• Jonathan Chan

Lorie Shaull (License)


breath

for george floyd

‘Bearing balms, and flow’rs to crown

That poor Head the stone holds down’

- Arthur Shearly Cripps

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

crushed into air within the windpipe, pressed

until a groan is trampled into the concrete,

fed into the dust?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

choked out by the stinging slicing rain

of burning tears, whipped by

rubber until raw?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

when the oxygen of our wailing is sapped

by fire and left to dry, hanging

from trees?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

when there is no light to pierce through

those bullet wounds, only pleas,

dribbling red?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

holy bastards of the bleeding mouth,

on the crosses of east, west,

north and south?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

when it came down thundering

straight from His mouth on a

living, livid sunday?

who has the right to steal another’s breath?

that the cost of having one should

tighten into every kind of

anguished knot?

who has the right

to steal another’s breath?

who?





On ‘breath’:


I couldn’t watch the video of George Floyd’s death. The moment he moaned, ‘I can’t breathe’, my heart gave way to grief and I had to shut it off. Anger seared within me, just as an enormous weight began to press itself down in my heart. When I wrote this poem, I thought back to those who articulated indignant anger toward such murders with force and intensity: Jean Toomer in his novel Cane (1923), Langston Hughes in his poem ‘Christ in Alabama’ (1931), Billie Holiday in the song Strange Fruit (1954), Amiri Baraka in his poem ‘Incident’ (1969). This poem draws on anger toward the state-sanctioned killings of innocent Black people across the United States that are inseparable from its history; theologian James Cone points out of the killing of Jesus:

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists—the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

As I prayed in sorrow to God, thinking of the deep sin and injustice that persist at individual and structural levels, I read Lamentations and Ezekiel, looking for a language that would help me come to terms with the anger and grief I had been sitting with. In both, I found examples of prophets and people moved to question the relationship between God and the suffering endemic to humanity, crying out in deep pain to a God whose divine promises seemed obscured by darkness. As Michael W. Smith describes:

Lament moves the practice of prayer beyond a passive acceptance of whatever life brings upon us and raises questions which require answers. In doing so, lament seeks to initiate a dialogue with heaven, hoping – longing – that God will respond to the sufferer’s anguish and confusion.

Lament is a practice that many Christians in the developed world have grown unfamiliar with, for suffering is distant when our material needs are met and when we grow comfortable. Yet, for communities that suffer, lament is never a distant reality. Lament recurs powerfully in many Spirituals composed by African Americans: songs yearning for freedom from slavery, oppression, and persecution (Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Go Down Moses, Steal Away to Jesus, My Soul's Been Anchored) The killing of George Floyd is evidence of why lament persists in the African American church to this day. I make no claims to these traditions, but present this poem as a personal lament, my own form of questioning and grappling with God, my attempt to reckon with the unjust world we live in while yearning, grasping, waiting upon the justice that He promises.

Additional reading

- Kate Shellnutt, ‘George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston’, Christianity Today, 28 May 2020 <https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/may/george-floyd-ministry-houston-third-ward-church.html>

- Shai Linne, ‘George Floyd and Me’, The Gospel Coalition, 8 June 2020 <https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/george-floyd-and-me/>

- Mary-Hannah Oteju, ‘‘White Jesus’ will never care about black lives’, Medium, 7 June 2020 <https://medium.com/@mhannahoteju/your-white-jesus-will-never-care-about-black-lives-1d4af930d419>

- Joanna N. Boxil, ‘An Angered Prayer Against Racial Justice’, ZETEO Magazine, 4 June 2020, <https://www.zeteomagazine.com/post/an-angered-prayer-against-racial-injustice>

- Ben Lindsay, ‘Why we need to talk about race’, Premier Christianity, July 2019, <https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2019/July-2019/Why-we-need-to-talk-about-race>

- Kate Shellnutt, ‘The Songs and Scriptures of George Floyd’s Houston Funeral’, 9 June 2020, Christianity Today, <https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/june/george-floyd-houston-funeral-gospel-music-bible-verses.html>

- Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, 'Jesus’ Cross and the Public Lynching of Black Bodies', 1 June 2020, A Sista's Journey, <https://asistasjourney.com/2020/06/01/jesus-cross-and-the-public-lynching-of-black-bodies>

breath

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