Jesus Can’t Breathe

Sandra Bland failed to use a turn signal. My boyfriend routinely doesn’t use his turn signal. It’s a point of contention between us. Oh yes, but he’s white. So he’ll never be pulled over for driving while black. Sandra Bland was black. And driving in Texas. And she failed to use a turn signal. Possibly.

Jonathan Sanders wanted to help out a friend who had been stopped by a white supremacist Stonewall, Mississippi police officer.  Sanders was a horse trainer, and he was riding by in a horse-drawn buggy, when he saw Kevin Harrington who had pulled over a driver, and Sanders asked Harrington, “Why don’t you leave him alone?”  After Sanders left, Harrington was heard to have said, “I’m going to get that n****r.”

Police pulled Sandra Bland from her car and slammed her head on the ground. There’s video footage in which she can be heard to say that she cannot hear after having her head slammed. She was taken into custody – and then found dead in her cell — hanging. The police would like us to believe she killed herself. She was driving from Illinois to Texas for a new job. Things were going well for her. Seems unlikely.

Officer Harrington chased down Jonathan Sanders and then strangled him to death. He chased the man down and kept Sanders in a choke hold for 20 minutes. Well, at least Sanders’ death has been ruled a homicide. Sanders was heard pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Harrington wouldn’t stop.

These two deaths of unarmed black people – people who were just going about their lives – these two deaths at the hands of police, they both occurred within the last two weeks.

Jesus was crucified. Here’s the thing about crucifixion – it causes suffocation. Jesus couldn’t breathe. God made God’s self incarnate in human form to live among us, and allowed us to kill him upon a cross — for what? There are many atonement theologies.

The theology of atonement that resonates most for me is that of Rene Girard – that of ritual scapegoating. S. Mark Heim said,that “God, through Jesus volunteers to get into this sinful system in order to save us from our own sin.”* Jesus’ willingness to enter into the evil system of scapegoating is an effort to subvert it, according to Heim. “God was willing to be the victim of that bad thing that we had made apparently good in order to reveal its horror and stop it.”* God steps into the place of the victim who now cannot be mythologized or hidden. We cannot deny the innocence or suffering of Jesus. “God acts not to affirm the suffering of the innocent victim as the price of peace, but to reverse it.”* We are meant to be horrified at the act of crucifixion – we should draw in a collective gasp.

It is well past time for us to be drawing in a collective gasp. The crucifixion was powerful because of the resurrection. Jesus had victory over the cross. We need that resurrection now. We need to be horrified at the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police.

Jesus was a subversive. He stood up to the powers, and he paid a heavy price. We are not all called to die on a cross like Jesus, but we are called to be horrified by the gruesome nature of his death. We are called to look upon the deaths of Sandra Bland and Jonathan Sanders — and Eric Garner — and Freddie Gray — and Tamir Rice — and so many others — with horror.

Further, we are called to action. We are called, because of our horror, to put a stop to this. The police must be held to a higher standard. I do not hate the police. Holding them to a higher standard will protect the police as well. After all, Jesus’ sacrifice was for all of us – the police included. But we must be a witness. We must react. Jesus couldn’t breathe – that was meant so the rest of us would continue to breathe. Let them breathe.

Black lives matter.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

*quotations taken from Systematic Theology 306B class notes of Feb. 14, 2012


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