I Can’t Breathe!
By Pastor Sonya D. McAuley-Allen
The Rev. Melissa N. McQueen, Many Voices’ North Carolina Faith Organizer, asked powerful ministers to share their wisdom on urgent issues of justice for a new era of challenge and opposition. Throughout American history, sermons by visionary ministers have long played a powerful role in the fight for justice. Intentionally bold and thought-provoking, these especially commissioned sermons embody the spirit of resistance found in truly revolutionary rhetoric. Each sermon represents the sole view of the minister who composed it. For the ninth entry in our Revolutionary Rhetoric series, we feature Pastor Sonya D. McAuley-Allen’s lyrical sermon on the importance of life and breath in an age of police brutality.
The video footage is stark. It shows Eric Garner, a 43-year-old unarmed African American man, being wrestled violently to the ground by New York City police officers on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island.
One of the officers named Daniel Pantaleo places Garner in a chokehold, a hostile act that the NYPD expressly forbade its officers to do. Eleven times, over and over again, we hear Garner saying the following chilling words while being assaulted on the sidewalk by the police:
Eventually, Garner had a heart attack while being transported to the hospital and he died. Garner’s alleged killing at the hands of police became yet another rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. His pleading, haunting last words—I can’t breathe—still express our deepest spiritual and physical pain.
Many of us take our breathing for granted. I mean really: how often do you pay attention to something that seems to come so naturally.
We do, however, pay attention to our breathing when it becomes compromised.
Others pay attention to our breathing when it becomes compromised in their presence too.
And we all pay attention to breathing when it becomes compromised at the hands of someone else.
In Genesis 2:7, breathing begets human life itself: “Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.”
It’s powerful imagery because breathing is the work of God and from God’s work we are gifted to live.
And that life, whether its riddled with poor choices, sick, wealthy, ordinary, or unassuming—it’s still ours because God breathed life into us.
Garner’s death and the killing of many black people at the hands of law enforcement force us to confront the preciousness of God’s work and God’s gift.
At the same time, these killings show that we have much work to do within our own communities.
How many times have we compromised the gift of God because of our own insecurities?
How many times have we compromised the life of our community because we just didn’t want to be inconvenienced?
How many times have we compromised the life of someone else simply because they challenged what we think are our biblical notions of gender, race, or sexuality?
How many times have we compromised the life of people simply because we didn’t understand or want to understand them?
I Corinthians 12:26 says that when part of the body is hurting, then the whole body is hurting.
Saints, hear our brothers and sisters!
Hear our enemies!
Hear our communities!
Hear our own muffled sounds of desperation!
For to come in the name of the Lord with anything other than God’s love and compassion is compromising God’s gift to me, which is my life!
Thus, will I continue to suffer or will you let me breathe?
About Pastor Sonya D. McAuley-Allen:
Pastor Sonya D. McAuley-Allen is the Interim Pastor at South End Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Rev. McAuley-Allen believes as we connect, we inspire; as we inspire, we grow; and as we grow, we change. Feel free to connect and grow with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Questions, comments, or concerns? Feel free to contact Many Voices | A Black Church Movement for Gay & Transgender Justice at email@example.com.