May 31, 2020
As the Christian community around the world celebrates Pentecost, or the Holy Spirit, today, I am mindful of different images and symbols from Scripture and elsewhere that try to convey something of this mystic expression of God present among us. Fire, wind, and doves a-flight convey the work of inspiration, wisdom, courage, grace, and so on, common effects around us or within that represent God’s influence and the manifestation of remarkable human capacities and responses.
In these days in particular, however, I am deeply struck with the analogy of the Holy Spirit as breath which fills and fuels our lives. From Genesis to Job to John, in Judeo-Christian verse, God’s breath – the spirit of God – gives life, and yet what we have actually seen this week is just the opposite, breath violently pressed and taken from the life of an individual, George Floyd. Almost instantly, his plea, “I can’t breathe,” has reverberated from one community to the next as cities, and a nation, chant that same desperate reality. As Mr. Floyd’s cry resounds in shouts anew, it is also a haunting echo of both recent other African American individuals – Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others who lost their lives due to insidious racism – and those of generations and centuries of people of color in our entire American history also crying out for the fullness of life.
At Creighton University, where, as an institution of higher learning, we offer a wide range of programs across the social sciences, health care, law, and business, we also study and teach the humanities, and the questions of philosophy, theology, art, language, literature, and history ask our students about the meanings of their lives, and about the meanings of lives of those around them. We push them deeply into themselves, and we pull them into other cultures, customs, perspectives, and experiences. Our mission and identity as Jesuit and Catholic compels such a commitment, including providing the practices of religious faith and facilitating service to others. What and how we study, in how we recognize and wrestle with God, and in seeking to make the world better – each of these influences and even more edge us each day into and around the essential issues of truth, justice, and human dignity, and the imbibing values of diversity and inclusivity.
There is no denying that George Floyd’s killing is a serious scandal in itself, but it also represents that individual and systemic prejudices, inequalities, and deprivations in the lives of black Americans historically and daily, communally and individually, and nationally and locally, cannot be denied. And as Creighton, that is, as Jesuit and Catholic, and as committed to higher learning, and as determined to make the world better, we must do more.
On the eve of Pentecost, I spoke yesterday with our alumni community from St. John’s Church in the heart of our Creighton campus, naming the national context of racism and discrimination. I also talked about the global reality of the novel coronavirus pandemic in our lives, recognizing a deadly force that demands health care expertise, equipment, research, patience, compassion, and so much more, and here again, in Pentecost, I am cognizant of yet another force that truly robs us of breath. While we all know that COVID-19 is indeed indiscriminate, we also know that social determinants, wealth gaps, and systemic realities portend disproportionate results, and that people of color are in fact more susceptible.
The unfairness, discrimination, and violence of racism in our nation, and the sickness, economic duress, and stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic are real. For the death that occurs in both, including the loss of life that happened here in Omaha during unrest last night, I share the sadness, confusion, concern, and pain of so many, particularly the members of the Creighton community locally, nationally, and globally. I am also aware that thoughts, feelings, and experiences impact us differently, and in this I am especially mindful of people of color whose own American context is framed and informed by other realities of which I cannot represent. But we believe that the power of the Holy Spirit reconciles and breathes new life. We must recognize the complexities and complicities that contribute to the smothering effects of these great ills of racism and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the opportunities and actions for an institution of higher learning to create healing and wholeness. The Spirit calls Creighton to do more.
Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD