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Love Is Stronger than Death

By Douglas LeBlanc

Untold destruction has followed the agonizing death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. One image has become, for me, a peaceful center amid the chaos that has spread from the appalling video documenting the last moments of Floyd’s life. This image transforms the horror of his death.

Only four days after Floyd’s death, five artists began work on a mural to honor his memory. They painted on a wall outside the small market known as Cup Foods, within feet of Floyd’s death. Their painting took 12 hours to complete, but then one neighborhood woman suggested a four-word addition: “I Can Breathe Now.”

The artists did not add the phrase immediately.

Xena Goldman, the artist who envisioned and organized the project, told Dane Mizutani of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she “didn’t want to put words in Floyd’s mouth.”

“We wanted to be certain that it felt appropriate,” Goldman said. “We didn’t have any black artists in the group and we wanted to make sure the community felt like that statement was representative.”

A poll in the neighborhood showed overwhelming support for adding the words, Mizutani wrote.

“We lettered it and had someone from the community paint the words,” Goldman said. “That was the final touch of the mural and when he finished there was a big applause and it was a really beautiful moment.”

From the lips of one unnamed woman, affirmed by a straw poll of those who will live closest to the site of Floyd’s death, rose a deep insight. “I Can Breathe Now” might convey different meanings.

For activists spending hours on streets, it might mean Floyd breathes figuratively through their collective protests. For Christians, whether they are activists or grieving observers from afar, there is an inescapable message: George Floyd breathes again in the presence of God.

This meaning is no mere presumption. Three days after Floyd’s death, Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today reported on Floyd’s support for gospel preaching — and a baptism — in Houston’s Third Ward.

“The things that he would say to young men always referenced that God trumps street culture,” Ronnie Lillard told CT. “I think he wanted to see young men put guns down and have Jesus instead of the streets.”

Affirming the reality of Floyd’s life with God does not equate to passive acceptance of his death. Any Christian who understands the foundational truth that every human being is made in God’s image will be horrified by what Floyd endured in his dying moments. When he called for his mother, a widespread phenomenon among the dying, from hospices to the cockpits of fighter pilots, compassionate hearts across the world felt pierced.

What “I Can Breathe Now” provides is a crucial reminder that racial strife does not have the final word and that even death is not the end of the story. To invoke a phrase that long preceded George Floyd’s death, God’s love is stronger than death. In the glorious language of Eastern Orthodox Christians, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”

There is no ideological or political point embedded within “I Can Breathe Now,” although the surrounding imagery — crowds with clenched fists and names of many others who died during encounters with police — does convey such points. The phrase does not require supporting or opposing the Black Lives Matter movement. It does not lead toward a front-loaded conclusion about how to vote in November. It does not, at its best, create new slogans for any perspective that will reverberate in the noisy echo chamber known as Twitter.

That too is part of its beauty. That too is why, each time I feel nearly overwhelmed by images of people shouting in each other’s faces, I return to four words on the wall of Cup Foods, where George Floyd moved, albeit with horrible pain, from a broken life into an eternity of redemption.

Douglas LeBlanc is a former senior editor of The Living Church.


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