The Right to Breathe

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The Right to Breathe

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (‭Genesis‬ ‭2‬:‭7‬ NIV)

I believe we’ve all been given the right to breathe ever since God breathed into Adam. But we’ve disrespected the work of the Creator and have bestowed on some the right to take breath away. Or perhaps another way to state the problem is that we’ve falsely determined who gets to keep their breath, the current contention being that black men don’t get to.

We could attempt to defuse some of the anger by noting the many ways that life is wrongfully taken and the various races at fault. To do so would not be helpful. Why not? Because it diminishes the current story and does nothing to fully help all the other stories. It ends up saying, in a nonchalant tone, “Let’s just love each other.”

Sure. Let’s actually do that. And let’s begin by actually paying attention to what the angry folks are actually saying–when they speak, when they yell, when they’re silent, when they protest, when the riot, when they loot, when they sob their eyes out…

I started writing this while breastfeeding my daughter. And then she released some stuff out the other end and it was really easy for me to say, “Forget this post. I have a child to take care of.” And so I did. I didn’t actually want to forget but hours have passed.

There’s always something else to attend to. And as one injustice after another makes the news, life goes on–one dirty diaper at a time. Surely we can’t all get involved. The Apostle Paul said it’s better to stay single. I’m married and I have a child. I cannot come to the banquet or to the protest or to the prayer vigil or to the town hall meeting. Oh, but I can multitask and I’m techy enough to blog with just my thumb. So maybe I’ll finish this before midnight. (That didn’t happen.)

Excuses. We’re full of them which is why so many die unnecessarily. We refuse to really listen to what’s being said–all of it, even the stuff we don’t agree with. And as a result, breath continues to be a luxury item.

Am I simplifying everything? Does it really all come down to listening? Yes. No. But it’s a start. Here’s how I see it playing out.

  • Eric Garner dies after policeman, Daniel Pantaleo, uses excessive and illegal force–a chokehold.
  • Michael Brown dies after policeman, Darren Wilson, shoots him excessively.
  • Officer Wilson isn’t indicted.
  • Folks get angry saying race is a factor. Riots erupt.
  • Officer Pantaleo isn’t indicted. Decision comes shortly after decision not to indict Wilson.
  • Folks get angrier.

If we listen, we won’t just hear about race and we won’t be quick to change the hashtag to #alllivesmatter. Instead, we’ll take a proper look at history, at the stories black lives have experienced in the USA for years. The same stories. The same injustice. The same characters. Sure, some details are different but just as every good story has the same components (premise, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, etc), so all these stories sound the same–black man, white man, conflict, black man dies/is arrested/is beaten near death/etc, white man goes free. And in many cases, the white man is a cop and the black man is a perceived threat (even though he’s unarmed). How often must we hear the same story before we pause and say, “Something’s not right.” And then, what will it take for us to ask, “What can I do to change this story?”

I wasn’t born in the USA. When I moved here, I was struck by how much race was an identifier. I was 11 yet I felt it. I hated it. But after a few years of being here and learning that some problems have deep roots, I stopped assuming folks had bootstraps and that trouble was so simple that one should just “get over it.” I stopped (or tried to stop) acting as if everyone should see life according to my story. I listened and I learned. I stopped being so quick to dismiss issues or assume the race card was pulled incorrectly.

Race still matters in this country. We’ve tried to smooth things over by assuming we live in a post-racial society or with the idea of colorblindness. In the end, we perpetuate our inability to fully embrace each other. And with that comes a continued inability to frame a new story, a richer story, a healthier story. We have to admit to where we are, our discomfort, confusion, apprehension. We have to own up to the many ways we allow race to enter a scene and shut down a conversation.

And then we have to do something that creates actual change. Mere talk gets cheap.

Why don’t black people trust the police? Because there have been one too many instances where trust has been broken and many more where trust was never even earned. Why do black men appear like larger than life threats to white people even when they aren’t? Because that narrative has been spun and believed since who knows when. It’s going to take much more than multi-racial protests, pictures of white policemen being hugged by black people and smart hashtags to turn those stories around. We have to change. All of us, together, somehow. And change has to begin with those who know they have a voice, know they’ve been given (by our society) the right to breathe. And those who’ve been made to feel as if they don’t have that right, have to keep on acting like it anyhow.

And perhaps change will happen when we stop playing God, even if we don’t believe in him.

So where do I begin? Here, with this blog post, 98% of which was written with one thumb on my cell phone while feeding my child. (hint, hint…what’s your excuse?) Why do I write? Because I know some will read and better understand. Is that prideful? Nope, coz I sure don’t think I’ve got all the answers but this is better than nothing and I process better when I write. What’s my next step? Do some cleaning while my child is temporarily entertained in her bouncy chair and in the midst of that, pray for parental wisdom. I’d love to raise a child who knows she has the right to breath. Next? During the next round of feeding, there’s an article I want to finish reading. I encourage you to read it, too.

Will I protest in some large, public fashion? I don’t know. For now, I’m trying to be faithful to what I know I can do. Breath in. Breath out. Post over.

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