When a queue shows God's Kingdom
In my defence, I was too busy fumbling in my wallet looking for my Dobbie’s card. And social distancing had so spaced it out so I hadn’t even noticed it. It was only when the checkout person told me that I realised what I had done: I HAD JUMPED THE QUEUE. To be a queue-jumper, as you well know, is about as low as you can get. At least if you are English. It was the Hungarian-born journalist, George Mikes who observed: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” As you would expect, I mumbled my heart-felt apologies and shamefacedly headed to the back of the queue, avoiding the gaze of those whose rightful place in the created order I had subverted, albeit unintentionally. And as you know, the social pressure not to jump the queue can be considerable. As it happens, just a few weeks back I had witnessed this while queuing in the M&S café in Warrington. There were two serving counters but only the one queue. Then this woman simply walks straight to the counter on the left, avoiding the single queue altogether. When challenged by those queueing, she claimed that we were all queueing for the counter on the right. She tried to brazen it out while her poor husband stood there looking mortified. Eventually she had no choice but to retreat, leaving the café area altogether. There is something profoundly Christian about queuing – even though the word does not appear in the Bible, not even in the Message translation. It is a practical application of social justice – you are served in order of arrival. The strong do not bypass the weak, the rich do not elbow their way to the front. It is a practical, everyday application of loving your neighbour. Having said that, the rich probably don’t have to queue and they can often buy their way to the front, for example at airport fast-track boarding. Nothing in this world is perfect but even so, in ordinary everyday life an expression of fairness and respect. Of course, there is a whole set of rules regarding queueing. For example, you can ask a family member to hold your place. Or if your train is about to depart, you can ask permission of those in front of you – except if they are catching the same train. Alternatively you can show practical kindness by allowing the person behind you with just a couple of items to go before you, especially if you have a full trolley. And there were some wonderful stories during the first lockdown of NHS staff and paramedics being shunted to the front of the key as a measure of respect.
In fact, our love of queuing helped the UK coronavirus vaccine rollout, according to health secretary Matt Hancock, as jabs were given "according to need, not ability to pay". He explained that there had been no "special treatment, no queue-jumping" for politicians, footballers, or royalty, which helped show the system was "fair".
Certainly queuing means order, literally. I find it very stressful, for example, driving around looking for a parking place in a full car park – it is entirely opportunistic. And I certainly lack the experience of being served in a crowded pub. Other people seem to have the knack of attracting the attention of the bar staff. I wonder if Jesus and the disciples queued. Certainly Jesus was often surrounded by people pushing their way to be with him, even to touch him. And did those men who lowered their paralysed friend through the roof in order to be healed by Jesus actually jump the queue? There’s one incident, however, which gives us an insight into how Jesus operated, in his feeding of the 5000, the one miracle recorded in each of the four Gospels. Clearly there was a risk of disorder, especially if people were really hungry or just wanted to see what was happening. Mark in his account tells us: “Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.” (Mark 6:39) Clearly this meant a high level of organisation and no doubt it took time and some persuasion for the disciples to marshal the crowd into these manageable groups. Certainly Jesus wanted to avoid a free-for-all. Again it seems a fundamental Kingdom value that the weak and vulnerable need to be protected against the pushy and the greedy. And those who face daily discrimination from those who are privileged. This was certainly the experience for Nelson Mandela, who had suffered a lifetime of racial discrimination. He recalled those queuing for the first election in which all South Africans freely participated: “There were long queues of employers and employees, black and white. In the sense of Africans, Coloureds and Indians - when I talk about blacks, I mean those three. Blacks and whites mingled to vote without any hitches. Many people would have expected a great deal of tension, clashes and violence, but it did not occur.” Here his tireless campaign for racial justice was to be fulfilled in, of all things, a queue. No doubt it would have been a strange experience for everyone in the line: the whites no longer with an innate sense of entitlement, the blacks no longer cowed into subservience. The Kingdom of God expressed in a queue. Something to ponder as you sigh at the length of the queue in front of you.