The season of Pentecost begins with a remembrance of the early Church gathered in Jerusalem, not long after their leader Jesus was executed by the Roman state and three days later was alive again. When the disciples were in one place there was suddenly a “sound like the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:2-3, NRSV). The Holy Spirit filled each of them. The Church was filled with Breath.
In Scripture, this same Breath moved over the waters in creation. God breathed this Breath into the first human being in the Garden. God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones and the Breath. This same Breath descended upon Jesus in his baptism, is promised as the Advocate, and intercedes when our sighs are too deep for words.
As Church, we live in a time of pandemic in which COVID-19 takes our breath away. On May 13, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton stated, “This pandemic has exacerbated racism and racial inequities deeply entrenched in society and across the church.”
As Church, we live in a white supremacist culture in which Black people continue to be lynched, when men like Eric Garner and George Floyd say with their last breaths, “I can’t breathe.” Within the past few months Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a retired police officer and his son while jogging, and Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by Louisville Metro Police Department officers serving a “no-knock warrant”. This month will also mark the five-year commemoration of the martyrdom of the Emanuel 9 - the nine people murdered by a self-professed white supremacist on June 17, 2015, during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. We are sickened and outraged by the deaths of all these, and the deaths of many other Black persons in our communities, all God’s children.
These forces which deny Breath, especially the breath and lives of Black people are sinful. This sin denies the image in which human beings are created. In the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Affirmation of Baptism liturgy, those who publicly affirm their faith are asked if they renounce the ways sin that draw them from God. What do we as ULS Faculty affirm and renounce in the face of this violence and dehumanization?
This Breath, which continues to move through the Church, calls us to the foot of the cross, and demands that we ground our teaching in a theology of the cross. Christian faith requires that we identify the risen Jesus who was asphyxiated by the police power of the state with George Floyd who was asphyxiated by the police power of the state. The cross calls ULS not to ivory towers and closed Bibles but onto the streets, to open Scriptures that open the doors (digital or physical) of our churches, rather than close them, to open our hearts to love our neighbor as ourselves. The cross also calls us to pray for those who persecute, to have clean hearts and renewed spirits.
White supremacy and racism are sins, contrary to the will of God. Although we all fall short, we are called back to the suffering of Christ in the world, and asked to stand in solidarity through word and deed. We are asked not only to bear pain and mourn losses, in words and prayer, but beyond that to foster accountability and right action, assured of our freedom to serve by the grace and Breath God extends to all.
Along with our own sense of sickened outrage and grief for the families of George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, we are aware also of many of our alumni and community members who are protesting and standing in solidarity, living out Gospel values with their lives and Breath. As for all who are impacted by the COVID-19 response, we pray for your safety, life, and ministry, and stand with you. May God’s grace be with us all in these times.