until we have figured out how to restore breath.
It is the cruelest kind of irony, that as a viral pandemic rages, and as our collective attention is fixated on respirators and ventilators and the vital necessity of breath, another Black beloved is murdered, crucified, while crying “I can’t breathe!”
As theologian Alicia Crosby notes, “I can’t shake how profoundly evil it is to tear gas folks protesting the suffocation of a man by the police during a pandemic driven by a respiratory disease.”
The truth is, more than one pandemic is raging.
The truth is, COVID-19 would not be as deadly and devastating as it is, if not for the collusion of white supremacy, capitalism, mass incarceration, settler colonialism, and their willful denial of the inherent mattering of Black life, the sacred value of Indigenous life, the intrinsic worth of brown life.
Apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalypsis, “unveiling.” Apocalypse is not The End, but the unveiling of stark realities of collective life. Truth, revealed.
The truth is, the white woman in Central Park knew exactly what she was doing, concocting a pernicious untruth about a Black man, which, through the telling, could have devastatingly easily led to his violent death. The truth is, it is quite clear on that video that she knew she wasn’t under threat, but was willing to claim fear in order to wield it as a weapon, as a threat. The truth is, she responded to a simple request to shift her behavior for the sake of others, with murderous refusal. The truth is, the violence of her particular actions are woven into a long history of white women falsely accusing Black men and boys of crimes they did not commit, of white women’s fear and tears being weaponized against Black life. The truth is, 14 year old Emmett Till was tortured and murdered after a white woman claimed he was a threat, a claim she later admitted bore no truth. The truth is, Emmett Till was murdered because of Carolyn Bryant’s untruth. The truth is, Christian Cooper could so easily have been murdered, because of Amy Cooper’s untruth. The truth is, on the very same day, for five excruciating minutes, George Floyd cried for help, while a white police officer knelt on his neck. The truth is, George Floyd was crying out the truth, “Please, I can’t breathe...Everything hurts. Help, I can’t breathe!” The truth is, although bystanders pleaded with the police to stop, not a single other police officer moved to intervene. The truth is, heavily armed white men can storm a state capital, breaking legal mandates aimed at protecting public health, and be met with stoic restraint from police, while police don riot gear and deploy mace and rubber bullets on protestors marching for #JusticeForFloyd. The truth is, the police were called because George Floyd was suspected of trying to use a fake $20 bill. The truth is, white supremacy valued George Floyd’s life less than a bill bearing the face of a slave-owning, genocidal former US president. The truth is, having a white supremacist, genocidal president is not new in US history.
And, the truth is, it is hard to breathe, in and through these truths. And, the truth is, those of us who are white have an urgent responsibility to sit with, and face, and confront these truths. They are truths white people must confront, and tell, and disrupt, and unlearn, and undo. They are truths only white people have the privilege to ignore.
“Judgement,” writes Christy Road, “is when humanity asks one another: Who follows through on the lessons we should have already learned?”
Lord, when did we see you thirsty, and offer you nothing to drink?
When did we hear you cry “I can’t breathe!” and do nothing to remove the knee from your neck?
Theologian and scholar Olumatomisin Oredein recently offered, “Dear white friends and affiliates, the best way to begin to undo the racism in you, your family, your church, or your community is to learn from Black people and other minoritized communities. This will cost time, money, emotional space, and probably some relationships but it is critical to invest in your doings (the undoing of white supremacy that has assisted you whether you have been aware or not) through education...YOU have to build awareness and experience. Education is experience--take it seriously and invest in it. Let me be clear: it will cost--years, money, and probably some relationships, but that cost is not nearly as much as every Black, brown, indigenous life already lost because of iron-clad white supremacy. It is your job to melt the iron and ask yourself the question my faith has taught me to ask myself, ‘Do you want to be well?’”
Dear ones: Do we want to be well?
Olumatomisin Oredein echoes Toni Cade Bombara in The Salt Eaters.
May we linger in the question, listening for what truth comes from our response.
Do we honestly, truly, want to be well?
If there is any truth to us being “in this together,” those of us who are white must bear with and lay bare the truths suffocating the breath of Black and Brown and Indigenous siblings.
As poet Andrea Gibson writes, “Even when the truth isn’t hopeful the telling of it is.”
May we kindle the courage to be undone by the truths that demand our collective attention. May we honestly conspire together to be, to become, well.
"two things I must do every day:
drink more water
and write more."