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A few months ago, early one morning, on my way into one of the hospitals where I work occasional chaplain shifts, I was making the routine trip through the parking garage toward the main building. As I approached the doors to the elevator lobby, I paused as the woman walking just a pace or so in front of me pushed the doors open. But then the most bizarre thing happened. She didn’t take another step. She just tipped over. She fell straight forward, landing smack on her face, her glasses flying off, her nose bleeding immediately all over the carpet, her 24-ounce coffee splashing in every direction. There was only one other bystander, another woman, and she looked at me with panic in her eyes and pointed to the in-house phone on the wall next to me. I dropped everything I was carrying, picked up the receiver, and rushed to tell the operator – “CODE BLUE!!!” I gave our location and within a minute or so the emergency response team was running breathlessly down the parking garage stairs, racing against time in order to aid this woman. In that interminable-feeling minute or so, I tried to keep a clear head and assess whether the woman was breathing, whether she had fainted or completely dropped dead. It was terrifying to see her motionless body sprawled out on the floor. She did begin to move, and was ever so slowly waking up by the time help arrived. Thank God there had been a phone right nearby. Thank God we were in a hospital. In a hospital, when someone collapses, or when someone starts to cry out, “I can’t breathe!,” there is an immediate response.
I spent that day coming down off the adrenaline rush of that incident, and I was reminded of all the times I’ve sat with people in the hospital as they tried to process the agony of what it was like to not be able to breathe, or to watch their loved one struggle for breath, or to grasp how the familiar routines of life could be changed forever in such an instant. I’ve been a companion to many as they took their final breaths, as their spouses and partners and sons and daughters solemnly marked the time of death, honoring the gravity of that sacred moment of passage from this life.
In the hospital, people who hear a cry of “I can’t breathe” and do nothing to rescue or comfort should probably lose their jobs and their licenses, along with their reputation as compassionate caregivers.
But somehow, in 2014, in the United States of America, a public professional entrusted with the duty and responsibility to protect and serve has been excused for terrible, death-dealing conduct. Excused not only for ignoring eleven cries of “I can’t breathe,” certainly egregious behavior in and of itself, but also excused for the illegal maneuver that caused breath to be cut off in the first place.
When I heard for the second time in two weeks that there would be no grand jury indictment for a police officer who had killed an unarmed black man, I felt a rush of adrenaline again, just as when I’d watched that woman collapse in front of me. This is an emergency, and we are in danger of losing our humanity. Yes, I really believe that. Our society disproportionately deals death to so many, and has been doing so for centuries. Those of us who aim to live in a humane world, and especially those of us who claim to do so as disciples of Jesus Christ, cannot turn a blind eye, cannot keep making excuses, cannot keep retreating to places and mindsets of comfort and privilege. God is calling us to racial justice, and every single one of us has the capacity to help or to hurt.
I’ve never experienced Advent with such a sense of urgency before. I’ve never been so worried that December 25th will feel like a letdown, like a foregone conclusion of sentimental commemoration, so afraid that Christmas will not alleviate my longing for the full reign of Christ to feel a little bit more real, and near. It’s not the baby in the manger we need – he has come – but it is the one who will at last put the world to rights, whose reign of life will finally overcome our deep, death-dealing brokenness. We have been entrusted and equipped to join in that reign of life, and in bringing the good news of life to all people and all of creation. Right now I cannot, nor do I want to, tune out the world’s deafening cries for justice. I am trying to hear the groaning of creation as it waits for the fullness of God’s promises to be revealed. I hope some of the groans I hear are the death rattles of the old creation. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from the whispers of the new.
I am trying to understand how my own voice can be used to prepare the way for the Messiah. I am trying to understand my own anger, my own grief, my own responsibility. I am remembering how true and sincere it felt to march in a protest a week ago, how it felt to be with other human bodies, walking in the street, the cold December air making our own breath visible. I remember having no doubt that the voices all around me meant what they were saying – “Black lives matter.” “Don’t shoot.” “This is what democracy looks like.” “No justice, no peace.” “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Yesterday, surrounded by wealthy white people in church, I listened to what we were singing, and I wondered if the voices around me meant what they were saying, whether they were just uttering the words for tradition’s sake, or whether they were really asking for the revolutionary, repentance-prompting reckoning of the coming reign of Christ – “O Come o come Emmanuel.” “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” “But who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” “With the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.” “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”
I wonder, are we ready to get what we’re asking for?