I can’t breathe. These words, uttered through the mouths of dying African Americans who fell victim to racial injustice at the hands, and knee, of law enforcement officers have reverberated through our nation and around the world, calling us to a deeper level of reflection and engagement while pushing us to redefine who and what our nation will be.
Indeed, our nation stands at a precipice. We are facing a moment of decision: Will we work to live up to the ideals upon which our nation was founded? Or, will we allow divisions, fear and hatred of others to rule the day? Can we stand united and love our neighbors, especially those who are not just like us? As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically asked decades ago, will we choose chaos or community?
As racial injustices plague the country, the novel coronavirus pandemic rages nearly unchecked, and an economic crisis plunges millions into poverty, we find ourselves at a point from which we can fall into an abyss of further division, destitution, and despair, or from which we can move back from the brink, by faith, to a place of justice, restored hope and healing. In the midst of these simultaneous crises, and as we celebrate 70 years of public witness in the fight for justice, we, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), call on our churches to work even more faithfully and diligently to partner with God in breathing new life into our nation – a nation struggling to recover from the sins of the past and chart a healthier, more just way forward.
When looking out over the devastation of dry bones in a valley, God asks the Prophet Ezekiel a question that we must seek to answer today, “Can these bones live?” As the question hovers, God’s promise comes to us in these words spoken through the Prophet: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live” (Ez 37:5, NRSV). These words challenge us today as we see dry bones, yet declare with God’s help and our persistence new breath and new life into the soul of our nation.
In speaking to the crises facing our nation, we approach these issues from a decidedly biblical and ethical mandate. Nothing less than radical hospitality and love, generosity and sacrifice are necessary to secure a new era of justice and peace.
We recognize that the sin of racism has left our nation unable to breathe unencumbered and in desperate need of repentance, re-formation and reparation. We cannot move forward in new life collectively if we continue to allow racism and white supremacy to wreak havoc in every aspect of our society. This sin has plagued our nation since its inception, and seems to be making a comeback. Since the land was stolen from indigenous peoples and their communities devastated, and the first Africans were brought here and enslaved in 1619, more than 400 years ago, we have witnessed the atrocities borne out of legislated racial hatred and vitriol. We witness this in continuing notions of white superiority and the realities of white privilege. We witness this when we can turn a blind eye to violence perpetrated against any person of color simply because of the color of their skin. We witness this when we allow our government to separate children from their families, and put them in cages. We witness this when polluted air and water infect poor communities, in many cases rendering children of color unable to breathe because of asthma and debilitated by deadly levels of lead and other toxic substances in their water. We witness this in every institution and system in our society—in education, criminal justice, health care, housing and banking practices, and in our churches and theologies that we have embraced. Enough! We denounce white supremacy in all of the ways it shows up in our society. It is time for us to repent, to re-form, and to repair the damage that has been caused.
We express our admiration and thanks to those who have engaged in prolonged peaceful protests against racism, in a movement that has brought about this moment when real change can take place. We join our voices to theirs in demanding this change that will give us new life and a new way of being. We join them in insisting on reforms in policing and criminal justice, in banking and housing practices, in education and countless other aspects of systemic racism. We join them in calling for a new level of accountability for our churches and even within ourselves. We join them in witnessing to the possibility of establishing what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.” And, as we do so, we call upon our government to join us in taking a leadership role in this work, especially to address the need for reparations for those who have suffered from the legacy of racism.
With regard to the global pandemic, which has taken the breath out of the bodies that have been infected by it, we call our nation to take extraordinary measures to defeat it. A coordinated strategy led by the federal government is essential to mitigate its spread; to safely develop a vaccine against it; and to provide personal protective equipment to all who need it. Requiring everyone to wear masks, observe physical distancing, and avoid gathering in crowds are reasonable acts of service for Christians to make sure that we are doing our part to protect the lives of the most vulnerable among us. We lament the time that has been lost to take these simple steps, and we demand that our government take swift and immediate action to set our country on the right path.
We are thankful that most of the 38 member communions of the NCC, and the 100,000 local congregations and 30 million adherents who comprise those communions, have been careful, responsible, and a model of right behavior in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Church buildings have been closed for months to in-person worship, but our communities have responded in innovative ways in order to sustain our people spiritually and practically. More so, they have given witness to all that being church is first and foremost demonstrated through the love and care we show to one another. Certainly, we yearn for the day when we will gather again in our sanctuaries, but in the meantime we will continue to express our love for one another by refusing to unnecessarily expose anyone to the coronavirus.
Most of all, our hearts ache for the more than 227,000 lives lost to date due to Covid-19, and we pray for the more than 8.8 million people, and counting, who have tested positive for the virus. Likewise, our thoughts are with the millions of people in this country who have lost their jobs due to the impact of this global pandemic. It is not lost on us that a disproportionate number of those suffering come from communities of color; it is also not lost on us that much of the economic hardship could have been avoided had the response to the pandemic been taken seriously from the beginning. As we call upon our government officials to lead us in a better way, we note our gratefulness beyond measure to the medical personnel and other essential workers who have shown us the better way, and who have given sacrificially of themselves to help and serve their neighbors. We also give thanks for the pastors, clergy and lay leaders who have ministered to those who have fallen ill as well as to families who have lost loved ones during these trying times when our normal customs and practices have been set aside in an abundance of caution.
Furthermore, we call for courage and conviction for our elected officials, faith and community leaders to address the global pandemic, economic hardship, and racism at a moment when we are in the process of voting to decide on the future direction of our nation. This is a moment for our leaders to go above and beyond political partisanship, taking extraordinary measures to ensure a free and fair election for every eligible voter on and leading up to November 3rd. We denounce efforts to suppress votes as well as words, social media posts, actions, and outright lies that discourage voting in this historic and critical election and those that deepen divisions among us that will last beyond Election Day. And when the votes are counted, as has long been the history in this country, the results must be respected and a peaceful transfer of power must occur if merited. To this end, we call upon our government leaders, candidates, and indeed all citizens to refrain from words and actions that would erode or bring into question our democratic processes.
The National Council of Churches marks its 70th anniversary during this particularly challenging and trying year as fragilities have been exposed and systemic injustices laid bare. Howard Thurman once said, “All around us, worlds are dying and new worlds are being born.” We thank God for the gift of the one ecumenical movement that brings us together, as churches and as individual people of faith, to witness to and do the work for the new world that can be—a world of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
May God indeed breathe new life into the soul of our nation. Amen.
 These numbers were taken from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, updated on Oct. 28, 2020.