The gospels name two groups of people as responsible for the murder of Jesus:

1. The religious leaders of the Jewish people

2. The Roman imperial administration under Pontius Pilates.

With regard to 1. It is reasonable to remember that probably by the time the gospels were written, the Jewish Temple had been destroyed by the Romans and the synagogue Jews and the Jesus Jews had separated in enmity. It seems likely that the picture given of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and their legal experts (scribes) by the gospel writers may have transferred the open enmity experienced in their own times back into the time of Jesus and explained it as a quarrel about the nature of the Torah, the Law of God, as well as Jesus’ claim to be an authoritative interpreter of it. Modern examinations of Pharisaic teaching and Jesus’ teaching cannot find the differences which would have justified such antagonism or the very negative depiction of the Pharisees given in Matthew Mark and Luke, far less the depiction of those called Judaeans in the gospel of John.

Of course religious antagonism is not always rational; and the challenge of Jesus to the authority of established teachers and leaders may have been the root of it. If Jesus insisted on his own unique authority as much as the gospels show him doing, then we may understand why any traditional religious community might oppose his apparent arrogance. Matthew depicts him as a teacher of radical wisdom, Mark as a revelation of God’s goodness, Luke as prophet of truth, John as the announcer of a divine love available only to those who believed in him, and all of them as the Messiah/ Son of God. It seems likely that someone remembered in those ways would arouse suspicion and enmity from established religious leaders, namely the chief priests, as well as the teachers of the holy law and supporters of local synagogues, namely the Pharisees.

My judgement remains however that because of subsequent open enmity between followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogues, we cannot wholly trust that the content of gospel passages involving the Pharisees is free of distortion. This places question marks against accusing the Jewish religious establishment of the major rôle in the murder of Jesus.

To understand why he was murdered it may make sense to start with the fact that the Roman authority put him to death as a messianic pretender. The Romans had some experience, and were to have more, of Jewish religious leaders who engaged in jihad against their rule. They understood that the claim to fulfil messianic prophecies, and to be sent by God to announce his kingdom, could result in open revolt which would cost Roman lives as well as Jewish. They almost certainly had a network of informants who would report on any local religious movement that might cause trouble. Pontius Pilatus did not need Jewish leaders to tell him about Jesus; he had his own information.

The Roman suspicion of Messiahs would have been shared by the Chief Priests, who feared the terrible damage caused by revolts to the lives of their people and to the continuation of the Temple cult. Indeed the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the ultimate dispersal of the Jewish people in 135CE were caused by Messianic revolts. Given the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire, sensible leaders counselled an acceptance of its rule provided it did not encroach on their religious activity. The High Priests also would have had their informants, who may have characterised the Galilean rabbi as messianic and dangerous.

The above analysis suggests that whereas the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution may be generally accurate, the specific detail given by each may be more imaginative than historical. They give no sources for the information they convey. At the time of Jesus’ arrest, it is probable that none of the followers of Jesus were eyewitnesses of his trial ; and that few saw his crucifixion. They give, in any case, somewhat irreconcilable accounts, as they do of the resurrection. My conclusion is that although we must deal with the gospels as holy writ, we must interpret their witness to Jesus’ murder as theological rather than historical, as imaginative story rather than reportage. Of course there will have been a historical memory of what happened to Jesus, built from personal involvement and details sourced from soldiers, slaves and other participants. But we are not given this. Rather we have four different imaginative versions whose aim is to communicate the divine reality of the historical event. I propose to look at the Markan account which influenced all the others.

There are quotations from the Hebrew Bible in Mark’s version, -such as from Daniel chapter 7 re the Son of Man, and Psalm 110 re Jesus at God’s right hand – which by are important; but beyond these there are whole stories from that Bible which influence the whole of Mark’s story of Jesus’ murder:

1. Passover. This association is given by the narrative of the Passover meal. Originally the blood of a lamb smeared on Jewish houses meant that God’s spirit who killed the first-born of the Egyptians passed over the Jewish families. Certainly some believers saw Jesus as the sacrificial lamb whose blood protected them from the wrath of God. It’s possible that Mark saw the murder of Jesus as terrible parody of the Passover, in which Jewish people murdered the eldest son of God. Beyond the specific connections however there is the fact that the murdered Jesus is seen as leading his people in a new exodus, into a new covenant.

2. Covenant. Jesus spoke of his blood as being of the new covenant. The Mosaic covenant was accompanied with the blood of oxen, while the people committed themselves to the laws of God while God promised to bless the people and lead them to a good land. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant by which God would write his laws on his people’s hearts, and forgive their sins. The book of Hebrews which may have been written by the time of the gospels speaks of Jesus’ blood, given once and for all as a sacrifice to God, being effective in establishing a new and greater covenant with God.

3. The suffering servant. The songs of the suffering servant are found in Isaiah chapters 40-55, the so-called “second Isaiah.” They are meditations on an ideal servant of God, who incorporates elements of great leaders and prophets, along with the history of Israel itself. Chapter 52:13 – 53: 12, speaks vividly of “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” whose suffering brings others healing and peace with God. Details of this song, such as the silence of the servant, his being led like a lamb to the slaughterhouse, and his tomb being with the rich, are influential in all narratives of Jesus’ murder. The servant took upon himself the sins of others, although it is emphasised that he was not being punished by God, but brutalised by human violence. God, seeing his sacrifice, loads on to him the sins of others and forgives them. The influence of this profound chapter is evident throughout all the New Testament witness to Jesus.

4. Psalm 22. Individual lines are significant to Mark, like its opening cry of abandonment which Mark puts on the lips of Jesus, and those about the division of his garments. But it is the lonely desperation of verses 1-21 upon which he focuses. Like the psalmist, Jesus is in terrible pain and bodily indignity. Like the psalmist is is cruelly mocked. Like the psalmist he trusted in God, only to find himself in this extremity. Doubtless the Psalmist’s praise of his rescuing God was also noted by Mark, but he chose not to use it in his story. The fact that the cry of abandonment is Jesus final utterance in the gospel indicative of Mark’s strange and astonishing theology; how can this be good news?

5. The pattern of Jesus’ healing, set out in Mark’s gospel. Mark is rigorous in establishing this pattern: 1. Jesus encounters need. 2. Jesus enters into a place of danger/ taboo/ evil /death. 3. Jesus heals the needy person(s). This is a distinctive pattern, seen for example in the healing of Jairus’ daughter where Jesus literally enters a place of death, breaking the social taboos, and raises a child to life. “Time to get up,” he tells her. Mark intended his narrative of Jesus’ murder to reveal the same pattern, on a vaster scale. His death and resurrection say to humanity, “Time to get up.” Because this theme is Mark’s own we may reckon it as the one he intended to be most significant for the understanding of Jesus’ death.

I now want to resume my earlier imagination of Jesus as the one in whom God is human. He was able to discern in any event which he encountered, the persuasive presence of God, and by his own faithful response, to reveal that presence as good news for people. In God he consciously lived and moved and had his being. The pattern imagined by Mark mentioned above is shown by the gospel writer to be part of Jesus’ battle against evil, which is also God’s battle. God cannot perfect his world without human partnership because God has given human beings the power of free will. Jesus is the one who understands what Paul calls the weakness and foolishness of God. The German theologian murdered by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also understood: God is weak in this world, he said, so he gets pushed out of the world onto the cross.

In his healing ministry, Jesus constantly sides with the weakness of God, entering the places owned by the “strong man” Satan, boldly channelling God’s persuasive goodness, putting his own reputation and sometimes his own safety at risk for the sake of the suffering person. In these events Jesus is already and always the crucified Lord.

Mark’s narrative of the arrest, trial and murder of Jesus reveals the same pattern in the greatest detail. The whole event of the murder and the resurrection is imagined by the author as a new Passover in which Jesus is the willing victim who is slaughtered so that the power of death may pass by his people. His is the blood of a new covenant, a new intimacy between God and his people. He is the suffering servant acquainted with grief upon whom the evil of the world in unloaded. He is the one who trusted God and becomes a worm, not a person.

The narrative emphasises the willingness of Jesus, even against the desire of his own soul, to model the persuasion of God. The ease with which worldly powers can do their will is shown in the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor , the crowd and the soldiers. They do the talking, they make decisions, they act, while Jesus is silent; subject to their decisions, he suffers. The scriptures witness to the fact that this kind of suffering is all too common in the lives of those whom have served God. It has always been very easy to refuse the persuasion of God, to kill the protester, torture the opponent, bomb the rebels, rape the wives of the foreigner, crucify the disturber of your peace. Jesus is silent as God is silent before the inexorable pressure of religious and political power. This takes courage, of which Mark wants us to know that Jesus is capable, while Peter is not. Staying with the persuasion of God is not a walk in the park. He above all retained his humanity while his torturers lost what little of it they possessed.

So can Jesus defeat the evil to which he is subjected, by maintaining his bond of love with God? If he can show that bond as unbreakable in the face of evil and death, then surely he will have won a victory. But Mark has respect for the power of evil; he refuses to show Jesus as a stoic hero untouched by his suffering. “My God,” he howls “why have you abandoned me?” The persuasive presence of the father is not any longer experienced by Jesus in his moment of most need. What is this? What use is a God who cannot even give emotional succour to his beloved son who is being murdered? Is not this a profound disgrace? Luke recognised this and gave Jesus more trusting words before he died. Mark gives the reader a hint: the curtain in the temple which separated the holy area from the holy of holies is torn apart at the moment of Jesus’ dying, just as the heaven was torn open at the moment of his baptism. God, the eternal one is torn open in the mission and suffering of his beloved son. God is not active at Jesus’ side because he is suffering with him; he also is weak and wounded. In this moment when their partnership is torn apart, when their lives are shredded, they are most completely united in their suffering. In case we haven’t picked up the clue, Mark adds the testimony of the centurion, that this man is a son of God, which reminds us of what God said to Jesus at his baptism, You are my dear Son; I am delighted with you. Jesus, God’s son refuses to be separate from the persuasive love of the father, while the father refuses to be separate from the agony of the son. Together they deprive evil of its power. Together they share a life undefeated by evil and death. This is the shared life, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the life of God’s future, in which “those who endure will be rescued”

Yes, this goes bit beyond Mark, but not much. I am imagining Mark imagining Jesus.

I had promised to deal with the murder and resurrection of Jesus, but before I do so I want to define more clearly what I mean by responding to God’s persuasion in the events of the world. To assist with this I have referred to the parable of the Judgement found in Matthew chapter 25:

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.32 Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. 36 I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’

40 “The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[c] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

45 “Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Some think Jesus is saying that God’s appointed King is present in the “1east important of his brothers” who must therefore be served by believers. There’s is truth in this, but it ignores one important detail: the righteous don’t know they are serving the king; they are just serving the least important! It may be that those who make a fetish of “serving Christ in the poor” are in danger of ignoring the subtlety of Jesus’ parable, and failing to engage with their unimportant brothers and sisters, since ordinary kindness is better than religiously motivated charity.

This example suggests how we should understand the doctrine that God is persuasively present in all worldly events. S/He is not to be understood as a divine addition to their worldly reality, but as a divine incarnation in them: they are, if we wish to notice it, the presence of God; the more they are themselves, the more they are God. The pair of starlings who have nested in my neighbour’s eves, bringing forth their chicks in spite of the efforts of the neighbourhood cats, speak to me of God, not because of some added spiritual dimension but because of their robust and glittering starling-ness, their care for their nestlings as well as their winged aggression against intruders. Gerard Manley Hopkins understood:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

When God became incarnate in Jesus, s/he’d had some practice.

The gospel of Jesus tells me that I am a beloved child of the creator God. In the book of Genesis, the presence of the Creator in every aspect of the creation is noted when God sees that each created thing is “good.” The creator’s goodness is present in all creatures; each in its true identity is an instance of God. If I abandon my sins, I can find my true self, my divine identity, and become capable of discerning this identity in others. Jesus is not just an example of how I should act, but a model of what I should be. His story continually inspires me to feel the persuasion of God in every event of my life.

At the same time, the Spirit of the Creator who will perfect the creation, who will make sure that nothing except evil itself is lost and whose compassion will embrace all his imperfect children, this Spirit meets me from the future, enabling me even now to experience aspects of the perfection s/he has planned for me. But not for me as an isolated person, rather as open to the shared life of all creation, to the just polity of all creation, to the beloved community, of which the Christian Assembly is called to be a foretaste.

I can, if I wish, live in constant appreciation of the marvellous and varied beings of the world, as in Hopkins’ phrase, they “go themselves.“

Except I can’t. And that’s due to my evil and the evil of others. Now it’s time to write about the murder of Jesus.

In my last blog I distinguished between Jesus and other good people by the constancy with which Jesus saw and responded to the persuasion of God in the events of the world. Am I saying that the difference between me and the Son of God is only a matter of degree? That Jesus is just a tad better than the average decent person? Because that would certainly run counter to the evidence of the Bible.

Well no, I don’t think that way, although it’s worth remembering that according to John’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he had done.

I think of Jesus as unique, in the way that every event in the universe, like the life of a person or the successful building of a starling’s nest in my neighbour’s eaves, is unique. Each event is unique in its apprehension of previous events, in its creative use of them. In the case of Jesus, firstly we have to allow ourselves to be led by the gospels of Matthew and Luke in their pointing to Jesus’ genetic inheritance on the one hand, and his faith inheritance on the other.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are different and cannot, in spite of the witness of Christmas cards and Sunday School narrative, be successfully aligned. Still they have some common elements:

1. Jesus was born, as human beings are, from a woman. Although his conception is said to be virginal, his life in the womb and his birth were normal.

2. Although Joseph is sidelined by the Holy Spirit, the genealogies of Jesus trace the male line from him, back to Abraham via King David, indeed back to Adam in the case of Luke. These are Messianic genealogies, although Luke especially wants to emphasise his inheritance as “son of God”

Jesus was unique because of his genetic inheritance from Mary – and Joseph, because the narratives want to have it both ways: Mary’s conception is virginal but Jesus is a son of David. The usual means of human evolution are not set aside, but with the addition of the Holy Spirit’s action, bring about the birth of Jesus. Any conception is an event which in my thinking involves the persuasive presence of God. As it happens, that was also the traditional Jewish view of conception, so we can understand Matthew and Luke as defining Jesus’ birth as Normal Plus. This aspect of Jesus uniqueness is his genetic inheritance from his forebears, via his parents, made new ( with God’s help!) in his body.

Another aspect of Jesus’ uniqueness is the story of faith which he inherited as a Jewish child, through his familial tradition of faith. Ancient prophecies were part of this. We are used to seeing how Matthew uses prophecy to characterise Jesus as Messiah, how Luke uses them in a slightly different way, but we should also reckon with Jesus own knowledge of the prophetic tradition, gained from his parents and his community, and how he may have applied these to himself and his mission. In fact we should broaden this out to include Jesus’ knowledge of the whole Jewish inheritance of faith, as he encountered it. The events of Jesus’ encounter with that tradition are also instances of the persuasive presence of God. Nobody ever interpreted that tradition as authoritatively and as creatively as Jesus. What astonishing intimacy with the tradition allowed him to say, “You have heard that they were told, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But now I tell you, Do not resist those who wrong you…”! We only have the result of Jesus’ study of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings of the Hebrew Bible, and the traditions of interpretation built up in the synagogues. His parables and replies to question and argument reveal how thoroughly he had made his people’s wisdom his own. Every new discovery he made is a creative event in which he responded to God and continued to develop as a child of God. We can also say that God also, in sharing Jesus’ life, learned more about what a human child could be. Can we say that God developed through Jesus? Yes we can and must.

I am saying that Jesus was unique as all human beings are unique by nature and by nurture. But I am also saying that God had been begetting Jesus his son over millions of years of genetic evolution, and through the hundreds of years of the Jewish heritage of faith. Jesus is especially a product of that process begun when God’s persuasion found a human response in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

So no, Jesus was not merely a tad better than me: he was full of God. I am going to pause here before I write about Jesus’ murder and resurrection.

“So if Jesus was somehow God, how do you imagine him? Classical theologians talked about two natures in one person, but surely that’s just a bit of gobbledegook?”

This is a real challenge. The Nicene Creed simply asserts that Jesus was/ is “very God of very God, begotten not made,” and the Chalcedonian Creed (451CE) emphasises that Jesus shared the “substance of God and the substance of humanity, two natures without separation or confusion.” Although the creeds are part of the story of how the church imagined Jesus, they are mainly prohibitions of wrong imaginings, and perhaps, in Chalcedon, of all imagining: “don’t try to imagine Jesus, because he is essentially unimaginable. Just accept the formula.”

The controversies about the nature or natures of Jesus arose out of the biblical witness to Jesus on the one hand, and the use of the Greek philosophical terms “physis” (nature) hypostasis ( substance/ person) ousia (being) logos (word/reason). In particular the difficulty was in asserting of Jesus that he had both human nature and divine nature. This difficulty is not biblical. The bible never says that Jesus has either divine or human nature, but uses a variety of expressions to refer to his sharing human and divine life. Jesus, a real human being, shares as a human being in God’s life, so much so that he can be called Lord, Son of God; and it can be said that he shares the “abundance” of God. He can also be depicted doing things which are considered impossible for human beings, raising the dead, stilling storms, rising physically from his tomb. Certainly, however, no division of natures is alleged. Was his forgiveness of the weeping woman in Luke 7 any less “divine” than his stilling of the storm in Mark 4? It is enough to say that with the help of what now would be viewed as magical realism, the Gospels are able to tell a convincing story of a man who is the action and the suffering of God. They deal with events, with what happened, and with the character of the person through whom they happened. This also true of the more reflective language of St. Paul, who writes of the “crucified messiah” who “loved me and gave himself for me” – he is still dealing with character and events: “he humbled himself and was obedient even to the point of death, his death on the cross.” Even when Paul talks of him as raised to the highest place above, as Lord over creation, he is still depicting a cosmic drama in which Jesus wins a victory. The language of the Bible is the language of human history, of what happened and why; of what was done and by whom; of what was felt or understood; of what the main actors were like, how they acted and spoke and suffered; of what emerged from events. Of course, natures, substances, being and reason may be deduced from such language, but it may not be a successful endeavour.

The Jesus’ narratives of the Bible are part of two larger narratives about God:

1. The battle of God’s goodness against evil

2. The ongoing story of God’s creation of a perfect universe.

In both of these stories the people of Israel have an important role, as God cannot win his battle and achieve perfection without the cooperation of humanity, of which Israel is the chosen prototype. The narrative of Israel as God’s partner is an important sub- narrative of the two major narratives. The story of Jesus is presented in the Bible as a critical although not final turning point in all these narratives.

There is a great difference between the movement of these narratives and the static determination of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus. This has often been recognised in the history of Christian theology, to the extent that “narrative theology” is an accredited field of study. Its practitioners suggest that rather than jumping out of the story into theology, we develop a theology by entering more deeply into the story, as becoming part of the story is the best way of finding the truth of Jesus, God and the world.

I want to agree with that while disagreeing with its disengagement from larger issues of truth. Yes, imagining the story of Jesus as part of the story of God can be life-changing, but only if I insert my own story, the story of my life, into his. But if I do so honestly I have to recognise that I do not live in the time of the Bible authors; I do not speak their languages or share their culture; the society of which I am part is blessed with knowledge which they did not possess, in the sciences and especially in our discovery of the universe and its evolution. So, if I imagine myself as part of the Biblical story, it has to be a total re-imagining of it which engages with questions of its continuing relevance and truth. In other words, although the answers given by the questioning Greek believers of the 4th and 5th centuries may not be acceptable to me, the questions they put to the Biblical narrative remain relevant, and can guide my questions and my re-imagining today.

They remain relevant but they must be supplemented by contemporary questions and not just those of my own culture, but of other cultures too, for unlike the ancient Greeks I do not see other cultures as barbarous, but as a shared civilisation. It’s a tall order, but that’s what makes it THEO- logy, reasoning about the One who is not us, rather than IDEO- logy, reasoning about the priorities of my party, nation or church.

An example may help, the story of the man afflicted by a legion of evil spirits, from Mark chapter 5.

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.[a] And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus[b] asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits[c] begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17 Then they began to beg Jesus[d] to leave their neighborhood. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 But Jesus[e] refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

This story is set in the Decapolis, the area of the ten towns developed by the Greek conquerors of Palestine, which were viewed as foreign territory by pious Jews. Like the rest of Israel it was at that time under Roman rule. The key to the story is when the evil spirits name themselves as Legion. In effect they say, We are the Roman Army. This poor man has allowed the violent Roman conquest to enter his soul, so that he is continually brutalised. A superior powerful culture has made him into a self-harming victim.

Jesus’ lack of fear and his therapeutic questioning leads the man to acknowledge the “spirit” by which he is oppressed, so that he can be healed. The request of the legionary spirits to enter pigs is a kind of manga comedy, where the evil ends up where it belongs in unclean animals. The reaction of the townspeople shows how much they are complicit with the rule of Rome, but the witness of the healed man shows how the fight against global wrongs starts locally.

Can I insert myself in this story? Yes. When I was young I was oppressed by fear of violence at home and at school. A culture I saw as superior made me ashamed and stupid. In that condition I did many things which harmed myself, as well as sometimes others. I took me years into adult life to be able to name the afflicting spirits, while admitting their influence. The persistent counter-influence of Jesus, along with the love of my wife and friends, helped me do this.

In my varied ministries I have seen how the very poor people of the UK are subjected to the violence of destitution by a class of people who imagine themselves as superior, even when engaged in the so- called caring professions. The self-harming of the poor, through alcohol, drugs, and crime, is an obvious result. I confess that I was only seldom able to help them name their oppressor, and to find healing. Churches in such areas often imagined themselves to be superior to these victims.

The hymn writer Fred Pratt Green got it right:

In conflicts that destroy our health/ we diagnose the world’s disease. / Our common life declares our ills./ Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

That question reminds us that Jesus is depicted by Mark as in many other stories as an unremitting agent of life who will not be complicit with violence and death. He does nothing spectacular but he frees the man from these evil spirits. Mark is saying, This is God’s goodness. The same sort of story had been told in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in the healing of Naaman by Elijah. The goodness of God is as quiet and persistent as the questioning of Jesus or the water of Jordan on the leper’s skin.

This is an important way of talking about God, but is it true? It seems to me unarguable the neither of these two healings took place as narrated. Rather, an author is imagining an improbable human being in whom God is revealed as present and compassionate.

The small communities of the early church also knew the power of the legions, along with the overwhelming cultural power of the Roman Empire. They hoped that by naming the oppressive spirit and trusting in the goodness that is Jesus, they might be freed from fear and self-harm and liberated to speak of what God had done for them.

Enough! The world of this story, the world of the Bible, is a world of events. Nature is not a background to events but is itself a series of events which involve human beings. This sits well with the world as defined by modern quantum physics as an infinity of events, some very large like the explosion of a black hole, some unimaginably small. Some people of faith and wisdom are able to perceive the presence of God in certain events, such as cataclysms, or sacred groves or the actions of great rulers, but Jesus is depicted as one who cherished each and every event, ready to find in it the possibility of creative goodness, which he called Abba, father. He imagined the process of the world in this way. Only the possibility is given, for God will not force it. The entities involved in the event have to respond, as Jesus did. This responsiveness may belong as much to particles and viruses as to human beings.

This way of thinking points to a universe of ceaseless happenings in each one of which the persuasive goodness of God is present. “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father” “In him we live and move and have our being.” We deny these as often as we affirm them, but Jesus on earth is the small life which was never without The Father, the man who always lived and moved and had his being in God.

1. I am imagining God as the persuasion towards perfection in every event of the universe.

2. This persuasion issues from the origin of the universe and from its future culmination, for God is the first and the last.

3.Jesus of Nazareth is both the revelation and the embodiment of this persuasion in a particular time and place, in his life and his death on the execution stake. He is the true but not finished expression of God’s goodness. He was not an automaton with a son of God implant, but a real human being who believed himself to be God’s child, a faith put in question by his death and answered by his resurrection, that is, by his disciples’ imagination of the risen bodily life he shares with God. Did God make a difference to Jesus? Yes, in all his living and especially in his resurrection. Did Jesus make a difference to God? Yes, assuredly God is different because the life of Jesus became part of God’s own life.

4. Life shared with other creatures in the persuasive goodness of God is called life in the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit differ from God the Father? By being the shared life of God and his son, God and his children. It is the venturesome partnership (Greek: koinonia) in which God is happy to work with human beings.

5. This is my imagination of Jesus the Son of God. It does not mention evil, sin, heaven and hell. So it is not a creed but a faith working towards articulation.

In my last blog I argued that chapter 1 of any theology book should begin with the sentence, “All gods and goddesses are invented by human beings.” This is not an atheist principle but an insistence on the irreducible contribution of the human imagination to all faith in god.

One or two readers have kindly questioned how on earth a Christian believer ( as I am) can agree with this principle, as the heart of Christian faith is Jesus of Nazareth, a historical person. Surely if one of the divine persons was also a flesh and blood human being, he, at least, cannot be imaginary. My immediate answer is that I have never said that God is imaginary, that is, wholly a creation of the imagination, but rather that his/her reality cannot be thought without the exercise of the imagination. Opponents of my argument may then want to ask whether we need much imagination when dealing with a historical figure. Do we imagine Julius Caesar or Napoleon? And if we do doesn’t that invalidate our image of them? Alexander the Great is one thing, and Mary Renault’s story of him another, no? I could spend some time arguing that there is no Alexander outside of someone’s imagination, but I will rather take up the question about Jesus.

1. We only have access to Jesus of Nazareth through the imaginative narratives of the gospels, and references to him in other New Testament writings. Well, there are some in Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus, but they are little more than confirmation that Jesus lived and was crucified. The conventional English titles of the gospels in English, “according to Matthew, Mark, Like and John” should alert us to the nature of these writings: they are versions of Jesus as the bearer and exemplar of a joyful message for human beings, as recreated in the imaginative writing of an author. For example the Markan Jesus does everything “immediately” because Mark imagines his ministry as very urgent. Matthew sets Jesus’ sermon on a mountain because he imagines Jesus as Moses, Luke sets it on a plain because imagines Jesus as a prophet on a level with people. Although, on the whole, the timeline of Jesus’ story is similar in these writings, incidents and the specifics of incidents vary considerably, even in respect of key incidents such as the birth, deaths and resurrection of Jesus. When these narratives are tested for facticity by strict historical criteria, only a minority pass.

Some of these contradictions may be attributed to the distance of the authors in space and time from the original events, but many are more likely the result of the re- imagining of Jesus by different believing communities with different priorities of faith and practice, together with the very different narrative methods of the gospel authors. The story of Jesus is essentially an imaginative construct based on the communal memory of a person. Above all, it is witness to an act of God. This squares with what we can see in the genuine letters of Paul, which are much earlier than the gospels: Jesus Messiah is presented almost exclusively in his death and resurrection as evidence of God’s favour to Jewish and non-Jewish peoples. It would be an exaggeration to say that Paul was not interested in the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, but not much of an exaggeration. It may be that the later writing of gospels was promoted by elements of the Christian assemblies who saw the danger of a gospel unanchored in the original humanity of Jesus.

Are the stories imagined by the gospel authors sufficient to arouse faith? Of course they are! They are witness to an extraordinary grasp of what is important for human flourishing, of the disciplines and graces which produce human goodness. They have an earthy wisdom which nevertheless would be folly if the God of which they speak does not exist. They outstrip the complex reasonings of classic and modern philosophers. They stand in the Jewish tradition of which they provide a radical re-interpretation, inviting all readers to share Jesus’ love of God and his neighbour, and God’s love of Jesus and all creatures.

2. My decision whether or not to accept this invitation engages my imagination necessarily: I must imagine Jesus as my teacher, brother and God, otherwise I will find it impossible to follow his way. In this imagining I have the help of the Gospels and other scripture, together with 2000 years of Christian tradition, including hymns, prayers, frescoes, sculpture, paintings, music, books, along with the creeds and confessions of the churches. Sometimes I have memorised a hymn before I understood it, only to find, much later, that it fills my imagination, supporting my faith in a dark time. The best spiritual guidance has always been directed at the imagination of the believer.

3. The story of Jesus demands a comprehensive re-imagining of God. Much of the worst theology has failed to do this, simply bolting Jesus on to a simplified version of the Jewish God. The wrathful God who demands the sacrifice of his only son as the price of offering forgiveness to human beings, is an example. If God is imagined as persuasive rather than executive, as asking cooperation rather than commanding obedience, much that has been taken for granted in the character of God has to be ditched, and much that seems improbable has to be imagined. Take for example, the notion of God’s judgement. If God is not a pathological monster, loving a person one moment then burning them to a crisp for disobedience the next, then a serious attempt to contemplate a loving God has to be made, in spite of centuries of refusal by the Christian church to do so. In fact love is more terrible than wrath, as it will not compel a person to turn from evil, but will respect that person’s decision even as it results in suffering now and after death from the evil they have created. Somewhere I read the terrible sentence: “God will leave them in the darkness they have made.” Perhaps there is a stubborn evil which love cannot conquer, but we know that God will try, through his/her own persuasion in Jesus’ action and suffering. Or the notion of God’s forgiveness. Jesus requires no qualifications for the forgiveness of sin, no elaborate rituals or spiritual preparations; wanting it is enough. In fact Jesus scatters it around so promiscuously in his ministry, that some of his church’s careful prescriptions for gaining it seem to ignore the one they call saviour. Jesus was not much interested in the “weight of sin” other than in a person leaving it behind to enter into a new life. St. Paul understood this: “God was in Messiah reconciling the cosmos to himself.” It is not God who needs reconciled, but us.

4. Of course a wrong imagination of God/ Jesus, or even a truthful but one-sided imagination, can be both powerful and damaging. The imagination of a God who delighted in the death of Moslems fuelled the crusades just as that of an Allah who delighted in the death of heathens fuelled the early Moslem conquests, as well as those of “Islamic State” in our own time. There is no cure for these aberrant imaginings other than the recognition that they are imaginings, and as such subject to error and correction, rather than objective and inerrant truths of faith. The imagination of faith should be bold, but confidence in its productions should be modest. Theology is the testing of the imagination of the faithful.

I am convinced that almost all books produced by believers for the use of fellow believers or as defences of belief for a general readership, are defective and misleading if they omit an initial chapter which explores the foundational sentence of theology:


Most theologies will promote their version of this other sentence:


Refusal to recognise the human origin of all Gods encourages a sectarian (we’re right/ you’re wrong) view of reality which is at the root of all fundamentalisms. Although this refusal is made by people of irreproachable virtue, they cannot be exempt from the charge of encouraging dogmatic lies. Religions are far from being the worst purveyors of untruth in our electronically- connected world – the deliberate and systematic lies of murderous regimes come to mind- but because they purport to seek truth and guide people into goodness, they are the more guilty.

Healthy faith begins with a history of the human construction of its beliefs, so that the possibility that this or that teaching is wrong, insufficient, mistaken or plain bad, is kept before the faithful, and that genuine change and development may occur. There are people within the Christian Church who not only find gay sex unattractive, but are also convinced that God does. They are incapable of realising that a God invented by people who find gay sex unattractive, will probably share their distaste.

I am a Christian believer, who happens to find the doctrine of the Trinity illuminating, but I can see very clearly the history of this teaching – it barely exists in the Bible and is an interpretation of the Bible by believers in the first centuries of the church life. That does not invalidate it; indeed this doctrinal history is evidence that some human inventions are better than others. Scientists produce hypotheses which are tested against reality and revised accordingly; even long -accepted hypothesis called “laws” may revised or discarded. The truths of faith should in my view follow a similar procedure, although how they are tested will be very different from the scientific method.

But how then can faith give people the absolute certainty they crave? It can’t and will be all the better for admitting it.

I do not hold this reasonable scepticism with the truths of faith only; it is essential for any pursuit of truth and any criticism of others’ truths. Imagine how devastating it must have been for scientists to be told by Heisenberg that no scientific facts could rule out the human observer, and that some facts – such as the simultaneous knowledge of the position and velocity of an particle- are unobtainable. But they did not immediately abandon science as a busted flush; rather, they persevered while recognising new limitations on their procedures. They made Heisenberg’s scepticism part of science. For after all, every human perception is biased because it is human. The bird outside my window sees the tree differently from me. And as for me, I spent most of my life in utter ignorance of the underground life of trees, in which root systems are connected by fungi in such a way that trees can communicate with each other. Buddhist thinking encourages us to see that the names we give to “things” are just convenient ways of chopping our world into manageable chunks, whereas in reality everything is connected with every other thing.

A small dose of this sort of thought frees us from lazy dogmatism, and introduces a decent modesty into the human quest for truth.

A decent modesty does not mean a total scepticism about our ability to understand the universe, more a cautious optimism. I believe in one God, the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Messiah, his only son our master, and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, but I know that generations of human beings have praised and prayed and pondered and invented the nature of this God. But surely it is God who has revealed himself to human beings? Well yes, that’s the nature we gave him. The imagination of human beings has been central to what we call the revelation of God. If that were not so, how would we have made him masculine and honoured him with a masculine pronoun? Our sticky fingers are all over the history of God. But just as the same imagination is capable of understanding the quantum nature of particles, so it is capable of understanding God. Just as there is no need to judge that there is no reality behind our understanding of particles, there is also no need to judge that behind our theology there is no God. Much “new atheism” misunderstands the process of invention and testing in theology and dismisses theological assertions as lacking proof. In fact the doctrine of God has undergone millennia of testing by millions of human beings who have believed in God. Richard Dawkins submits a Sunday School deity to a scientific kicking.

My purpose here however is not to give Dawkins a well-deserved kicking in return, but to urge that all theologies acknowledge their roots in human experience and imagination:


This confession would allow Popes to recant their doctrines and Martin Luther not to blame the scriptures for his interpretation of St Paul (” my conscience is in chains to the Word of God”) Believers would learn to take responsibility for their contribution to the nature of their God rather than pretending that the moment Jesus saved them he also gave them an implant of all sorts of garbage about gays, blacks and socialists; or that Allah issued them with a prescription for the killing of cattle and the proper headgear of women.

If I’m right in believing in a God of love, then of course he/she will want to communicate with her human creatures, and if she does so, will accept the consequence that her message will be filtered through the human imagination, with all its power to distort. And if ultimately she decides to hold nothing back, she will still have to communicate through the human imagination of her son Jesus, to whom she did not give the advantage of a son-of-God implant that could by-pass his human limitations. Maybe that’s why his story leaves us with the greatest question in the Bible:

“My God, my. God, why have you abandoned me?”

All theologies, I suggest, should be Chapter 1 theologies, which admit the human origins of faith and the corrigibility of doctrines.


After a peaceful demo in Bristol against the Police Bill currently under consideration was hijacked by people who attacked the Police violently causing injury and damage to property, a left-wing activist, who had not participated in the violence, defended the perpetrators on the grounds of ” all they have suffered.” Perhaps he can tell with certainty that the people who were violent are the same people who have suffered; I know, from being in other demos, that this identity cannot be assumed, and that there are often present people who want violence for their own purposes. But even if we assume that the violence arose out of suffering imposed by the state and the Police, does the suffering justify the violence?

The people of Myanmar have suffered for many years from the reluctance of its army to submit to democratic rule. Now again, the army has carried out a coup, dismissing the democratically elected government and its leader. Day after day, in spite of beatings, gassings and fatal shootings, the people of Myanmar have gathered peacefully in the streets, to indicate their refusal to accept a military government. They have been disciplined, determined and civilised, in obvious contrast to the army which has bullied and killed unarmed civilians. They have suffered more, far more than anyone in Bristol but they have refused to be violent.

The protesting people of Belarus have shown similar wisdom and discipline in their protests against Mr Lukashenko, their unelected ruler.

On the other hand the non-violent Christians in Syria have been decimated by killings and threats of further violence. Their peaceful responses have led to nothing that can be called good in worldly terms. Nor did Jesus’ peaceful opposition to the religious establishment and to the Romans. In worldly terms his mission was a failure. Perhaps non- violence is not so helpful, and the use of violent opposition, as in Bristol, may be justified?

Justification depends on moral judgements, which may vary, but I have always been amazed at the non-violence of the poor in the UK. They put up not only with the deprivations of capitalism, but also with the betrayals of those who purport to stand for their cause, and the oily lies of those in power. Why have they been so patient? Perhaps because, like me, they have a deep aversion to violence and a suspicion that its results may not be beneficial.

Back in the 17th century, in a poem about Cromwell, the poet Andrew Marvell saw clearly that even very successful violence might not lead to a successful peace, summing up his doubts in a concluding couplet:

The same arts that did gain

A power, must it maintain

He foresaw no end to violence.

Jesus’ teaching against violence is usually seen as an absolute ethical principle, leading to sacrificial behaviour which can only be rewarded in heaven, rather than as a piece of practical wisdom. Jesus suggests that it is divine wisdom, but surely that doesn’t make it impractical? Let’s look at what he said:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Yes, here is an absolute command, but it is backed up first by a series of very practical examples, concluding with the “golden rule” which makes a practical connection between how we treat others and how we hope to be treated. Then there is an argument which criticises a merely quid pro quo sort of morality. Finally there is an encouragement to imitate God. Clearly this teaching is neither an unattainable ideal nor a model for martyrs only. It is meant to stop the replication of violence, and the lazy acceptance of imitative behaviour.

It is unapologetically radical. Gandhi, who read the passage in the light of his philosophy of satyagraha, soul-force, said that this was not for cowards; if you lacked the courage to fight, you would not be able to oppose without violence. But he too, meant the teaching to be practical and indeed, like Jesus, practised it himself. Martin Luther King applied the teaching to his campaign for civil rights, and managed to infuse huge crowds of protesters with his vision and discipline. It is true that King, Gandhi and Jesus were all killed violently, but many have judged that they were not defeated.

Critics however, have suggested that non-violent opposition only works where the oppressive person of regime has some kind of conscience; and that utterly unscrupulous people will simply ride roughshod over it, killing and destroying, as Nazis did to non-violent Jews or Stalin’s thugs to millions of non-violent citizens. The wisdom of Jesus has to engage with the wisdom of those who argue that non-violence may sometimes make it easy for bullies and tyrants. It may be right to have soldiers to defend (but only to defend!) countries from attack, and police to defend (but only to defend!) citizens from violence, but in a violent humanity, it may be all-important to stop any violence at all.

Why have I never been violent? Because I have had a sheltered life; I have seldom been attacked and I have always been able to gain an adequate living. That means I have, in comparison with many, been lucky. So it’s certainly not for me to judge those who have protected themselves or their loved ones by violence. But my small experience of dealing with threat has only bolstered my conviction that Jesus’ way of doing good to enemies may be a wisdom that works and can be learned.


All public media in Scotland agree that the story of the Scottish Government’s handling of accusations against its former leader, Alex Salmond, have reduced its popularity and that of its leader, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. I am by no means expert in this matter, but I’m sure, as most people seem to be, that the government has not been frank with the public about its own actions and omissions. That being so, the obvious question is why they have been so incompetent. Were they indeed engaged in a plot against Salmond? Does Salmond know something to the discredit of the government or its leader, that led to a desperate attempt to silence him?

As all conceivable reasons seem unlikely, I am forced to consider that the real reason for their incompetence is that as a government they are incompetent; lazy, arrogant and purposeless.

Now of course many will say that they have a firm and overriding purpose of gaining independence from the U.K. I doubt that. True, a repeated pretence of advancing towards that has been a mark of their governance. But surely any real march towards independence would have by this time led to some characterisation of the nation they hoped we could become? As it is, aside from vacuous boasts about a new Scotland, which are as full of substance as Boris Johnson’s riffs on global UK, together with anodyne promises that it will be progressive and democratic, there is not much to influence the voters. I guess any significant detail, for example on taxation and public services in the new Scotland, might upset the coalition of left and right wing voters which is thought necessary to achieve independence. But preference for mere independence in itself, does not suggest a burning, radical desire to remake a nation.

I think the SNP has no real intention of gaining independence but rather a desire to remain as the not very progressive government of Scotland it is, possibly with a few further spoonfuls of devolution. And it’s not very good at it: an educational policy which has led to a reduction in the reading age of pupils at the end of primary school; grossly inefficient handling of vast contracts for passenger ships and hospitals; delay after delay in establishing a humane policy on drug addiction: words but little action on the scandal of residential care and the pay of carers; lack of attention to the issue of robust local democracy. No, this is not a great reforming government with its eyes on the future, but rather a well-meaning, decent, lazy government hoping that things will stay more or less as they are. In their defence, I can see that the limits of present devolution are likely to encourage this mindset.


Given the appalling levels of poverty in Scotland, created by poor housing, exploitative employment and deliberately inadequate levels of benefit, it is clear that at least a quarter of its population lives without the resources for a decent life. More than a million men, women and children live without a serious expectation of security, health, creativity and joy. The existence of these deprived groups provides an easy target for further exploitation by money lenders, drug dealers, petty criminals and other scum.

Of course, there is global warming in all its aspects to be tackled in Scotland also, but I am convinced that attention to poverty cannot wait. As the Green Party keeps pointing out, policies for the elimination of poverty and of global warming can go hand in hand. The great texts of the Hebrew prophets, which express the anger of God at the oppression of the poor, remain a non-sectarian source of encouragement to churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, to demand governance that is for all Scots, with a determination to eradicate poverty. An alliance of people of faith ready to make specific demands in the name of the poor of Scotland, might make our desultory politics a little livelier.

The Scottish News today


Rangers Football Club, after years of comparative failure, made worse by the continual triumphs of Celtic FC, its main opponent, in a battle which is cultural and religious as well as sporting, won the Scottish Premier League yesterday. This was celebrated by thousands of supporters coming together outside the football ground at Ibrox in Glasgow and later at George Square, to sing, and chant and let off fireworks. Police pleaded with them to disperse but were ignored. The First Minister pleaded with them online but was ignored.

Clearly for them the victory of their club was far more important than concerns about spreading the corona virus amongst each other, and amongst other members of the public. The manager of Rangers FC, Steven Gerrard, excused the behaviour by saying, “These people have gone through hell” referring presumably to years without triumphs.


Prince Harry and his wife Meghan gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey on USA television speaking mainly about Meghan’s difficult experience with the British Royal family, who were depicted as cold, hidebound, and racist. The couple are very rich by ordinary standards, and have decided to live in the USA which is a beacon of open democracy compared to the UK. They would like to be loved and respected just for being who they are.


My Christian faith leads me to characterise both of these bits of frontline news as utterly trivial, neither Rangers nor the Sussexes have any real importance other than being somewhat different aspects of celebrity culture. Both the Rangers supporters and the royal couple exhibit a sense of entitlement which is a matter of concern.

Because the supporters have had to wait many years for their team to triumph, they feel entitled to break the law, putting their own and other lives at risk, simply to display this success in a civic space which they share with supporters of other teams and of none. Their years of disappointment at their team’s lack of success are presented as if they were the experiences of an oppressed people or downtrodden minority, rather than what they are: a hobby which has brought some trivial disadvantages along with its pleasures, which are for many spiced with sectarian hatred. A culture which excuses or promotes this sort of behaviour has lost its grasp of reality and its sense of civic values.

Oh come on, some may say, it’s just fun. Ask the attending policemen if they thought it was fun, and it might be good next week to get the views of those who’ve got the virus as a result of it: they could die laughing.

When it comes to the royal exiles, I have to confess that I am not a royalist, feeling a lack of democratic choice as to who should represent me and my nation; whilst admiring the choices made in Eire of people such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. I am sympathetic to the notion that there are victims of our perpetuation of a hereditary royal establishment. But here are celebrity young people, privileged in their past, present and future, who feel entitled to the attention of the world over their family squabbles. Perhaps the revelation that one established royal person asked just exactly how black Meghan’s first baby might be, may have the benefit of making the British public ask whether they need such dick-headedness beyond the demise of the present monarch; but I doubt it.

The existence of mass media which make money out of elite sport or the lives of elite people, encourages a sense of entitlement among elites and their followers, which leads to a public neglect of real worth and real importance, such as the real worth of nurses offered a 1% pay rise, or the real importance of the the people of Yemen who will suffer a reduction of British aid this year. Maybe a sense that the lives of human beings are graced by a divine love to which we are not entitled, can keep us sane, humble and committed to the welfare of our fellows.

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.