"I Can't Breathe"

On Tuesday morning the Department of Justice announced that it will not bring charges against Daniel Pantaleo for violating Eric Garner’s civil rights. Pantaleo is the NYPD officer who administered the chokehold that led to Garner’s death in 2014. He joins a long line of police officers and civilians, mostly white, who have killed black men and not faced prosecution.

On that fateful July day on Staten Island five years ago, Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes on the street, a misdemeanor. In a confrontation caught on video, four officers surrounded the unarmed Garner. When he resisted, although not violently, Pantaleo reached from behind him and wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck. The video shows him lifting Garner up straight and then, with the help of the other officers, taking him down to the sidewalk. The four officers were joined by two more, and they piled on and subdued Garner.

It’s at this point in the video that we hear Eric Garner begin to say, “I can’t breathe.” The combination of the pressure around his neck and the weight of the men on his body apparently triggered an asthma attack. Eleven times the now unresisting Garner repeated that he couldn't breathe, but the officers continued to hold him down. The video clearly shows Pantaleo’s arm still around his neck.

“I can’t breathe,” he said eleven times. Then he died.

Some years before this incident on Staten Island, another poor person of color asphyxiated and died while in the custody of the state. His case happened long before the advent of video, so we have no visual record, but four written accounts exist. In each of them Jesus of Nazareth dies on a Roman cross, thinking, if not actually saying, “I can’t breathe.”

Victims of crucifixion didn’t die from blood loss, but rather from exposure and asphyxiation. They hung suspended by their arms and had to push themselves up with their legs to breathe. Unless the executioners broke their legs, as the soldiers did to the men crucified along with Jesus, the condemned would live as long as their strength held out or the elements or wild animals took them—sometimes two or three days.

As we know from the gospels, Jesus was arrested and tried, first before a gathering of Jewish leaders and then before the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Despite some possible irregularities in these trials, Jesus was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was, in fact, guilty—not in a moral sense, but legally. He had been tried and condemned according to the most fully developed legal apparatus of the ancient world, the Lex Romana, or law of Rome. Just like Eric Garner, who was almost certainly guilty of illegally selling cigarettes, Jesus was guilty of sedition against the Empire. According to the established rules of the game, his conviction and sentence were justified.

Yet in both cases a terrible miscarriage of justice took place. Two men, a black American and a brown Palestinian, ended up dead. Actually, one of them ended up alive again, vindicated by God in the resurrection. Let us hope that Eric Garner, too, will one day get the justice he was denied on earth. Let us hope his conviction will also be overturned in God’s court of appeals. Let us hope that all who undergo unjust suffering here below will find vindication and rest in the heavenly realm.

But what about in the meantime? In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God's will to be done here on earth just as it is in heaven. Nobody can look at the state of the world and say that goal has been accomplished. On the contrary, in many ways the lives of the poor and oppressed, the persecuted and marginalized appear to be getting worse instead of better. Instead of conditions on earth drawing closer to those in heaven, too often it seems as though we are going to hell in a handbag.

That’s why the Incarnation is so important. This essential Christian doctrine says that in some mysterious way we cannot fully comprehend Jesus the first-century Palestinian Jew was in actuality God in human form. That’s all well and good, but any number of mythological and religious systems have deities who take on human form. What makes the Incarnation of Jesus distinctive is that instead of coming as a powerful general or a rich nabob wallowing in luxury, he came as one of the poorest of the poor. He lived and died in obscurity, telling stories and casting out demons and healing the sick, all the while challenging the religious, social, and political status quo so much that when he finally did come to the seat of power in Jerusalem, he didn’t live out the week.

That’s another thing that sets Jesus apart from those other incarnate gods and goddesses: he didn’t just slum around in flesh for a while and then slip back to his palace to sip ambrosia. Philippians 2:5 says that he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. He didn’t cop out when the going got rough. He was in it for the long haul, even to the point of dying a shameful and torturous death, all out of his commitment to God’s kingdom and will. He lived and died in solidarity with the human race.

Therein lies our hope.

We have hope because Jesus shared our despair. We have access to the Spirit because he shared our flesh. And we can have the courage to carry our own crosses to our own Golgothas because he called us to share his mission. We can carry on the struggle for justice—for Eric Garner, for the asylum seekers detained at the US border, for the millions at risk of starvation in Yemen, for all who suffer in this fallen world—because Jesus hung on a Roman cross and gasped eleven times, “I can’t breathe.”