Supermarket Staff

More or less every morning I go into my local Tesco to pick up my newspapers and anything I might want for breakfast. In this way I have come to know some of the early morning weekday shift, some at the tills, and others whose tasks are done near my habitual shopping itinerary; I would not call them friends, but rather kindly acquaintances, who greet me pleasantly, ask after my health, and discuss the issues of the day. They do not wear name badges, but I have picked up most of their names, over a period of time. That period includes all of the months of the pandemic, during which some of them have had worries about family members or neighbours, although none of them have had the viral infection.

I have therefore been daily aware of their presence as people who have worked continuously throughout the pandemic, initially without significant protection. After a few months their protection, and the safety routines of the whole store improved considerably, but they remain, as they say, in the “front line.” They are seldom mentioned as heroes, either in the media or the casual conversation of citizens, yet they have cheerfully provided an essential public service, without claiming any special place in popular esteem. They know, as the public knows, that their employer has made record profits over the time of the pandemic, without making any commitment to increase their hourly rate of pay. They are not outraged by this injustice because they take it as given.

These are facts; what do they reveal?

1. That those often described as ordinary working people possess qualities which are seldom recognised even by themselves: courage, kindness and sense of duty. Of course they have also been encouraged by the continuation of their normal working routines, but that does not deny the qualities of character mentioned above.

2. These same qualities, shown in a place where the public are frequently present, set a positive tone for daily experience which may go unnoticed, but is an important contribution to customers’ welfare. Local supermarkets have become the equivalent of the village square or city forum, where civil values are expressed and shared.

3. Given that many people live alone, the conversations at the till are very important: for some people they may be the only conversations they have in a day. Most till operators initiate conversation, and continue it at a level appropriate to the customer; with some it remaIns superficial, with others something deeper is exchanged.

4. These exchanges contribute to good expectations of public behaviour. In so-called superstores I have seen instances of selfishness, stupidity, and dangerous disregard of Covid rules, but in my local, smaller, store I have not seen any of these, but rather a kind of good-humoured decency. This reminds me that social virtues are based on shared experience, and that goodness arises from interaction with good people. Jesus spoke of the city on the hill which cannot be hidden and urged his followers to let their light shine out for others. This is happening in my local store, led by staff who would not think of themselves as saints.


I suppose I was lucky until recently; I could still enjoy my outdoor activities, walking, running and climbing hills, without noticing any significant diminution of ability, although I had left 75 years well behind. Yes, some symptoms of ageing were noticeable, a slight but significant enlargement of the prostate gland, for example, but nothing sinister. So, nothing to worry about. But the last few years have made a difference.

I still walk and run and climb, but latter two are perceptibly harder. I used to be able to run reasonable distances – 5-6 miles- without trouble, but now I stop every now and then and walk. Or I do interval training and comfort myself that this is still a form of running. And the hills! Recently I’ve found ordinary Murroes very testing, to the extent of pretending that I don’t need to “conquer” them, and therefore don’t need to go to the summit, although of course, I could.

Then again, there’s being unable to remember the name, the place, the book, the word, -all quite natural for an active mind with lots of interests, just calm down and the word will arrive- but it does happen rather frequently. Then again and again, I find myself proclaiming how much better the world was in my youth, socialism and the welfare state, forgetting the British Empire and the Glasgow fogs that exterminated numbers of its citizens every year.

Yes, I’m getting older, and it makes a difference.

The human species has managed to more than double the life -span it inherited from the great apes, but it is still not impressive in comparison to some recently discovered microorganisms in the South Pacific which are about 101 million years old, which would do me. Possibly the most testing thing about ageing is the knowledge that I’ll almost certainly be dead in 20 years, and quite probably in 10. These are figures which sharpen my mind to consider the future welfare of loved ones, and to question my own attitude to a) dying and b) death.

a) I know that medical science has increasingly helped us live beyond the point where living has much purpose or enjoyment. If it were not for the assistance I give to my wife whose mobility is restricted, I doubt if I would now want any dramatic medical interventions on my body, especially as they are a finite resource, which ought to be rationed in favour of younger people.

I reckon aged people ought not to whinge at the indignities and pains of old age, but I can understand the desire of some to be able to end their lives when they want, with dignity. I might support a change in the law to make this possible, but I would not choose to take advantage of it. I believe this thing is a gift, and it seems churlish to hand in one’s dinner-pail before one has to. Still, if I’m on the way out, I should like it to be reasonably quick and preferably painless.

b) I believe in resurrection and life with God. If this belief is true, I’ll know it. If it isn’t, I won’t. I know that a respect for science has made this belief harder to hold, but I also know that it has always seemed unlikely to sceptical minds, and that St Paul was ridiculed for preaching about it in Athens. It is nevertheless central to my faith. If there is no after-life which corrects the injustices of this life, then there is also no God that I want to worship. I also like the idea of learning the truth about myself even if it is painful.

I therefore approach death as a hopeful mystery, although I’m far from running towards it.

As to the traditional claim that age brings wisdom, I am sceptical: for every lesson well-learned by elderly people, there will be another lesson forgotten. Moreover I have been unfortunate over the years of my ministry, to listen to many of their mean and angry prejudices. Yes, some elderly people have the goodness and calm which make for wisdom but the same is true of younger people.

Self-deception is a serious barrier to wisdom, and I guess that if I’ve managed to gain some realism about myself, others of my age will have done so too. In my case this realism would have prevented many of the mistakes and follies of my younger years, but perhaps, if I recommended it to someone younger, they might reply that they preferred their mistakes to my wisdom.

I would like to say that age has made me a better person, but I know I’m still stumbling along that road, as the Bible asks:

“Who can say, I have cleansed my heart”? (Proverbs 30:9)

Sex for sale

Weekdays I read the Daily Record at breakfast. For those who don’t know it, I should say that it is a Scottish tabloid popular newspaper with a left of centre political view, and a broad, working class culture in its presentation. It cannot resist a pun or popular phrase and would greet Judgement Day with the headline, SQUEAKY – BUM TIME NOW, a phrase popularised by Sir Alex Fergusson. Amongst its other delights, however, is its substitute for the old page 3 semi-nude woman: several pictures of scantily clad female celebs, with a jokey commentary drawing attention to their dishabille: SHE IS SO BUSY DURING LOCKDOWN SHE FORGOT TO PUT HER TROUSERS ON. This is now a standard form of self-presentation, the photos often being produced by or for the celeb’s online pages.

Hardly anyone is offended by these, so it’s reasonable for me to take them as evidence of popular morality now. What on earth can I have against them?

1. They are bad and ugly photos zeroed in on boobs or groin or both, with no real attention to the person whose body is displayed.

2. They are often also fashion shots displaying clothes or lingerie designed “by” the celeb which are being advertised to the millions of women who already follow them online. Nevertheless the angles are still on boobs and groin for the benefit of the male gaze.

3. Often they are frankly ridiculous images which suggest that this person cannot be taken seriously, and perhaps, as a subtext, that women are best as objects of male fantasy.

4. Reproduced in a national newspaper they are hints, that however much its journalists say they take the worth of women seriously, they’re not that serious.

I want to argue that these images are part of a commercially generated culture whose fundamental belief is that young women, and increasingly young men, are to be judged by their suitability and willingness for sexual activity. This belief can be garlanded by advice on dating, clothes, conversation, and so on, but it is basically a- personal, having little to do with class, education or character. It is important to understand that this culture is not oriented to pleasure, as is sometimes alleged, but to consumerism and success. A young woman for example may signal sexual availability by her clothes and may even dutifully have sex, without getting much pleasure out of any of it. It is required for popularity, celebrity and success – and for being a useful stimulus to transactions which make money for others, often not individuals but corporations. This is sex for sale but not in the time- -honoured form of prostitution but rather as a monetising of sex and its use as means of social discipline for capitalism.

That may be why, in the social media exchanges on teenage and young adult sexual relationships there is so much anxiety expressed and so little joy; why stress is the dominant emotion in so many personal accounts of young life. An aspect of human maturation which can bring romance, pleasure, experiment, beauty and self-awakening has become a form of competitive self-justification which trains people to achieve success by buying things, a lesson which often lasts a lifetime.

In countries like the UK where the rule of law is still strong we should be aware that the same multinational corporations which have poisoned and killed people in other parts of the world, in order to advance their interests, do not become less ruthless in their methods here. They simply adopt different tactics, one of which is control of the minds and habits of people when they are most vulnerable, namely when they are young.

As for the Christian churches, they have neglected their duty to the young by being more concerned with what they see as breaches of biblical morality, than with offering the friendship of Jesus and the church community to those who are trying to work out how they should live. Many churches have simply abandoned young people altogether, while others have added to societal stress by increasing their sense of failure. As a result most young people have been left to navigate an increasingly stormy crossing into adulthood without a pilot or a chart. Amazingly some of them have done it well. Where Christian influence has been helpful it has often come from organisations like Boy’s Brigade or Scouts or Girl Guides, regarded by some in the church as old fashioned.

A more radical analysis of societies and a more supportive attitude to young people might be the beginnings of a new ministry to this age group.


Following the politics of the USA over the last few months has left me astonished by two things: the resilience of its democratic traditions; and the virulence of the hate expressed by people on both sides for people on the other and their representatives. It reasonable to speak of demonisation: one side speaks of crazy violent people ready in the name of their twin saviours, Jesus and Trump, to destroy a civilisation and its political processes, terrorising and killing their enemies; while the other excoriates the sinister, deceptive deep state, ready to get rid of opponents while defending paedophiles, homosexuals, communists and Muslims. I do not judge these two camps as equal in value, because I think a decent life is impossible under Trump supporters, while it may even flourish under the justly elected government; but I also judge that the hate expressed by both sides is equal in virulence.

But what are we to make of the fact of hate?

1. It is frightening.

2. It does not see an opponent as a person, but as a frightening object to be removed.

3. It is violent

4. It is not rational

5. It renders inoperative the humane qualities of the one who hates.

6. It must destroy opponents; compromise is impossible.

7. It wants to dominate, often in the name of some cause, The Reich, Great America, Jesus, Mohammed.

8. It is afraid of the opponent.

9. It usually lies.

10. The person who hates is vestigially aware that it is evil.

I could lie and say that I have made this list by rigorous scientific examination of the hate expressed in the USA at present along with classic expressions of hate such as Nazism, Islamic State, The Inquisition, and so on. In fact I have only had to look into my own behaviour.

Without going into overmuch detail, it should be enough to say that by the end of my secondary education I viewed myself as a corrupt and cowardly failure. This was a result of events in my upbringing and education. Although some of the corruption and cowardice were real enough, there turned to be some good in me as well, which I was lucky enough to learn through good friends, further education and the Christian Gospel. Faced, as I have sometimes been, however, with people whose attitudes to me or my loved ones remind me of those who made me a failure, I react with hate. I forget that these people have no power over me, that their actual behaviour may be trivial, that perhaps they have merely expressed a common prejudice. None of that seems relevant; I want to destroy. I am not interested in what is fruitful, true, wise or just. They have to be destroyed. In truth I never let this happen, although once or twice I glimpsed a (quite satisfying) degree of fear in my opponents. But I felt it, the blessed relief of hate.

I should make clear therefore that the only justification for hate is that someone is actually trying to destroy you, to take away your self-respect, your will to live, your civic rights, your means of life, your life itself or that of your dear ones. Even in those circumstances, hate as the desire to destroy may not be the most effective response, as Jesus indicated in his words about trying nevertheless to do good to enemies, and in his lived example. Martin Luther King argued that a courageous love was more effective than hate in defeating the opponents’ hate. But before one rises to those heights, it may be necessary first to feel hate, to redirect the hate shown by the opponent back upon him, refusing to be a victim. Gandhi said that if we didn’t have the courage to fight, we would never have the courage to love. Sadly, however, if this hate insists that we are just as good as our opponent, it may also remind us from time to time, that we are just as bad.

There exists in the world a deliberate campaign to persuade white Europeans and others descended from their colonists in Africa, America, Australasia, that a conspiracy of other ethnic groupings along with dissident whites is trying to destroy their way of life and status. Various expressions of this doctrine can easily be found online. The kind of fears which led Anders Brevik to murder socialist young people are very similar to those expressed by The Proud Boys and other Christian militias in the USA. There Is also a disturbing similarity between these discourses and the rantings of Salafist Islamic leaders against the Christian West. Any political activist can use elements of this conspiracy theory to arouse hate and to direct it at his political opponents, as Donald Trump has done in the USA, or Viktor Orban in Hungary.

It helps of course, if there are large numbers of available people who feel their way of life is under attack. It may be, as in the USA, that white power is under threat from the insistence of other groups on their civil rights. It may be for white working people in many societies that the failure of liberal capitalism to provide a decent living is all too clear. It may be little to do with economics but much to do with traditional communal mores, regarded as backward by urban elites who are at ease with all sorts of sexual preferences. In any case where people suspect that they are failures, the provision of an enemy to hate is a blessed relief: we are not failures but victims, and we can refuse to be victims by making our hate work for us. Hitler knew how to use this ideology in 1930’s Germany. Political rallies like Trump’s or Hitler’s are echo chambers for expressions of hate, as is the Internet: from teenage tantrums to football allegiances, to the seductions of Evangelical Christianity, it amplifies the sound of hate.

All this deals with hate as a societal phenomenon but I have been made frequently aware through my pastoral duties of personal hate. The greatest, indeed purist example of hate I have known was when two estranged daughters of an apparently nice old man travelled from L.A. to Dundee Scotland for his funeral, to tell me that he had sexually abused them both as children, and that if my eulogy made him sound nice, they would interrupt. Honour to them. But often family hate is unjustifiable and corrosive, and between former friends vituperative. I have seen a daughter-in-law maintain her hatred of an authoritarian father-in-law beyond his death because it was also her means of dominating her husband.

Where does it come from and why do human beings enjoy it so much?

The archetype is in Genesis 4, in the story of Cain and Abel. God does not look with favour on Cain’s offering, not because it consists of plants, but because of his competitive attitude. When Cain grumbles, God tells him that if he does right, he can hold up his head; but that if he doesn’t, sin is crouching at his door, waiting to pounce. Even then, he can master it, if he wants. But he prefers the wild animal and kills his brother out of hate. We can of course blame God, but the story forces us to see how easily hate builds up and how devastatingly it expresses itself. Hate can give pleasure to human beings; we are an animal that loves and hates. The only remedy is to confess it and control it. Jesus taught his disciples to recognise the beginnings of hate in the denigration of others and to stop it there. There’s no magic cure for hate, either the communal kind or the personal. If we see it crouching we must use its name and call it to heel.

But we may be able to prevent its occurrence by forms of family and societal life which by their affirmation of the value of each person, namely through justice and love, reduce the likelihood of there being anything real or fictitious which arouses hate. I see encouraging signs of such prevention in the policies and conduct of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. Where real causes for hate already exist, we should listen to the experts, to the Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Luther King, and to wise politicians, like Mary Robinson, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Karin Jacobsdottir.

Recently my neck began to hurt, not very acutely, but painfully when I made certain movements, not least when I attempted to find a comfortable sleeping posture. After trying various forms of self -help, which only made it worse, I went to a local physiotherapist, who has lots of experience with sports injuries in elderly idiots. She – it would be a woman, a very fit, strong young woman- listened, watched, then massaged, discovering spots of tension and pain, not merely in my neck, but all over my upper back. Often the pressure of her knuckles would be exquisitely painful, but if I groaned a little, she would say, “Sore?” and then press harder and longer on the spot. No pain, no gain, she knows this truth, and uses it as a diagnostic tool. She’s very good.

My guess is that the healing skills of Jesus included this tool: he knew where the pain or dis-ease was located, and dealt with that. The leper was suffering from exclusion and the absence of human touch, so Jesus touched him. He saw that the demon-possessed man was afflicted with a violent compulsion, so he made him reveal its name, “Legion, the Roman Army.” He had been traumatised by its violent rule of his people and needed to name it so that he could gain control of it. Jesus knew that Peter’s mother-in-law was fevered because, in her daughter’s house, she had lost her honour as hostess, so he raised her to her feet, so that she could resume that role. He understood that the rich young man was suffering from an overdose of wealth, so he recommended giving it away. We don’t know if this was the right prescription because the patient refused to take it. Unerringly, Jesus could put his hand on the place of pain, knowing that this revelation would be therapeutic. If the person had enough faith to face the facts, they would get well.

( No, the scripture tradition of Jesus’ healings is not very factual, emphasising miracle and divine power. Doubtless the stories show exaggeration and misunderstanding but as a sceptical reader I still conclude that the historical Jesus did heal, and that some memory of his healings survives in the gospel narratives.)

All of the above reminded me of some lines of T.S. Eliot in East Coker:

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art.”

Jesus is the wounded surgeon. His sharp compassion comes from his own experience of pain, in his life and death. In his risen life, he has complete respect for pain, knowing that it signals something wrong; its purpose is warning and protest at the presence of that wrong. It is life’s argument against death. In his pain on the cross, we can see, as opposed to all the blethers about his acceptance of our punishment for sin, his refusal to accept it as the will of God; his pain and his cry of protest, signals that something terrible is being done to a human being, which must never be glossed over or made acceptable. It is pain that demands a healing it does not receive, which makes Jesus, according to the Letter to Hebrews, perfect through suffering, and therefore a suitable high priest for humanity.

The fact of pain as an indicator of human illness, extremity and rebellion is clear in the gospels, as is the call for human hands and brains to supply the healing which God can’t. Faith in this God means seeing pain as an indicator of wrong, recognising the wrong and doing our best to heal by changing it.



Even in a comparatively sane land like Scotland, there are a significant number of people who have refused or will refuse vaccination against the COVID virus. Some of these have reasonable fears based on their own medical condition and past experience, but many of them have been influenced by entirely spurious assertions on social media, that the vaccine will make them homosexual, infertile, Muslim; or insert nano-chips into their brain so that they will be controlled by aliens / socialists / transvestites / atheists / Rangers Football Club. I am exaggerating slightly but not much. Of course, much of this nonsense is fuelled by loonies in the USA whose destructive nonsense fills the internet. Their manner of expression, which is frequently violent, gives the game away: these are not poor bewildered souls but vicious adherents of a cult which denigrates anyone who thinks or acts in ways of which they disapprove. They are part of a large movement of pseudo- populist propagandists, in the USA, Russia, China, UK, who seek to define reality according to their desires, and to exercise power on that basis, whether chaotically like Trump or remorselessly like Xi. Part of the collateral damage of this movement will be those who by refusing vaccination bring about their own deaths or the deaths of their loved ones.


Consider this passage from The Gospel of Mark chapter 3

Then Jesus went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Jesus had aroused public interest by healing people, such as lepers, paralysed people, a man with a withered hand. Their illnesses were thought to be caused by evil spirits, and Jesus’ healings were seen as a form of exorcism. But the results of what he did were clear: people were restored to personal and communal life.

The religious establishment, here called “scribes” saw Jesus as liable to challenge their power, and took the chance to define his healings as empowered by the evil spirit they called Beelzebul. Faced with someone doing obvious good, they encouraged people to trust an alternative reality in which it was seen as evil.

At first, Jesus made fun of their criticism. Surely the kingdom of evil is in a state of collapse if it is fighting against the illness it has caused! He calls the Evil One the “strong man” and claims that in order to “plunder his property” (the sick people) he has had to “tie him up.”

But then he gets very serious, and warns that those who slander the “Holy Spirit”, namely the power of goodness, are endangering their eternal souls, because in the alternative reality which they are creating, they will refuse to admit their evil, or to ask forgiveness. Trump will never admit the evil of his violent refusal of political fact, and will never ask forgiveness from those he has harmed.

Jesus was looking at the power of human beings to define reality by their lies, and meeting it with the most serious warning he ever issued: to choose, for the sake of power, a reality of your own making rather than the one God is making, is to put yourself beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. God’s persuasive love is very terrible; he will not force people out of the hell they’ve chosen.

Jesus’ warning applies to the malicious pedlars of an alternative reality that denies the goodness of doctors, nurses and vaccines.