“I can’t breathe … F*%! your breath!”: Christian Ethics in an Age of Police Violence

“Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7

“I can’t breathe…” – Eric Garner

“Fuck your breath!” – Tulsa police officer

It is increasingly becoming evident that police violence is a problem in the United States. While related to the long legacy of institutionalized American racism and segregation, this problem is not reducible to those social phenomena. In addition to institutional structures that reinforce the disproportionate use of violence against poor communities and communities of color, a general American culture of violence undergirds and sustains the particular political phenomenon of police violence.

In short, police violence is not culturally removed from the US government’s use of torture, its consistent violence overseas, or its economic policies (like NAFTA) that contribute to the social conditions that eventually result in the deaths of many people from Latin America attempting to cross international borders to flee economic, systemic, and physical violence in their home countries. It is no coincidence that during the same time that we have experienced a rise in public consciousness about racialized police killings we have also seen a torture report published, thousands of unattended youth from Latin America crossing our border, and the rise of ISIS in lands made unstable by US-led wars. Martin Luther King’s statement that the US is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is as true today as it was on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was brutally murdered.

The uniqueness of the American culture of violence, particularly as represented in police violence, is more easily seen as an anomaly when compared to the country of Iceland. In 2013 the police there killed a man who was firing at them with a shotgun. He was the first person killed by police in the country’s history (thousands have been killed in the US since 2005). And then the police apologized for the killing in what is, from an American legal perspective, a wholly justified killing.

In the US, the response of police (and much of the public) to such killings, by contrast, is to blame the person killed no matter the circumstances, avoid the moral question by appealing only to legal minutiae, or flat out lie. In the case of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, Officer Wilson justified his killing of Mr. Brown by asserting that he looked like a demon. Setting aside the racist overtones of such a statement, it is so subjective and vague as to be of little legal value and yet many people viewed it as justification for his not facing trial. Even more troubling, many people view Officer Wilson’s subjective feeling to free him of all moral guilt – even to the point of praising him as a moral exemplar.

We have reached a place where our police officers and government representatives do not apologize for taking the life of one of God’s beloved children, even if it is deemed tragically necessary. Instead, we celebrate. This place we now find ourselves is one of grave moral failure. We have replaced a moral imagination in which we understand life to be a gift of God breathed on the just and the unjust with one in which we play God by regularly taking people’s God-given breath in staggering numbers.

We do not believe that such violence is to be lamented or something worthy of repentance; instead we believe it is something to be celebrated as redemptive. We believe that those who kill those marginalized by our society are to be honored, in part, because their killings provide moments for us to justify the economic and structural violence we impose on their lives. “They are thugs,” we say about poor black men. “They are criminals who must be punished,” we shout about children sent or brought across the US border by their families. “They are evil,” we say about our political enemies overseas. “They are demons,” we say about black children. And so we kill them.

Those killed by our violence are telling us that we are suffocating them, that they can’t breathe. Our social and political systems are strangling them. “I can’t breath … we can’t breathe,” they gasp.

“Fuck your breath. Fuck your life,” we reply in anger, our violence and hatred dripping from our lips. “Fuck your breath,” we say to those given that breath by God.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” gasped Jesus as he slowly suffocated while hanging on a cross. “It is finished,” he whispered with his last breath.

We have killed God before with our violence. We are killing God’s beloved children today, taking away the very breath that God gave them.

“I can’t breathe,” God is saying.

“Fuck your breath,” we reply.

“It is finished,” God says.

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.

2 thoughts on ““I can’t breathe … F*%! your breath!”: Christian Ethics in an Age of Police Violence

  • April 24, 2015 at 6:27 pm
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    I live in Tulsa, so obviously this is pretty near to me. It has been sad and disheartening to watch how the Tulsa Country Sheriffs office has continually tried to shift the blame for this.

    Good post, thanks.

    One little note, just for accuracy sake, it was not a Tulsa police officer who said “F*%! your breath!” it was a Tulsa Country Sheriff. I have no doubt that TPD has its own issues, but in this case it was not TPD

    Reply
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