We Can’t Go Back…to Breathlessness

by the Rt Revd Philip North, Bishop of Burnley


‘I can’t breathe.’

Following the lynch-mob style killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, his dying words have become the cry of dispossessed and impoverished BAME communities first in the States and then across the globe. Long decades in which they have suffered on a daily basis from structural racism, inequality of opportunity and the denial of their personhood has exploded into a mighty welling up of anger which has left the Trump administration floundering and governments around the world struggling to keep up.

‘I can’t breathe.’

That is also the cry of COVID patients, a condition which fills the lungs with fluid such that the breath is forced out of a person. At first we were told this pandemic would be a crisis for everyone. Already it is revealing itself to be a crisis for the poor. Those from urban areas and BAME communities are dying in hugely disproportionate numbers. And as the massive economic impact of lockdown reveals itself, it will inevitably be the poor who pay an unfair share of the cost, for the impact of crisis is always delegated to those who are already deprived.

‘I can’t breathe.’

Unspoken, spoken then hashtagged, this is becoming the cry of all who feel constricted and suffocated by poverty or injustice.

‘I can’t breathe.’

Those are not recorded amongst the last words spoken by Jesus from the cross, but they might have been, for crucifixion, like COVID, works by forcing the air out of a person’s lungs. Every breath becomes such unspeakable agony that eventually the body has to give up trying. On the cross, Jesus identifies himself with all who cry out, ‘I can’t breathe.’

Yet his breathlessness has purpose, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you,’ Jesus says at the table of the Last Supper (John 16, 7). By undergoing breathlessness, Jesus unleashes for us the irresistible, life-giving breath of the Spirit who renews all creation.

The Spirit’s breath, released at Pentecost, is the gift that Jesus gives to his Church. So in a post-COVID world Christians must be utterly single-minded in breathing that breath over a world that cries out, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Nothing else will matter.

First, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of life. During crisis, through generous service and imaginative use of the online environment, we have made contact with a new fringe. What we need now is a new evangelism in which we live and speak the Gospel with joy, an evangelism motivated not by institutional survival but by the passionate desire that people might breathe.

And this new evangelism must begin amongst the poor, because that is the place from where renewal always springs. Dioceses are going to have difficult decisions to make about deployment and pastoral organisation in the years ahead, but such decisions must honour our commitment to inner city, outer estate and post-industrial communities. If now becomes the time when we disproportionately withdraw people or buildings from places of poverty, then God is dishonoured and the Gospel is fatally undermined.

The lesson of history is clear and consistent. An evangelism that prioritises the powerful does not work and cannot last. Instead we need to hear the voice of the breathless. We need to speak good news to the poor. Our best leaders, our richest resources, our finest theologians, our most engaging preachers must be offered to the places where life is hardest. Only then we will re-engage a nation with the person of Jesus.

Next, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of justice. The COVID pandemic has laid bare the harsh levels of social and economic inequality which so damage our common life, which deny opportunity, which take away hope and which lead to countless costly social ills from poor health to spiralling prison populations.

The action of local churches in addressing inequality through acts of charity has been heroic in this pandemic. But charity can be a fool without justice. Foodbanks, for example, merely prop up innately unjust structures unless we campaign to change those factors which have rendered them necessary: low pay, unfair benefits, family breakdown. As UK churches, our voice in naming injustice and calling for political and economic reform has for too long been inconsistent and disjointed. We need a united Christian voice: perhaps a new ecumenical body, which can campaign consistently and vigorously.

But if we are to address injustice nationally we must name it within our own structures. The vast wealth disparities between dioceses cannot be acceptable in the future as some dioceses go to the wall whilst others fall back on eye-watering levels of historic wealth. Harder still will be naming and addressing the deep-seated racism that still exists within our own common life and which prevents so many BAME Christians from breathing. We have no authority to name injustice nationally if we are so wantonly failing to put our own house in order.

And third, over the breathless, we must breathe out the Spirit’s breath of peace. The fallout of this crisis is likely to be deep and sustained economic depression with concomitant pressures on relationships at every level. The church, filled with the Spirit, is called to model the new humanity. We are challenged to live differently under the bonds of love, valuing every human person as a child of God. That is the peace that the Spirit breathes.

If we are to do that effectively, we urgently need to do better at living with difference. We must find ways to conduct debates such that they do not destroy relationships and leave us too exhausted to engage with the world. A nation that is crying out for breath cannot afford the luxury of a divided and quarrelsome church, obsessed only with its own internal wrangles. Those who look to us seeking the breath life should find a community of peace. Without that all our words and prayers will be hollow hypocrisy.

‘I can’t breathe.’

It is the ultimate cry of despair. As those filled with the Spirit’s breath, if we can hear and respond, then perhaps this terrible crisis can be the dawn of a new age of faith.

This entry was posted in Bishop of Burnley, Coronavirus, Politics, Racism, Safeguarding, Social Justice, We Can't Go Back.... Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to We Can’t Go Back…to Breathlessness

  1. williambuggins says:

    Sometimes I can’t breathe Mr. North, but that’s down to a lifetime of asthma and now COPD.
    It wasn’t a lynch mob style killing of Floyd George, it was bad and reprehensible application of policing restraints. Those police officers from various ethnic origins, deserve to face the full weight of the law for committing and aiding and abetting murder.
    Secondly ask yourself why was it that despite the terrible poverty, unemployment and lack of hope experienced at various times in the 1930s, the British working people didn’t rise up in an orgy of looting, burning and pillaging in protest at an ‘unjust society’? My father and some of his brothers went to school without shoes, and you will have surely heard of the Jarrow Hunger Marchers? How much violence and mayhem did those poor men commit?
    One would expect that people who demand respect, justice, equality and dignity would know to treat others in the same way. Not loot shops, burn down businesses, deface or destroy monuments, or attack (as in London) our brave police officers.
    It works two ways Mr. North.We cannot justify violence and destruction on any grounds. Martin Luther King had it right when he said,
    “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.”


  2. Martin Sewell says:

    There is much wisdom in this, and some aspects I might want to tease out with respectful challenge the better to reach deeper agreement. None of us has all the answers,

    I also liked Bp Peter Hancock’s Trinity Sunday reflection in which he explains that the call of St Paul for Christians to be “perfect”, has almost medical overtones – we are called to “set right”.

    The problem I see in the last few days is that multiple controversies are overlaid and wherever I might choose to begin, it is likely to ignite indignation and condemnation. If one worries about breaches of Covid lockdown, one is accused of suggesting that Black Lives don’t matter, etc etc.

    I think that we Christians might be best able to carve out a distinctive role if we begin all our remarks whether on policing, war memorials, foreign events etc within that clear principle. “How can we set this right?”


  3. williambuggins says:

    Martin, ” “How can we set this right?” It must surely start by showing that a civil society cannot allow violence to the person and destruction/defacement of property to be a legitimate expression of outrage. After all if the strapline is a demand for respect, dignity and justice that surely implies that you know what that means?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hannah Cleugh says:

    This is such a good piece. Thank you.

    I think the other urgent dimension I would want to add would be a planet that is crying out for breath. We have to take seriously and urgently the climate crisis – creation cries out that it cannot breathe, suffocated by our exploitation and carelessness, and again it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who suffer most acutely.


  5. Shelia cracknell says:

    You are spot on with this.I do think that a lot of the poorest community needs clergy that lives amongst the poor,that can talk to them on their level and build up a trust in each other .let them see that the clergy are walking the walk with them.And they will see the love come through by being along side of them.


    • williambuggins says:

      Really Sheila?
      People are not necessarily changed by having clergy living amongst them. There was a very good film years ago featuring Peter Sellers as a Midlands vicar who threw his vicarage open to all and sundry.I think it was called “Heavens Above!”
      Major changes in attitude and outlook came about through the preaching of the Gospel of Salvation as demonstrated by George Whitfield, the Wesley brothers, particularly John, and William and Catherine Booth of Salvation Army fame. It is the heart that needs changing.


  6. Sue Mitchell says:

    As a chronic asthmatic I know what it is like not to breathe, as someone born deaf not to be seen or heard both in church and society. I have often wondered if the tears I have in prayer are God’s tears. Tears for the poor, the voiceless, the pain of all His children (whether church or not) unheard, unseen even in full view. Tears of grief and yet tears can heal, how then can we as a church through our tears for and off ourselves bring the healing God longs for? The hope people look for, to be valued as they are? If we can’t do it for those within the church how can those outside it see the love of God for all. The lockdown has opened a way of community, off coming together, off extending the hands of friendship, off allowing people to breathe in the space created. Perhaps then in this space we can yet hear God and begin to move forwards into a new way of being, of community not locked in a building but outside it addressing the needs of us all. To breathe we have to take away the straight jacket, the chains that bind us, the blinkers and allow freedom in, only then will the Spirit of God be allowed to move freely among us and bring the breathe if new life to us all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • williambuggins says:

      Sue a fellow sufferer! I think if we let Him God can turn our disabilities into vehicles for compassion, encouragement and reaching out to those who may be on the fringes of society. In my longish life I have been blessed with experience in Christian communities, living in Israel as a Christian and other roles i may not be wise to list here(!) The biggest struggle we Christians face is choosing between the fear of God and the fear of Man.
      The fear of man involves our worrying about what people will say if we told them why we are a Christian, or when faced with the choice of joining in ‘character assassinations’ of other people or abstaining. The fear of man involves the fear of being ridiculed for our faith, that we believe the Bible, or that we pray or that we worship.
      The fear of God on the other hand means that even if it may mean social ridicule or exclusion from groups we want to be a part of, we accept that may be the cost of being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ who gave His life on the Cross that we may receive forgiveness and eternal life. If you haven’t already I recommend reading “The Heavenly Man”, the story of Pastor Yun a member of the House Church movement in China. How he suffered for his faith and how God delivered him


  7. Gareth Rayner-Williams says:

    Breathlessness is terminal, you are right to call that out and this is such a prophetic and perceptive piece. Thank you so much, I so enjoyed reading it and was challenged by it.. For some of us, the sinful structures of the church also extend to the marginalisation of the LGBTQI+ community and to women – let’s hope the breath of the spirit infuses justice in that direction also.


  8. peterlumsden says:

    Well structured piece Philip, good aspiration, and sensible strategy. However, given the low level of religious literacy across the populace, I do wonder about the success of ANY evanglism anywhere. Might it not be better to start with your second point, and to root our efforts in social justice work? That might lead to the question ‘why?’, and we can answer ‘because you are loved and valued by god, and by us’. There is also the advantage of being able to partner with others working in the same arena, raising our profile and our credibility. Whilst we are at it, why not base the approach to point three in the same places. It is a sad fact that at least some of the violence and racism of the far-right that is all too evident has its origins in poor and deprived neighbourhoods. Using our buildings as safe places for conversation and dialogue would be a creative step to take – citizens assemblies??

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: We Can’t Go Back….But We Will, Unless… | ViaMedia.News

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