We Can’t Breathe: A Theology of the Die-In

Photograph by Seattle University Campus Ministry
Photograph by Seattle University Campus Ministry

“I can’t breathe … We can’t breathe!”

These were the words that Seattle University students, staff, and faculty chanted on December 5, 2014. Inspired by die-ins at shopping centers and university campuses around the United States, a multiracial coalition of people declared at the top of their voices that racial injustice is literally killing too many black people and figuratively killing us all.

Students across the country have participated in similar demonstrations on their campuses. They have occurred at Emory University’s seminary, Harvard University’s medical school, Pepperdine University’s law school, and among undergraduates from Seattle to Miami (just to name a few). A die-in even occurred at the Society of Christian Ethics’ annual meeting this year. Roughly forty trained Christian ethicists interrupted the most important professional gathering of their guild to lie on a hotel floor and hold signs declaring #BlackLivesMatter. What are we to make of this form of activism? How should we understand die-ins theologically?

Contemporary “die-ins” are dramatic reenactments of the deaths of unarmed black persons as a form of protest against racialized police violence and mass incarceration. In the case of Seattle University, roughly seventy people gathered to read the names of unarmed persons of color who have been killed by the police (such as Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, and Tamir Rice); read a poem inspired by the dying words of Eric Garner (one of those unarmed children of God who was killed by police); [1] laid down on the ground all over the student center holding signs with hashtags, the names of people killed by police, and Bible verses; and chanted “I can’t breathe,” “We can’t breathe,” and “No justice, no peace.”

Strategically, die-ins function to raise awareness about the issues of racialized police violence and to protest the outcomes of particular cases including the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police. They provide a forum for people to express their anger and despair at the contemporary ways that racism continues to kill persons of color, especially when those persons are black. And they provide the opportunity for coalitions to be built among a variety of citizens motivated by these recent cases. Each of these outcomes justifies the use of the die-in in contemporary anti-racism activism. However, die-ins are more than strategic political actions; they are also theological statements (at least the die-in at Seattle University was).

Theologically, die-ins function as an act of solidarity in which protestors symbolically die. Protestors die to their complicity in a racist system. They die to their silence. And they die to be resurrected to a life committed to justice for others. In this way, especially for young college students, they are an initiation into a new way of life. For example, after the Seattle University die-in several students came up to me, breathing excitedly, exclaiming that it was their first public political action and that they wanted to know what the next one could be. I pointed them to a public march, to be led by local high school students, which was to occur the following day. In this way, die-ins can function as a form of baptism in which those who participate are raised to be, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pedro Arrupe, SJ, “persons for others.”

Die-ins can also be a form of worship. Several people said that participating in the die-in was the most meaningful worship experience they had experienced in a long while. The Spirit moved in that place, they said. Hearts raced, tears flowed, and hugs were shared among people who experienced a moment of solidarity with those who they, too often, do not meet in designated spaces of worship. Die-ins are often more multiracial than our churches because we are a segregated people. Our segregation encourages our willful blindness to racialized injustices (such as police violence) and die-ins function as rejections of living in a way in which we are separated from those with whom we are interconnected. We are created in the image of a God who is Trinity (three persons in interdependent relations of justice and love), and, as Desmond Tutu has taught us, to live as if we are not interconnected is to deny that image in our neighbors. Inasmuch as die-ins function to oppose our racialized segregation and enact solidarity they are forms of worship that foreshadow the kingdom of God in which we participate in God’s own interconnected life in ways our worship services too often do not.

A die-in, then, can be a moment of communal worship in which our confession is that “we can’t breathe” because of the social sin of racism, and our prayer is that one day all will be able to breathe freely the liberated air of a just reconciliation.

1. I can’t breathe by James McCarty

I can’t breathe
I am choking under racism’s deadly grip
If I don’t escape its grip I am sure I will die
I will die too young
I will die after a life of unfulfilled dreams
I will die a death without justice

Will you help me escape this grip?
Will you peel each finger away from my throat?
Will you fight for my right to breathe?
To breathe clean, crisp air?
The same air you are breathing now?
If you fight and I still die will you save my children from my killer’s grip of death?

What is that, my killer is choking himself as well?
With every breath he squeezes from me his death grip tightens on his own neck?
It is as if it is a suicide

By squeezing the breath out of another human we let go of our own humanity
By killing others we kill ourselves
When I can’t breathe you can’t breathe

We have been struggling to breathe for centuries, and though we’ve had moments of gasping breath we have been slowly dying
If we do not stop choking soon we will die
We will all die

Our dreams, our hopes, our experiment to be a just people will die
And rot
And decompose

And become dirt already stained with blood
We stand on dirt that was once a people trying to breathe

I can’t breathe

We can’t breathe

If I die, we die

I can’t breathe.


James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

James McCarty III

James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

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