Cry, ‘I can’t breathe!’ (website only)

Authors & translators:
Campbell, John

racial-justice-sunday-1Cry, “I can’t breathe!” with those pinned down to die,
when law enforcers kill, all help deny.
Cry, “I can’t breathe!” while racist structures mean
so many blighted lives, beyond obscene.

Cry, “I can’t breathe!” rememb’ring times long gone
when slave ship holds would stifle and condemn.
Cry, “I can’t breathe!” with those from later days
still trapped by aftershocks of slav’ry’s ways.

Cry, “End this now!” with those who’ve had enough,
who march to end injustice harsh and rough.
Cry, “End this now!” with all who would proclaim
that black lives matter; let us end the shame!

Cry, “In Christ’s Name!” till all Christ’s church can see
that Jesu’s work’s not done till all are free.
Cry, “In Christ’s Name!” as we commit to share
in striving for a world that’s just and fair.

Cry, “I can’t breathe!” with all who seek to build
a world where no-one is unjustly killed.
Cry, “I can’t breathe!” till hope begins again,
and all are blessed, and peace and justice reign.

Words: John Campbell © 2020 United Reformed Church

Suggested tune: Woodlands (StF 186)


sunflowers-thistles-john-campbellReproduced, with permission, from Sunflowers & Thistles: praise songs and protests by John Campbell, published by the United Reformed Church (URC) in 2021. A number of hymns in this collection had already been made available in the URC’s online Legacies of Slavery archive under the title, 14 Racial Justice Songs



See Additional reading and resources on legacies of slavery below.

Ideas for use

John Campbell writes of the repeated phrase “I can’t breathe!”: “The words of George Floyd (and others who died pinned down by police) have become a rallying cry for much wider issues of injustice. This song seeks to invite Christians to share the cry and join the struggle.”

John has described his hymns and songs as “intentionally specific, contextual, immediate and ephemeral” and warns against “assuming that everything written for so explicit a context is easily relevant to another”. However, we suggest this hymn has ongoing resonance in the context not only of the injustices and horrors highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) but also in the light of efforts by Church organisations and others to understand and respond to the very present legacies of slavery.

Like most of John’s hymns, ‘Cry, “In Christ’s Name!”’ is set to a well-known hymn tune. “Woodlands” underpins the dignity and determination that runs through the words.

More information

slavery-power-5508641_1920-croppedAlongside a number of responses to the Covid pandemic, many of the hymns in John Campbell’s Sunflowers & Thistles also echo the concerns and cries of Black Lives Matter. For example, John uses the BLM chant “No justice? No peace!” as an opportunity to re-express God’s outrage as shared by the prophet Amos.

Several hymns in the collection also refer specifically to the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies. “Olaudah and Onesimus” draws together the stories of two men “both brought low by slav’rys curse”. Onesimus’s story comes to light in the short letter of St. Paul to Philemon, “our dear friend and fellow-worker”. Philemon is also typically for the times a slave-owner. Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 - 1797) was a slave who was baptised a Methodist. After buying his freedom, he became a prominent member of the 'Sons of Africa', a group of 12 black men who campaigned in England for abolition. The words of this hymn are set effectively to the familiar Christmas song “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”).

In “Our Legacies” (set to “Aurelia” (StF 690), John writes not only of the history of “blackness” but also of the oppression experienced by women and inequalities reinforced by borders. He concludes that Christ’s “love is daily trampled if we decline to act; help us remove injustice, turn fairness into fact.”

The Revd Dr John Campbell has ministered for 30 years in urban and multicultural settings. He was principal of Northern College, Manchester, 2004-11. Throughout his ministry, John says he has written hymns “to help the Bible come alive for today’s urban believers”. In 2016, Songs to shake us up, his collection of “200 new hymn texts with well-known tunes to challenge church and society”, was published by Kevin Mayhew. The publisher describes John’s work as “quirky, distinctive and forthright”, and adds that “his lyrics don't pull any punches”.

Additional reading and resources


On Singing the Faith Plus:

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