Before whiteness, there was breath

A reflection on John 20:19-23 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

When he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:22).

In the beginning was the breath,
and the breath was with God
and the breath was God

All things came into being
through breath, and without
breath not one thing came
into being.

What has come into being
through breath was life,
and that life was the light
of all people.

In the beginning was the breath.
and the breath was with God
and the breath was God

And yet, how many times this week
this month, this year,
have we killed God?

How many times this week
have we—individually and as a society—
been complicit in extinguishing breath?

Louisville, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Toronto.
Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Regis Korchinski-Paquet

The list neither starts nor stops there. Shouldn’t it have ended with Eric Garner? Philando Castille? Shouldn’t it have ended with the closure of residential schools? Shouldn’t it have ended with the countless trans women of colour murdered each and every year? Go back hundreds upon hundreds of years, millions upon millions of deaths. Shouldn’t it have ended there?

Growing up I heard endlessly about the book of life. The book in which the names of the pure saints—all dressed in white, praising God in the highest heavens—would be written. If there is such a book, it’s nothing in comparison to the book of death laid out before us again this week.

This book, the book of death, the book containing the names of every person whose breath we’ve extinguished, is an indictment of the world. It’s an indictment of the church. Much more to the point, it’s an indictment of whiteness, of white supremacy. It’s an indictment of spiritual bypassing and silence. It’s an indictment of our failure to do the work, to read, to listen, to understand.

Particularly convicting for me this week, is the indictment of my failure to resist and reject the privilege of not knowing or needing to care. And all of this is an indictment of our failure to dismantle the systems that keeps adding pages to the book of death.

And so on this Pentecost Sunday, when we
celebrate words of life voiced in the language of the
people, words spoken in the languages of people
from throughout Africa and the Middle East, not just
Rome or Greece,
when we gather to celebrate the gift of breath
offered from the beginning,
the invitation to experience peace
in the midst of the chaos
that surrounds us all
how can we do these things if we can’t
see Christ as Black, Indigenous?

How can we do these things without seeing
Christ as a person of colour,
gasping for breath,
crying out, white knee
on black back,
face to the curb
breath extinguished?

This week we’ve done it again.
Strung Christ up on the cross.
The cross, the lynching tree,
the residential school,
the non-stop pattern of white supremacy
that infects this continent, this world, that continues
to work as it was designed
to steal breath, to enslave it,
and to extinguish it when it
no longer serves our purposes.

We read in tonight’s gospel that
Jesus’ frightened friends
are locked behind closed doors
for fear of the authorities,
the religious leaders and
the police, knowing that
they would be the next target,
that they too would be disappeared,
subject as they were, to “systems,
policies, practices, and norms
designed to keep their dark bodies detained
in the system.”

And so, when Jesus says, “peace be with you,”
when he breathes the breath of creation
on his frightened
disciples, he breathes life on those
who are on the front lines fighting
for one fallen world to end, and another
to begin. And he speaks with an
all-consuming fire.

As my Father has sent me,
So I send you:

Receive Holy Spirit.

Receive the fire that will bring an end
to the former things, the institutions
of slavery that dominate the landscape,
that dominate bodies,

Receive Holy Spirit who with
prophetic zeal, will fell the oppressor
and bring about the life to come.

His are not trite assurances
of peace. How can they be—Jesus
has the wounds to show us doubters
that prove otherwise.
It’s into this world that Jesus speaks peace,
he breathes creative breath that will break into
the chaos of violence and war.

Before there was whiteness
Before there was white supremacy
there was breath,
a gift for all, unconstrained,
a gift stolen, extracted, sold, denied,

It was African American Liberation Theologian James Cone who wrote:

“If white Americans could look at the terror they inflicted on their own black population—slavery, segregation, and lynching—then they might be able to understand what is coming at them from others.”

Isn’t Jesus’ death on a cross just a first century lynching? And if we were to see it that way, might we find:

“the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”

This week, we are being forced to look once again. And so, this Pentecost Sunday, I want to invite you to join in this prayer, in the words of Drew Brown, musician, activist, who shared these words in the midst of the exhaustion of this week:

Holy Spirit, breath of God, breath of life
we mourn to see someone taking another’s
breath away again and again and again.

We cry out for justice.
We march for peace.
We yearn for this world to be healed and made whole.

Holy Spirit, guide us
from hatred to love,
from injustice to justice, from violence to peace,
from Chaos to harmony,
Today we celebrate God in us.
Help us to see in each other the face of God
and love others in that way.

We pray for unity, compassion, empathy, and the resolve to burn down racism, oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy, and hatred. And let something more beautiful rise from the ashes.


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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

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