IF YOU have been following the news in the United States recently, you probably know by now that there is a terrible crisis that has been triggered by the four-word sentence that I have used as title for this homily: PLEASE, I CANNOT BREATHE…
These were among the last words uttered by the black man George Floyd, as he was being pinned down on the ground by a police officer on the allegation that he had passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill. His last moments were captured on video by several people, among them a lady and a man who actually pleaded with the police officer on George’s behalf. But the police officer would not let go, as he had the black man’s arm twisted behind him and while the police officer knelt on the suspect’s neck, obviously crushing his spine.
The man pleaded desperately saying, “Please sir, I cannot breathe… please, I need some air, please give me some water.” The lady who was capturing it on video, along with the onlookers are now also pleading, “Please, let him breathe,” to no avail. The man is now moaning and gasping for some air and crying like a baby. In his desperation he starts calling out for his mother, saying, “Mama… Mama…” He was dead by the time the paramedics came to attend to him.
This gripping scene that happened in Minneapolis a few days ago, has so angered the colored community in America, it has triggered violent strikes and lootings in various cities of the United States. It was further aggravated by a video of a white woman calling 911 because an educated black man, in fact a Harvard graduate, who happened to be doing birdwatching in the Central Park of New York, had asked this white woman to put her dog on leash, as required by law.
Fortunately for the black man, he had recorded the incident on video and uploaded it for the public to see how this woman had called 911 claiming that a black man was threatening her at the Central Park. She made a scene over the phone desperately crying for help, as if she was being attacked. She did all this as she held her dog by its collar until the poor animal was beginning to suffocate. I could practically hear the dog pleading in dogtalk, “Please…I cannot breathe.” But the woman was also gasping and pleading over 911 like she was being assaulted. She was breathless in her drama, and the video proved it to be false. It was the dog that was being suffocated by its own master.
The scenes have made me think of several other similar scenes of cries for help. I imagine a patient in a hospital, crying out, “Please nurse, I cannot breathe.” Since the Covid crisis began, this has been the desperate cry of many infected people whose lungs have been taken over by a vicious virus that prevents people from breathing properly, causing what they call an acute respiratory syndrome. The nurses, who are up to their necks with similar pleas from other patients, are in panic themselves. They rush their patients to the ICU but they have to wait until a ventilator is made available for them.
In their state of utter helplessness, some of them grab their cellphones and call on their loved ones and say their goodbyes as they are gripped by fear that they might not survive this. Like George Floyd, we are told by health workers that even elderly patients cry out and call for their mothers saying, “Mama…Mama…” Many of them have not survived the ordeal.
Stretch out your imagination a little further. “Please, I cannot breathe.” Wasn’t this also the desperate cry of the environment before this pandemic took place? How the earth was virtually also pressed down by the neck by giant companies with no conscience and no morals about using up the world’s resources and literally choking land, water, and air with so much toxicity, suffocating the earth with solid, liquid and gaseous wastes, even as rainforests are burning, glaciers are melting and the world’s climate is radically changing?
And then comes Pope Francis with his “Laudato Si,” pleading like that lady who had captured the cruel scene on video, verbalizing the earth’s, our common home’s cry for help, “Please I cannot breathe.”
Dear brothers and sisters, what a time to be celebrating PENTECOST, when all over the world, people are beginning to suffocate already after nearly three months of Quarantine while the pandemic continues to plague every corner of the world
The Gospel says Jesus came just in the nick of time, when his disciples, who were already suffocating in their fear, had turned the upper room into a virtual tomb because they had allowed their minds and hearts to be locked down by fear and anxiety and choked by the power of evil. The risen Lord breaks into the room; and to let in some fresh air and says, PEACE BE WITH YOU, and he breathes on them!
The Holy Spirit is the breath of new life that Jesus brings in all the death-dealing situations that we find ourselves in. It is the breath of justice and accountability on those pinned down on their necks by cruel, heartless and inhuman systems of governance. It is a breath of compassion and assurance for those already suffocating in their fears and anxieties. It is a breath of forgiveness on those suffocating in irrational hatred and resentment.
But it doesn’t end there. He breathes on them so that they could breathe on others too. He said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you, receive God’s holy breath.” It is his way of saying, “Just as I was sent to save those who are running out of breath, so also I send you with the same mission.” The Holy Spirit is God’s breath of grace that liberates us from our mutual fears, our biases and prejudices, our guilts, our angers and resentments, our cruelties and inhumanities. We received the Spirit so that we too could give the Spirit as gift. As we have been liberated to breathe, so we now are being sent to liberate so many others who are presently still suffocating, still gasping for breath, still crying out desperately, “Please, I cannot breathe.”
(Homily for Pentecost Sunday, 31 May 2020, John 20:19-23)