“I can’t breathe”

Anna Grummitt on how George Floyd's last words sound like a mantra for 2020 - and what it means for the God with wounds to know human pain.

“I can’t breathe.”

Those three words have been everywhere since the shocking murder of George Floyd. And the more they run through my mind, the more they sound like a mantra for 2020 as a whole.

George Floyd couldn’t breathe as Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. In the protests sparked by his death, we see powerfully how many others feel suffocated under the crushing weight of racial discrimination.

Here in Australia, Floyd’s death recalled that of Aboriginal man David Dungay, who also cried “I can’t breathe” twelve times before he died, held down by guards in a Sydney jail back in 2015.

All this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed more than 423,000 people worldwide, most from being unable to breathe. Even in the Amazon jungle, known as the “lungs of the world”, thousands are dying due to a shortage of oxygen tanks.

And 2020 opened with Australia’s Black Summer bushfires. According to health experts, nearly 450 people died from the bushfire smoke that engulfed the country.

In this year when so many are fighting for breath, my thoughts have turned to the one who did the same in the hours before his death, hanging on a Roman cross. Crucifixion is essentially death by asphyxiation, as the victim hangs from their wrists, their chest constricted.

In other words, Jesus knows what it’s like to be unable to breathe. Christians believe he was crushed not just by his own bodyweight or the machinery of the Roman state, but by all the brutality and evil of our world. The cross speaks of hope, but first it says: he knows, he knows what it’s like. The God with wounds knows your pain.