"I Can't Breathe" In memory of george floyd

By Eleazar Fernandez, Professor of Constructive Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

What happens if we can’t breathe?

We can’t continue for long without breathing. If we can’t breathe, we would surely die.

That’s what happened to George Floyd. He was denied that life-giving breath by the white supremacist police officers that arrested him even without his resistance. It was all caught on video. No wonder, many are enraged and outraged, and why not?

I write this as we approach Pentecost Sunday, a day in the Christian calendar in celebration of the power of the Holy Spirit. We are in the days of the confluence of white supremacist pandemic and the coronavirus pandemic. And I am thinking of this rallying cry, “I can’t breathe.” Of the many associations of the Spirit, “breath” (or specifically “life-giving breath”) is central. This “breath” is the creative and life-giving force in the universe. Without this divine breath, life disappears. Without this life-giving breath, our communities die and the forces of death, such as white supremacy, will continue to ravage our land causing more deaths through its white supremacist policing.

Breath is life. To live in a world tyrannized by death, we must struggle to reclaim breath, if we are to breathe. To breathe, we must struggle to reclaim breath while we still have it before it’s too late.

What is common with these words: “aspire,” “inspire,” “perspire,” “conspire,” and “expire”? It’s “spire” or “spirare” (to breathe).

If we are not to “expire” (expirare/exspirare) or “breathe our last” as a people, we must continue to “aspire” (“aspirare” in Latin) and “inspire” (Latin “inspirare”) or “breathe upon” as well as “perspire” (Latin “perspirare”) in giving birth to a life-giving world. Moreover, we must “conspire” (Latin “conspirare”) or literally, “breath together,” if we are not to “expire” and if our hopes (esperanza/esperar) are to have feet and wings. Other than that, our hopes would be mere quixotic jousting at windmills. Conspiracy (sharing life-giving breath) is not only a political necessity; it is also a spiritual necessity. If we intend to reach to the ocean as an individual drop, we would surely evaporate along the way. To arrive at the ocean, we must go as a river.

So, let’s continue our struggle to reclaim the life-giving breath so that not a single person in the face of this earth would cry out, “I can’t breathe.”

United students, staff, faculty, and alums join in clergy marches in Minneapolis and St. Paul organized and led by Black clergy in protest of continued violence against black bodies.


Eleazar Fernandez and Justin Sabia-Tanis