The quote “never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes” is one that's slipped into popular culture, particularly since various comedians have added the rider “then you have his shoes and you’re a mile away".
The origins of the phrase are uncertain, however there is a school of thought that says it was birthed among Cherokee Native Americans. The original wording is reputed to be “never judge a man until you’ve walked for two moons in his moccasins” - two moons being two months. Well my manky old slippers are moccasins and I’d take my hat off to anyone who wore them for two months!
The Bible is extremely clear on this issue. Matthew 7:1 says: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" and yet it seems to be something we find nigh on impossible. Judgement is all around us, we do it all the time, it’s how we place ourselves against each other - she’s fatter, he’s taller, she’s more intelligent blah blah blah.
Why is it when meeting someone the first thing we ask is: “What do you do? What line of work are you in?” It’s so that we can judge ourselves against them - are they above us or below us in the pecking order?
Back in the late 1990s I wrote a musical and in an effort to keep the wolf from the door I also worked as a night security guard. If I told people I was a security guard I could virtually see their air of superiority inflate and often they would extricate themselves from the conversation as soon as possible. However if I told them I was working on a musical their reaction was completely different and it was normally me doing the extricating.
You only have to have your child start school for this to be brought home. When my children started in reception they could tell you within a week that the brainy kids sat at the blue table and the thick ones at the green table. My son could tell you who was the fastest runner and my daughter could tell you who the prettiest girl was. Sad, but true.
It’s as if all this has been hardwired into us since the fall. It is a tremendously destructive force in our workplaces, churches and families. It's everywhere! And its often when people are at their most vulnerable that we decide to stick our size twelves right in it.
As soon as we hear of friends splitting up we step in in judgement. "Oh it’s her fault", "No it’s his fault".
I remember when my wife and I were trying for a child, after a number of years we decided to go for infertility treatment. While we had many friends who were completely supportive there were also those who couldn’t stop themselves from telling us that we shouldn’t be tampering with creation, before going home to their ever growing family….where did I put those moccasins?
The same can be said for divorce - as soon as we hear of friends splitting up we step in in judgement. "Oh it’s her fault", "No it’s his fault". "They didn’t try hard enough, didn’t seek help, didn’t attend the right courses..." etc.
And yet, the wisdom of a carpenter from Galilee is so breathtakingly simple: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
OK Jesus, why couldn’t you just say “like your neighbour”. I think I could manage that, maybe…
I guess one of the problems is that while we hate to be judged in a way that reflects on us negatively, we all like it (if we’re honest) if it reflects on us positively, if we’re the one who comes out on top. While I'm no psychiatrist I am sure that the key to this lies in our fragile self-esteem constantly needing a lift. This also explains why we're so crushed once we're on the receiving end of anything negative.
Our value and our true worth comes not from our place in the pecking order but in the price that was paid for us.
If we could only grasp that our value and our true worth comes not from our place in the pecking order, our skill set, our achievements, or the lack of them, our successes or our failures, but in the price that was paid for us.
Jesus paid the same price for my redemption as he did for Barack Obama’s and as he did for Donald Trump's. For Mother Theresa’s and for Wayne Rooney’s (crikey I bet that’s the first time those two have shared a sentence!).
Here lies one of the timeless symmetries of our faith: So secure in our worth that we no longer need to judge others to build up our fragile egos, thus freeing us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Simples! Actually I think I’m going to chuck out those moccasins…
Andy Pritchard is a writer and musician. He attends St Barnabas Church in North London where he is a member of the worship team.