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Cutting Edges: I Can't Breathe

Dr. Osvaldo VenaBy Dr. Osvaldo Vena, Professor of New Testament Interpretation

Police brutality and use of excessive force is a by-product of a long process of domination started in our modern period by discovery, conquest, colonialism, neocolonialism, and out- of-control capitalism as represented in our present global market economy. Racism, white supremacy, hetero-normativity, and Christianity as the dominant religion have characterized each one of these periods. It is this history that provides the context for interpreting the latest cases of violence around the world as well as the instances of police abuse here in our country: an extreme zeal to protect the rights of a minority, which subscribes to the ideology above, against the vast majority of people who do not.

As Christians, we should denounce this kind of excess, not only because it is in our best interest, but also because we are compelled to do so by the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his solidarity with the marginalized, Jesus resisted the oppressive institutions of his time and was himself the victim of police brutality and excessive force.

Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is an example of how he resisted oppressive institutions. He came into the temple and disrupted the daily functioning of the sanctuary as a reminder that God was not pleased with the way it was being administered. His action was an act of public protest, a riot if you please, since historically speaking he could not have done this alone unless he was helped by a number of others.

Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane (Mk 14:43-50 and parallels) is an instance of police brutality exercised against a not-yet-proven-guilty individual. The mocking by the soldiers at the crucifixion site (Mk 15:16-20 and parallels) is another example of police abuse of power, as was his execution by the Roman government. Death by crucifixion was death by suffocation. As the body hung on the cross, the lung cavity would distend beyond the point at which one could breathe. In the end, Jesus couldn’t breathe anymore and died. Soldiers watched, unmoved by his suffering, waiting to see if someone else would come to rescue him; in this case, the prophet Elijah.

A picture appearing in a newspaper during the outbreak of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 disturbed me deeply. It was the body of a dead black man floating on the ominous floodwaters of New Orleans. There it was, uncared for, as a painful reminder of how our society views certain bodies. This was not the corpse of a white person from one of the affluent neighborhoods of the city, which, by and large, were spared the devastating consequences of the hurricane. It was the body of a marginalized black inhabitant of one of the poorest areas of New Orleans.

Eric Garner, the African American peddler who was left to die unattended in Staten Island, NY, and Michael Brown, the teenager whose body was also uncared for as it lay on the street for more than three hours, are examples of how society treats certain bodies. To many, only white bodies, especially male bodies, are considered human. Everybody else falls short of this categorization. These two tragic examples serve also as a parable for what happens to blacks and other minorities in our society today. Constrained under the weight of exploitative and unfair laws, they “can’t breathe.” They are deprived of breathing space and of the basic human freedom to live life at its fullness.

Jesus of Nazareth’s body, uncared for by the empire, found its vindication in the action of the community which came to take care of it through the decisive action of one of its members, Joseph of Arimathea. According to Mark 15:43, Joseph “was also waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” and “went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” We saw this boldness reflected in the public demonstrations that followed the tragic incidents referred to above. Even members of the Garrett-Evangelical community joined in this public testimony, showing our prophetic side to a world that may have been surprised to realize that “prophetic participation in society” is one of our stated core values. I believe that academic prestige often outweighs the prophetic vocation that has always characterized us. May these tragic and unfortunate events awaken that vocation in us.