‘I Can’t Breathe’: A Spiritual Reflection on God’s Divine Gift of Breath
‘Breathe’ is described as the verb we use for the process of inhaling and exhaling. Breath is a noun that refers to a full cycle of breathing. The breath of God in Judaic-Christian thinking is synonymous with the spirit of God breathing over the face of the earth or over a person or community of faith. It is used throughout the New Testament to reference the power of God imbuing life and/or reinvigorating life in a person or system that is in desperate need of renewal, refocus and redemption.
The Creation Story (Genesis 1-2) records the narrative of the ordering of the world. It states that the world was a “formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. In one translation “wind” (New Revised Standard) seems to be the preferred metaphor when describing the movement of God’s spirit while another translation uses the term “spirit of God” (King James Version).
What seems indisputable is the fact that the spirit of God is profoundly interwoven into the fabric of God’s eternal and abiding presence in the life of creation and in God’s creative presence within the beloved community. In the Old Testament, the meaning of the Hebrew word ruach is “breath,” or “wind,” or “spirit.” In Scripture, the word is applied both to human beings and to God. Depending on the context, ruach can be talking about a person’s emotional state of being, or their soul or spirit, and is sometimes used as an idiom, as in “a mere breath.” When coupled with one of the names of God, ruach refers to the Holy Spirit.
Across scripture, Old and New testaments, the evidence of ruach as a potent, life-giving force in defining the sanctity of life is an indistinguishable phenomenon. Such holiness ascribed to life is first referenced when God created the first human person (Adamah-Adam) and ‘breathed into his nostrils’ (Genesis 2:7); this ‘spark of divinity’ thereby is meant to sanctify every human soul as a divine embodiment of God, created in God’s image and likeness (imago Dei). Every human being becomes a derivate of the one, holy, indivisible Triune God.
Jesus’ incarnation through the virgin Mary showed him receiving life, breathing the very ruach each of us was gifted when we were born. Although Jesus is set apart from the ordinary human person in many ways, we claim with him from the beginning, a common bond in this gift of life. This makes us sisters and brothers of Jesus with God our father/mother. This family of people of every race, class, creed, ethnicity and nation, with our inherent peculiarities and uniqueness, all have been and will remain God’s beloved children.
Difference or diversity is overwhelmingly interpreted as one of the revered gifts of a loving God to humanity. However, humanity has selfishly, and sadly so, redefined it to suggest it to be one of the great scandals of creation. Humanity’s brokenness or sinfulness, manifested through jealousy and a need for power and control, has exacerbated the problem throughout history – by giving permission (whether implicitly or explicitly) for one social group or demographic to exercise control or hegemony over other groups.
This feeling of superiority does not come from God, rather it is a pathological disease. One the bible introduces as being borne out of Cain’s selfish behavior toward his brother and then sowed upon humanity. The book of Genesis describes how, out of jealousy Cain killed his brother, Abel the just (Genesis 4: 8). Ever since that fateful day the “cains” of the world have stridently and with unyielding determination tried to steal the very breath, the ruach, of decent, loving and caring people. Whether via a ‘knee to the neck’ or an underhanded social media post they have vigorously defended it under the pretext of freedom, entitlement or exceptionalism.
Nevertheless, persons of goodwill in every ethnicity and culture have struggled over generations to lift the burden of this weight off their fellow human beings. In their work for social justice, human decency, and Christian conviction in the sanctity of life, we witness with great admiration their defense of the dignity of every person. We applaud their relentless efforts to safeguard the rights of others to exist and live out their divine creativity. They have selflessly by their actions protected and preserved the undeniable rights, freedoms, and integrity of their less fortunate fellow human beings. We give God thanks for these ‘shining lights on a hill’. We continue to pray for those guilty of continuously violating, with unabated impunity and reckless abandon, other peoples’ rights and freedoms. Our baptismal covenant calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. Moreover, it is the way of Jesus.
My travels across the diocese have put me in contact with many Episcopalians who by birth or circumstance are in a position of privilege and leadership. Most are extremely friendly, kind, generous, caring, and respectful of people of color including myself and my wife. Some are employers and are committed to maintaining their staff in this unprecedented time of pandemic. My humble appeal to these sisters and brothers is to encourage their friends to respect and care for persons that differ from them. Witness to others who are in positions of power to act with some level of human decency in the way they treat people of color, strangers, the vulnerable and immigrants in their midst. It is what Jesus is asking all of us to do.
The Christian way is modeled off Jesus’ life and witness. His is the pattern and example of Kenosis: Self- Emptying. It is the way of servant leadership (Philippians 2). When I served in the Africa region, my colleagues there would call this type of life-giving manifestation UBUNTU- I am because you are – community life is defined by the spirit of living my life so you may live and prosper as well.
You would recall Cain’s answer to the Lord when questioned on the whereabout of his brother Abel, he answered, “am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4: 9). God answered Cain, through Moses (Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5). However, by way of an emphatic rebuttal of Cain’s question God in Jesus reechoed it again in Luke 10: 27 – the Parable of the Good Samaritan – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”.
Observance of Bernard Mizeki
Catechist & Martyr in Mashonaland (Africa 1896)
Part I of a three-part series.