Wednesday, June 22, 2022

A theology of self-service checkouts

Karl Barth said that 'in its basic form, humanity is fellow-humanity' (CD III/2, 285).  This claim is not difficult to defend from Scripture.  The creation narratives point out that it is not good for the man to be alone; human being, it seems, requires other human being in order to make it whole.  This is a point which goes well beyond the context of marriage, although that is a particular example of 'fellow-humanity'.  For Barth, of course, the primary evidence that humanity simply is fellow-humanity is derived from the Lord Jesus.  Christ came to be with us.  If real humanity is seen in Jesus, and only in Jesus, then what we see is humanity as being-with, humanity as fellow-humanity.

We see more than that.  If true humanity is seen in Jesus, then true humanity is being-with-in-service.  Christ's service of his people, his sacrificial love for them, was not something extra added to his humanity; it was a display of true humanity as that true humanity can only fully exist when energised by the presence of God.  Real humanity is not whole and entire to itself, but is oriented in service towards others.

Note that this is, for Barth, the 'basic form' of humanity.  We tend to think of the individual first, defining him or her within his or her own limits.  Only then do we look outward.  Being-with becomes something the human, complete in himself, does (or does not do); it is extrinsic.  This is doubly the case when it comes to being-with-in-service.  But this is not a true representation of humanity as we are taught to think of it in Jesus.  In actual fact, the self-complete human of our imagining is barely human at all; I said that we think of him or her within his or her own limits; but in fact in a crucial way this imaginary human - the human we like to think of ourselves as being - is free of limits.  He is whole and entire in himself.  He is a sphere which may come into contact with other spheres.  Whereas the true human is limited, and thus defined; he has shaped edges, and those shapes are contoured to the shapes of others.  Being-with is not a thing he chooses (or declines to choose); it is who and what he is.

Which brings me to self-service checkouts.  Self-service checkouts, and other self-service machines, are everywhere now.  It is very difficult to see a human being in my bank - the robot will deal with you.  Our local Sainsbury's has just taken out half it's old (manned) checkouts to replace them with more self-service machines.  Part of the motivation for the current rail strikes in the UK is apparently the threat that ticket office staff will be replaced with machine.

I confess, I make use of self-service checkouts.  They are quick and convenient (except when they aren't, because they go wrong, or the person in front of you in the queue doesn't understand the system).  But to a theological view of humanity, the self-service checkout is at the least an unfortunate development.  Anything that removes an element of being-with from our everyday tasks, usually in the name of efficiency, helps to conceal from me a central truth about myself: that I need other people, not merely to help me achieve my goals, but to be human.  The same sort of thing could be said about other trends in working life at the moment - the increase in remote working, for example.  Something important about being human, that sense of being-with-in-service is diminished.

Two arguments are usually advanced in favour of self-service checkouts.  The first is efficiency.  The business is viewed here as if it were a machine.  Why not cut out some unnecessary cogs?  Why not make the whole thing flow a bit faster?  But this assumes that the goal of human life is to get things done, and that anything that makes getting things done easier and quicker is therefore a good thing.  I can easily think just the same: anything that speeds up my weekly shop must be good.  But what if the snippet of conversation with a cashier is actually one of the most valuable things that can happen in the shop - more valuable than the goal-oriented act of shopping, because oriented towards another human being, a little slice of being-with that goes to the heart of our mutual humanity as created in the image of God?

The second argument is that this sort of automation removes low quality jobs, freeing people to do better things.  The idea is that we get rid of drudgery.  But I wonder whether this has a lot to do with our faulty perspective on service.  Sure, if we treat the shop like a big machine, and the people like parts of the machine, this might make sense.  But if they are actual human beings, whose basic existence is being-with-in-service, whose deepest reality is shaped by Jesus Christ as the one true Human, isn't there a huge dignity in serving in this way?  And doesn't the encounter at the checkout offer a brief opportunity for mutual service as you recognise one another's humanity?  I hope that if you're a Christian you always make some effort to chat with the cashier!

So anyway, I'm not proposing that we all be Luddites and resist every technological innovation in the sphere of work.  I'm just suggesting that we try to think Christianly about what these innovations do to us, in terms of our view of humanity.  Maybe sometimes that will mean resisting societal and technological change, but I suspect more often it will mean resisting the cramping effect on our own hearts and minds which these changes bring along, so that whatever is going on out there, I can still be an exhibit of real humanity, pointing to Christ the great Servant of his people.


  1. Anonymous9:57 am


  2. Anonymous12:22 pm

    Thanks, Daniel. Very thoughtful!