Breath & Fire

The Spirit Moves Us Toward Racial Justice
Parliament Square, London, England (Neil Atkinson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Pentecost came early this year: divine ruah broke through the walls of our here-and-now, interrupting racial oppression, instigating hope and action for change. In Hebrew, the word ruah denotes spirit, breath, and wind, and it is almost always connected with the life-giving attribute of God. Spirit-ruah—paradoxical, elusive, uncontrollable, absolutely free, repeatedly entering into human history—inspires, exhorts, reproves, prompts, animates, empowers, and sustains human persons in our active imaginative engagement with one another, and with the transcendent Triune God. The breath of Spirit-ruah rushes through our land. Can we hear it crying out in a dying man’s words––“I can’t breathe”? Can we feel the energy of Spirit-ruah rousing hundreds of thousands of people to protest the deaths of George Floyd and of so many others suffocated by white racist supremacy? Can we allow ourselves to be moved by the power of Spirit-ruah to understand what it would mean to be able to breathe freely in America?

The Gospel reading for the Feast of Pentecost is instructive for us in this moment. Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple report to other disciples that they found Jesus’s tomb empty, yet Mary Magdalene declares that she saw the Lord (John 20:1–18). Wary and unsettled, the disciples meet at the usual place, making sure to lock the doors of the house. Perhaps they are tense and fearful of reprisals, either from imperial or religious authorities: Did not Jesus predict that those who believe in him would be persecuted just as he was (John 16:2–3)? Suddenly, Jesus stands in their midst; he walks not only through walls and well-secured doors, but also through the fog of their anxiety and sorrow. He speaks a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace be with you,” then shows them the signs of his crucifixion. Anguish and shock give way to joy.

“Peace be with you; As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21–22).

With these words, Jesus gives his disciples more than the comfort of his bodily presence; he empowers them with the presence of the Spirit, sending them forth, just as he has been sent (John 20:21). In this passage, the Johannine writer uses the verb apostellein, “to send forth,” from which we get the noun “apostle.” Jesus sends forth the community of disciples as a whole, to continue his mission, to proclaim the kingdom of God. This sending forth calls the community of believers as a whole to humble openness and dependence upon the Spirit’s differentiated gifts, or charisms. Moreover, these gifts are poured out not as personal entitlements or as privileges of institutional office; rather, the Spirit’s gifts equip the assembly of God to further the mission of Jesus and to strengthen the common good. The Spirit knits the community of disciples together as “one body,” irrespective of former religious or cultic practices, of culture and language, of socioeconomic and societal standing, of gender and sexuality, of ethnicity and race (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).

Yet, in carrying out the mission of Jesus, the community of disciples will face anxiety and suffering, and pressure to conform to the status quo. Hence, the gift of peace to which Jesus earlier refers (John 13–17), and the peace that Jesus gives us to oppose the peace of the world.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27; 20:19, 21, 26). “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).

In the time of the fourth gospel, the peace of the world meant the Pax Romana, founded, in the words of Wes Howard-Brook, on the “twin pillars of lies and violence.” The man Jesus of Nazareth, the Jew whom we confess as human and divine, the Son of God, Lord and Christ, Messiah and Savior of the World, was born, grew up, lived, and died in subjugation to the Pax Romana. Not surprisingly, this peace was experienced differently by people of different stations or classes. Like other provincial and urban elites within the empire, many families, rulers, and officials, especially those operating out of the Jerusalem Temple, accepted or tolerated the Pax Romana: some did so for the sake of survival, others for personal advancement, still others in misguided adaptation to the status quo. But to ordinary people, especially those in Galilee where Jesus grew up, the Pax Romana and the sycophantic schemes of the client king Herod Antipas made daily life nearly unbearable. Military intimidation and brutality, physical violence, and sexual assault were coupled with expropriation and economic policies that uprooted and displaced many from their ancestral lands, driving some into ruinous debt and forcing others into wage labor, starving their children, “enslaving the able-bodied, killing the infirm,” as author and religion scholar Richard A. Horsley has described it. Not surprisingly, these ordinary people protested, resisted, rebelled, struggled for survival, for life, for flourishing. Yet, their resistance is drenched in pathos: history teaches that the attempts of disenfranchised and marginalized peoples to wrest freedom from occupying powers ends, most often, in their deaths.

Yet, in carrying out the mission of Jesus, the community of disciples will face anxiety and suffering, and pressure to conform to the status quo.

In telling Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), Jesus distinguishes between the power of domination, the power of lies and violence, and the power of love, the power of truth and justice. The power of domination wraps itself in the falsified authority of divine mission to claim, to possess, to subdue; the power of love wraps itself in agape to yield, to relinquish, to embrace. Jesus exemplified the meaning of power to establish a kingdom, a peace brought about through self-transcending love.

“Peace be with you”.... And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21–22).

The account of the descent of the Spirit as reported in the Book of Acts occurs on the Jewish Feast of Shavu’ot, which commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The coming of the Spirit is dramatic and startling, commanding public attention and bringing about public consequences. The Spirit inflames, animates, and drives the disciples to proclamation and action that both amazes and bewilders visitors, foreigners, and passersby, even as the Spirit opens their hearts and minds to the disciples’ message. This description of the coming of the Spirit not only evokes the prophecy of Joel (Joel 2:28–29), it contests the hostile and arrogant demand for sameness characteristic of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9).

The tower-building people of Babel seek to make their city great; they brick themselves up in uniformity, not unity; in homogeneity, not diversity; in fear, not openness. Look closely: beneath their drive for sameness and safety lurk mistrust of difference, suspicion of strangers, discomfort at introspection, anxiety at change. Look even more closely: the people’s boast to greatness and power displaces the name of the Holy One, and the stench of their arrogance reaches the heavens. God disrupts their idolatrous empire, confuses their language, disperses the people. No longer can they rely upon one language, take refuge in a single set of meanings through which to amass and hold on to power, and flaunt their exceptionalism.

Commenting on this story, French theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet writes: “God prohibits this sort of undifferentiation. God...separates, thereby, enabling all to breathe, to no longer be short of ruah, that is, to come to themselves as subjects in their difference.” The scattering and separation of the people calls attention to their embodied difference, and that difference becomes the “salvation of humankind.” Pentecost reverses and remedies Babel. “Pentecost makes clear that the salvation of humanity lies in respect for the difference,” Chauvet writes. “Respect for the difference-holiness of God.”

The advent of the Spirit in the Fourth Gospel is quiet, piercing fearful isolation and opening onto the joy of community. Jesus gives the gift of the Spirit through the most intimate necessity of life––breathing. George Floyd’s last words were a plea for life: “I can’t breathe.” He, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks are the most recent victims sacrificed on the altar of the Pax Americana, established more than four hundred years ago on expropriation, genocide, rape, and enslavement. As a nation, we gasp for air as rage flames in nearly every corner of our country. We cannot breathe. White racist supremacy is suffocating us, choking the very life and breath of God out of us all, snuffing out the possibilities for embodied difference to live, to breathe.

During these soul-wrenching days, we do well to remember that the Spirit cannot and will not be made captive, that the Spirit will not and cannot be tamed. Just as wind blows where and when it wills, so too does Spirit-ruah. The Spirit animates dissent and protest against any and all refusals to acknowledge and revere the presence of the divine in each and every human being, against any and all who stifle the breathing of others. The Spirit gifts those who grieve and hurt with comfort and consolation, those who strategize and plan with understanding and wisdom, those who march and stand and kneel with fortitude and courage.

We pray for the Spirit’s gifts of peace, presence, and guidance for our wounded and divided nation. The Spirit’s peace is neither acquiescence nor passivity in confrontation with injustice, neither defense of the status quo nor tolerance of the gross inequalities that our nation has institutionalized. The Spirit’s presence rouses us to respect and embrace our differences as graces rather than insurmountable barriers, as opportunities for life-affirming encounter and engagement rather than as causes for exclusion and segregation. The Spirit’s guidance leads us to deeper understanding of the systemic racist violence that ordinary black and brown children, women, and men endure each day, even as the Spirit frees us from the pretense of innocence in order that we might grapple seriously with the white racist supremacy that stifles truth and justice.

We need Spirit-ruah to breathe on us, breathe with us, and breathe through us so that we may turn away from indifference, suspicion, and hostility and turn toward openness, compassion, and solidarity. If we would be authentic disciples of Jesus, if we would witness to God’s abiding love in our broken nation, if we would respond in concrete, practical, active love and solidarity to the terror and oppression the Pax Americana has inflicted, we must face the wind and fire Spirit-ruah breathes.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 

M. Shawn Copeland is professor emerita in the Department of Theology at Boston College. She is the author of Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2010) and Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience (2019). This essay expands a commentary given for Lectio Divina at the Baltimore Carmelite Monastery. 

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