I Can’t Breathe

I Can’t Breathe June 18, 2020

Editor’s Note:  When this former preacher left his faith behind, he clearly maintained his ability to give a searing, secular sermon.  In this carefully crafted essay, he reminds us of what the USA purports to stand for and how it has systematically and continuously denied the less powerful among us. /Linda LaScola, Editor


By RJ Twain

You know what I miss most about Christianity? The do-over. No matter how badly we wreck our planet or hurt each other, God will eventually step in, hit the big reset button in the sky, and everything will be good again. I had no idea how comforting that was, until it went away. My job was not to save the planet; the planet was lost. My job was not to save humanity; humanity was broken. My job was simply to point the way to the one who could save even a wretch like me.

How convenient to know exactly what everyone else’s problem is, and exactly what they need to do about it. How reassuring to have no responsibility for the outcome. How comforting to know in your bones, not just that you are right, but that everything will be all right.

The beauty of fighting a doomed holding action against overwhelming odds is that you never really lose. The tiniest win is a celebrated victory. The largest loss is merely expected. It’s the answer that covers all outcomes.

Too bad it’s killing us.

Life is not a holding action; it’s a street fight. And we still have to live on this exact same street tomorrow. No one is coming to rescue us; we rescue each other. One life for each of us. One planet for all of us.

Remember the good old days, when we were scared of murder hornets? Welcome to 2020, the year the world hit back. And guess what, brothers and sisters? It’s JUNE. You think these are riots? Wait until they acquit the cop. You think you’ve seen dysfunction? Wait until the election. You think our cities are burning? They’re simmering. They’ve been simmering. We just got distracted by the murder hornets.

If you imagine that it’s hopeless, you’re hopeless.

Now is the time. Time to work. Time to heal. Time to organize and reconcile. Time to remember the unfulfilled promise we made to each other:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

That’s the memory we received from our teachers, passed down for generations. That’s the story we tell ourselves when we raise the flag. That’s the promise we make every time we say the word American. “Send me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“I can’t breathe,” says the Navajo.

“I can’t breathe,” says the immigrant.

“I can’t breathe,” says George Floyd.

“I can’t breathe,” says everyone who’s been cut out of the promise of this country.

“Help me. Please. I can’t breathe.”

There is still time to listen. There is still time to act. But time is running out.


Bio: RJ Twain – Occasionally funny, sometimes even on purpose. Raised in an evangelical home, RJ moved slowly to the theological left during his time in ministry, until he moved so far left he fell off the edge. Today, he’s a humanist, a rationalist-in-training, and a member of the Clergy Project.

>>>>>>Photo credits: By Yasunori Koide – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63832922 ; By User:Mcj1800 – User:Mcj1800, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84048565

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