TWO striking images from the United States have emerged over the past week and have set the tone for much of what will follow in the weeks to come.

The first was the image of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer captured on video kneeling on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd as he begged for his life. “I can’t breathe, man,” Floyd can be heard saying in the film “Please, let me stand. Please, man.”

Mr Chauvin kept his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, according to the criminal complaint against him. Mr Chauvin did not remove his knee even after Mr Floyd lost consciousness, and kept it in place for a full minute after paramedics arrived at the scene.

The second image is that of President Trump standing on the steps of St John’s Church in Washington DC posing for photos while holding a Bible. Prior to the President’s photo opportunity, clergy and peaceful protestors who had gathered outside the church were cleared away by federal authorities using tear gas and rubber bullets. Reflecting on the unfolding scenes on television Bishop Greg Brewer, of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, commented “this is blasphemy in real time”.

The first image sums up the legacy of 400 years of systemic racism in America. It is a reminder of the degradation and humiliation experienced by black women and men from the first slaves through to those who have died as a result of state sanctioned brutality. From the whip hand of the slavemaster to the forced knee of the police officer, the image is represents a harrowing retelling of dehumanisation.

The second image is a naked political stunt by a politician seeking re-election, misappropriating the sacred in pursuit of electoral advantage. In holding up a Bible on the steps of a church, Donald Trump sought to send a message to the white evangelical voters who put him in the White House and whom he hopes will keep him there. The image is one of brazen opportunism and hypocrisy where the bearer of a book that speaks of divine love, reconciliation, justice and righteousness acts in a way which repudiates those virtues.

The repercussions of the first image have been felt across America and in other parts of the world where both peaceful protests and riots have taken place in response to the death of George Floyd. His partner and family have called for an end to violence saying such actions go against the peace and community for which Floyd worked as a Christian activist.

The repercussions of the second image will likely be felt in a nation falling further into division as its president makes the political call to exploit the sorrow and anger of one community to stoke the fears of another. He has called for more state sanctioned violence against his fellow citizens (“when the looting starts the shooting starts”) in his desire to create the image of a strong leader. Both images might yet turn out to be turning points for a country in crisis and mark a turning away from both past legacies and potential futures. Whatever shape the repercussions take, the response to these image must simply be “never again”.

  • Arun Arora is vicar of St Nicholas Church, Durham