“I Can’t Breathe!” – Pentecost sermon

The SPIRIT of Pentecost inflames our worship with images of tongues of fire and shouting excited crowds creating a cacophony of sound. Preachers pontificate about the birth of a movement which became the Church, with talk of rushing wind, and breath, breath of the SPIRIT breathing life into our churches. Breath, wind, and flame. And yet, there are those who cannot breathe, and the only wind that seems to blow are the ill winds that bring angry, desperate, frustrated, and oh so intemperate tongues of fire,  which dance upon our screens as a visual expression of the virus which threatens to suck the life out of all that we hold dear. It is oh so very tempting, to discard the masks designed to protect us from disease so that we can breathe the fresh air which blows just beyond our gasp.

We cannot breathe freely and so we look away. As we cling to our all but useless masks of denial, the tut tutting begins. “It is not happening here.” “The United States is not Canada.” “We are different.” “They had slavery.” “We freed slaves.” “They are a melting pot.” “We are multi-cultural.” “Those poor Americans.” “I’m so glad we live in Canada.” “Let’s put on our masks of denial and look away.  We are not infected by their virus.”

But we cannot breathe freely or deeply behind our masks. Looking away will not cure the virus which infects even us. Even us with our polite Canadian sensibilities, we are infected with a strain of the virus, albeit a strain born out of a different history, still powerful enough to crush the life out of even its healthiest victims. So, God knows what the weak or wounded among us will do to find relief.  He can’t breathe.  She can’t breathe. Come Holy SPIRIT, come.

Like many of you I have watched a wept as over and over again, young black men and women have their breath taken from them as they are murdered in the streets, in their yards, on their porches, and in their beds by the very ones who are sworn to protect and serve them. I too have shaken my head and tut tutted as I caught my own precious breath and turned away convinced that my own liberal, progressive, christian, Lutheran, Canadian attitudes have saved me from the virus. I am not a racist.  You are not racists. We are “nice” polite Canadians. Just look at the numbers. Our death tolls versus their death tolls, surely this proves that our rates of infection are less.

Shall we look at the numbers?  One-in-five Canadians do not think it’s safe to sit next to an Asian or Chinese person on a bus, while a quarter of Canadians “don’t know” if it’s safe. Anti-Asian attacks are on the rise in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This week anti-semitism was visited upon a synagogue in Montreal. This week, during an encounter with Toronto police, a young black woman fell to her death. The cause of Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death has not been fully explained. Whatever happened, it is telling that her family, friends and neighbours, quickly suspected malpractice by the officers involved. I hope this is not the case. I pray that this was a tragic accident.  But the fact that trust between the black population of Toronto and the police force is so tenuous speaks volumes about the symptoms of the virus which lurks in the hearts and minds of those who fear the systemic nature of the illness and those who are privileged by the systemic nature of the very racism which we deny.

Decades ago, activist and educator Jane Elliot, asked a class of privileged white students to raise their hands if they would be happy to receive the same treatment as black citizens receive. Not surprisingly none of the privileged white students raised their hands. They knew full well the benefits of their own privilege. I remember studying Jane Elliot’s work when I was in university. I also remember feeling rather smug about my own enlightened attitudes, right up until the moment our professor asked us to raise our hands if we would be happy to receive the same education and housing as citizens of First Nations enjoy under the auspices of the administrators of Canada’s Indian Act. Not a single one of us privileged white students and yes, all my classmates except for one was white, and not one of us raised our hands.

The one student of colour in the classroom was a foreign student from the Southside of Chicago, who squirmed nervously in her seat. A fellow student, safely ensconced in his white privilege, asked the black woman who sat amongst a sea of white faces, “Do you think Canadians are racists?” We all presumed we knew what her answer would be. “Of course NOT!  Canadians aren’t like Americans.” To this day, I can still her response continues to ring in my ears. This wise, proud African American Woman bravely took the opportunity to respond with the words of her compatriot Angela Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”

Sisters and brothers, from the confines of my own white privilege, I am still only beginning to learn about the powerful virus which infects our Canadian society. I suspect that many of you might think that I’m talking about the virus of racism. Well I’m not. You see, I believe that racism although it may be the most dangerous symptom of the virus, it is not the disease itself. The virus which I am talking about is white privilege. Our Canadian strain of this insidious virus did not thrive in the Petri dish of slavery, like the strain our American cousins have cultivated. But our Canadian white privilege was born of the same sin of colonialism which saw British and European “conquerors” wash up on North American shores to rob the indigenous peoples of North America of their land, their wealth, their freedom, their cultures, and indeed in oh so many cases their very lives.

Our wealth, yours and mine was birthed out of the theft of land and it is maintained by oppression. There will be many who will point to the past and say, “that was then and this is now, we cannot take responsibility for the sins of our ancestors.” Fare enough.  But you and I we continue to drink fresh clean water while so many of our Indigenous sisters and brothers do not have access to fresh, clean, drinking water. I know, we’re working on it. We all want to do better.  We must do better. But we are not racists. We are kind, well-meaning, descent, kind-hearted Canadians.

Yes, we are. But our ability to be kind, well-meaning, descent, kind-hearted Canadians is made possible by our privilege. The very wealth we hungered for, worked for, educated ourselves for, and carefully accumulated is for the most part born out of white privilege. In Canada whiteness, privilege and wealth are all intimately connected.

Lest we fall into the trap of believing that because some white people are not privileged and some people of colour are  privileged, we need to remember that all of us privileged folk, we are playing by culturally white rules. Whiteness is not just a colour, it is also a social construct. Like all social constructs it builds walls to protect the privileges folks inside the walls and creates all sorts of barriers to keep people without privilege from breeching those walls unless and until they conform, change their ways and become just like the people inside the walls.

So, if white privilege is our disease, what is the cure?

I’ve already listened to all sorts of privileged people like myself point to the chaos and the violence in the United States and argue that we need bigger walls and stronger barriers. Order must be maintained because they, them, those, people well they are just getting out of hand. Rioting must not be tolerated. Everybody needs to calm down. Anger won’t get us anywhere. I’m reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who insisted that, “riots are the language of the unheard.”

Yesterday, I listened as Bakari Sellers reminded a white American newsman that “the Boston tea party was no tea party.” It was a riot which gave birth to a rebellion. Anger is not in and of itself a bad thing. Back in the day, when we were struggling for equality for women.  I can’t tell you how many times people tried to put us back in our place by warning us not to be angry feminists. Well that is until we learned of the power of anger in the work of love.

When it comes to the disease of white privilege and the deadly symptoms of racism which are crushing the life out of so many, black and brown sisters and brothers, and the racism which emboldens fellow Canadians to spit on our Asian sisters and brothers, which continues to confine our Indigenous brothers and sisters to living conditions which are deadly, or the symptoms of privilege which confine the poorest among us to lives robbed of dignity, well its long past time to shed our veneer of calm and rise up in anger.

It is time for us to turn over some tables in the temple, in all of the temples where we worship. The rush of the SPIRIT of Pentecost is by its very nature wild and chaotic. The SPIRIT is prone to turn our systems upside down as it blows out the cobwebs from our carefully controlled lives.  It’s time to do more with our anger than simply suppress or deny it. I am NOT talking about violence; violence begets violence. I’m talking about expressing our anger in ways which compel change.It is time to put the power of our anger into the work of LOVE. Which for those of us who are white privileged Canadians means taking risk of being offensive. We might just have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to engage our neighbours in deep conversations about the nature of our dis-ease. We might just have to risk saying nothing at all.  That’s right shut up and listen. It isn’t always about us. We don’t always know what is best. 

We might just have to do more than just complain about injustice. We might actually have to make sacrifices. Instead of complaining about the corporate systemic injustices which ensure our privileges while squeezing the life out of multitudes of people, we might have to begin demanding less profits to feather our retirement nests.  Ushering in the kin-dom of God, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, being swept up by the SPIRIT means not just complaining about corporate greed but working and sacrificing to build a more equitable economic system. Like many cures, it may seem like the cure is worse than the dis-ease.

Angela Davis’ words continue to ring in my ears, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” In the face of such dis-ease, even as the flames still burn and the breath continues to be squeezed out of so many, perhaps it’s time for those of us who have enjoyed our privilege for so long to begin to realize that it is not enough for us to not be showing the symptom of racism, it is time for us to stand up against all the symptoms of white privilege by sacrificing, by taking risks, and maybe even suffering some strong medicine in order to quell the symptoms of racism, violence, poverty, hatred, and  let the SPIRIT blow where SHE wills. Maybe then, the peace, we all long for, will break out all over this land and all people, black, brown, red, yellow, white, Indigenous, settlers, Asian, Arab, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Sheik, believers and non-believers can catch our collective breaths and breathe deeply of the SPIRIT in which we live and move and have our being, the ONE who is the MYSTERY which some of us call God. Come Holy SPIRIT. Come. Amen.

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3 thoughts on ““I Can’t Breathe!” – Pentecost sermon

  1. Pastor Dawn Hutchings has “nailed it” with both the picture of her masked and the heart-piercing words, “I Can’t Breathe” of a dying man being murdered on a city street in plain view by white racism. MLK also “nailed it” by identifying Racism, Militarism and Consumerism all supported by GREED. The picture of Pastor Dawn and the words of George Floyd say it all. God provides New Breath to all of us who can still breathe. Let us re-dedicate our lives to pursuing Nonviolent solutions to violent systemic racism and take action at the polls and in our daily lives “to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly (but actively) with God”.
    Pastor Jon Fogleman

  2. Pastor Dawn, I thank you so much for your boldness in the progressive way of speaking the truth, seeking peace with justice and sharing God’s love and concern for the marginalized and victimized; and God’s expectation we be the ones to speak for and serve the victimized and challenge the power brokers and Robber Barons to change their ways of seeking wealth and power instead of seeking the well-being of all people, particularly the poor and marginalized.

    Bless your congregation for having the love and insight to support your mixing the right amount of religion and politics in the pursuit of prophetic ministry as did Amos, Micah and those others who knew God’s concern for the people suffering at the hands of those who pursue their own wealth and power, whether in the political realm or the capitalist realm.

  3. Pastor Dawn, I thank you so much for your boldness in the progressive way of speaking the truth, seeking peace with justice and sharing God’s love and concern for the marginalized and victimized; and God’s expectation we be the ones to speak for and serve the victimized and challenge the power brokers and Robber Barons to change their ways of seeking wealth and power instead of seeking the well-being of all people, particularly the poor and marginalized.

    Bless your congregation for having the love and insight to support your mixing the right amount of religion and politics in the pursuit of prophetic ministry as did Amos, Micah and those others who knew God’s concern for the people suffering at the hands of those who pursue their own wealth and power, whether in the political realm or the capitalist realm.

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