On May 25th, 2020, videos began to emerge with a white cop (who later became known to us as Derek Chauvin) with his knee on the neck of black man George Floyd as he lay alongside a car uttering the words “I can’t breathe!” For 8 minutes and 46 seconds Chauvin kneeled thrusting the weight of his body on the narrow air passageways of Floyd’s neck. The world watched the video in horror and waited with baited breath for what would happen next.
For us black people, those who live in America and others of us around the world, it wasn’t like we hadn’t been here before. Eric Garner uttered those exact same words on July 17, 2014 on the streets of Staten Island in New York City. He too was put in a chokehold and was held down by a bunch of white cops. No one was ever charged with his death.
So here we were, 5 years later, hearing those same words again, only this time 98,000 people in the US had passed away in a matter of months after being choked to death by the corona virus, the largest demographic of whom were black or people of color.
After what seemed to look and feel like business as usual, the man (Chauvin) was fired but not arrested, his fellow accomplice cops who also applied weight to hold Floyd down or just looked on and watched, were later never charged. This came on the heels of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot down and killed just months before in Atlanta when jogging while black, while his white perpetrators were allowed to go free for months without even being investigated. They were standing their ground like Zimmerman against black youth Trayvon Martin back on February 26, 2012 who was armed with a bag of skittles. Martin was killed, Zimmerman got off.
Then there was Breonna Taylor who was shot and killed in her home while sleeping by white cops: and; her boyfriend too who was arrested immediately as a black man for standing his ground when cops unannounced busted into his home. And then there were countless other black women - in addition to the black men whose names ring a bell - whom we do not even know, cannot say their names or know of their stories, who have also been gunned down by white cops in the US who later got off under the US penal justice system.
Hence when May 25th we heard yet again the words ‘I can’t breathe’ it unleashed in many of us that which soon spread over the US and into the wider international world community, a trauma of lived anxiety, deep hurt and pain that has been sitting in our bodies and the bodies of our ancestors for a very long time. In Austria a 98% white country just yesterday, on June 4th, held a march of some 50, 000 people, nearly as many people as are here in Bermuda, in solidarity with George Floyd! The whole world is erupting, is traumatized and it feels, like Al Sharpton so pointedly said at Floyd’s memorial ceremony, the weight of injustice is sitting on our necks and yes, we can’t breathe!!
And we are not out of the woods yet, far from it, I hope. Work like this and moving through the pain of trauma like this, takes time. Covid 19 continues to teach us these wonderful lessons. We need to apply it here too, to our work forward and to healing beyond this eruption that has occurred over George Floyd’s unfortunate and untimely death.
As a Roman Catholic Church community if we are ‘awoke’, if we are paying attention, we will see that our church too is erupting regarding our perception of racism and how it has played out and continues to hold space in the life of the church. As a seemingly white church it is so easy for us to become complicit, for us to bypass and try to hang low and just wade this one out. A common reaction to this is “we are not political”.
As socially conscious persons what our church leaders are asking - or should be asking - of us, when we as Church are made to pause and assume this stance, is to always proceed with caution and remember the higher teachings of the church – be respectful, be loving and most of all be forgiving of others who would hurt us or disagree with our point of view. After all isn’t this what Jesus would do?
Notwithstanding, the Church has its social justice teachings, encyclicals guiding us how we should act, for instance Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. There is also guidance within our Church teachings for how we are to act toward the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized. Hence an excuse not to respond in action to an egregious act of violence and racism as seen in the case of George Floyd, is unacceptable, specifically for Catholics, because we have the social justice teachings that remind us how to do this!
American Catholics played a dominant role in the Civil Rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in particular the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, in March 1965, to secure the voting rights act. Catholics worldwide hold the non-resistance movement, Satyagraha (Truth), led by the simple Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi, in the early 1940’s, to take India back from the British as nothing but stellar! Hence Catholics love Gandhi!
My point is Catholics have been seen to participate in the social justice teachings of the Catholic church for years, and have relied on them to get involved, as a Call -To- Action.
What is equally important however, and this is the sticky bit, is the HOW we do this, that makes all the difference. These are the moving parts which, if we are not careful, can strike us in the head or the teeth and knock us down! This is the piece that is rooted in peace, in love, in truth as Gandhi would say Satyagraha. Pope Pius VI said ‘if you want peace, work for justice’. Conversely the opposite is also true. If we want justice, we must work from a place of peace - and I would add - non-violence and truth-telling.
Those of us who don’t get this racism bit, who wonder what all the hype is about or want to cry foul, “I’m not political”, I would say listen to your body. Christianity, in its essence is an embodied, an incarnate experience. To see the policeman with his knee on Floyd’s neck and excuse it as an officer with PTSD issues is what your head may say, but what does the body say to all this, because the body does not lie. How would you feel? How would your mother or brother feel if this happened to them? How did Christ feel when he says “I thirst”, or if he said, “I can’t breathe!”
And for those activist types - those of us who feel this in our bones like all the young folks out in the streets protesting - I say, what is our task, our journey? We may say we “get this” and “no more” while raising our fists in solidarity; however, what we have to remember is respect, love and forgiveness. We may feel gratitude that we are “woke” but with this new consciousness comes an added responsibility. This is how and why in truth, in satyagraha, we must sit on our seats and pray "affectively", contemplatively during times like these. This is when and why we meditate and listen to God and hear what he asks us to do next.
These social justice issues of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and the like, are truly complex issues and require a new way of seeing to work our way through them and for us to allow these experiences to be lived experiences within us. This is how I imagine the Living Christ lives and breathes through all of us.
Contemplation/meditation helps us to do this and provides for us a way forward, a new way to breathe.