Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Harris, President
Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit
In the book of Genesis, Chapter 2, verse 7, we read:
7 Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (Heb: neshamah) of life; and man became a living being. NASU
The breath of life is God’s gift to humankind. It reflects the intimacy with which God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and gave humankind the precious gift of life. It is the great shame of a nation that continues to tolerate the taking of this gift, specifically by those sworn to serve and protect its citizens.
The image of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd as he pleaded for his life – and his mother – is etched into the deep recesses of my soul and spirit. This horrific act of violence was committed while officer Chauvin coldly disregarded the pleas of bystanders to allow Floyd to breathe. At one point, Chauvin shifted more weight on Floyd’s neck, with a smirk on his face, as he stared down those pleading for Floyd’s life. Chauvin further showed his inhumane defiance by threatening to use his pepper spray on anyone who dared to interfere with his murderous deed. It was as if he was posing for the cameras. It reminded me of crowds posing with black bodies hanging by the neck from trees for the cameras. You get the same result whether a rope, a knee or a choke hold is used. The same can be said when the racist and inhumane injustice of institutional and systemic oppression is used. For many, the crime of the day is “Breathing While Black.“
Deeply embedded in the DNA of American society is the inferiority of people of color.
Claims that George Floyd resisted arrest are challenged by security cameras. At a minimum, Floyd did nothing to deserve his hideous treatment. Being Black was enough! Chauvin is the new poster child representing the sentiment of many Americans who believe citizens of African descent and “others” are not entitled to equal protection under the law. It doesn’t matter whether you are the former president of the Harvard Law Review, who becomes President of the United States, or Trayvon, Ahmaud, Breanna, Eric or Rayshard who joins a growing list of victims. Our social, economic and political systems are embedded with philosophical, theological, ethical and ideological presuppositions of inferiority that are used to justify the mistreatment of “others.”
Trayvon Martin was murdered “Walking While Black.” Eric Garner was murdered “Standing on the Sidewalk While Black.” Breanna Taylor was shot eight times in her own home “Relaxing While Black.” Ahmaud Arbery was chased, hunted down and executed “Running While Black.” And the most recent incident involving unarmed Rayshard Brooks was killed this past weekend after a situation quickly escalated in which he was “Confronted While Black.” Pointing a taser at police cost him his life; YouTube has numerous accounts of white men brandishing guns being arrested and still breathing.
NFL player Colin Kaepernick, “Protesting While Black,” began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at his football games. Kaepernick protested racial injustice and the killing and mistreatment of African Americans by police officers nationwide. President Trump reframed Kaepernick’s protest as showing disrespect for the national anthem. Trump’s response only emboldened racists to express and act out their bigotry in heinous ways, including the NFL, which recently apologized for its actions without mentioning Kaepernick. Whether refusing to interview a Supreme Court nominee, calling the 44th President a liar during the State of the Union address, or racially profiling African Americans while going about their daily lives, it feels like the knee of injustice and bigotry is pressed against our necks making it difficult or impossible to breath. Kaepernick’s choice of protest expressed the feeling of black and brown people everywhere when they we heard George Floyd saying: “I can’t breathe!”
The global protests expressing outrage of Floyd’s death are redemptive. What is now needed is substantive change. Racism and bigotry cannot be erased by solidarity statements, legislation and public policy, but individuals must repent and experience a change of heart.
As President of Ecumenical Theological Seminary, it is my pledge—and as a seminary community, our pledge—to join with all those who choose to protest and denounce all forms of systemic bigotry and racist behavior. ETS will continue to train and equip servant leaders of church and society to confront such evils. We will endeavor to model the love and compassion of our Lord Jesus Christ through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the source of breath and life.