The age old saying goes: “You can’t understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes” (or variations on that theme). I get what it’s saying, but I don’t think it’s right. It’s not enough. Walking a mile in someone’s shoes is about us experiencing life as they do, but only to do it for a mile makes it temporary. And I assume that once I have walked the mile I can put my own shoes back on. They can’t, and it’s permanent for them.
I reflect on the horrific experiences that friends of mine have shared with me and realise that I can’t claim to be able to walk for a mile in their shoes. I have never experienced what it is like to receive the abuse, discrimination and be the subject of the hate crimes that they have been through. Even for me to suggest that I could try to walk in their shoes seems patronising and woefully inadequate.
I find myself challenged and inspired by these friends in equal measure. Challenged to consider my own actions and behaviour and inspired to do more, to be more… but more what? I can’t experience how it feels to be called hideous names, but I can be outraged about it. I can’t know how someone feels if another person crosses the street to avoid meeting them, but I can be broken-hearted by it. It feels beyond patronising for me to suggest that ‘I know how you feel’ when blatantly I don’t.
I have started to wonder about what Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) What if I extend that to things like: “Scream with those who scream; rage with those who rage…” That feels a bit more empathetic, but it still doesn’t feel enough. So I read the wider context of that verse:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”Romans 12:14-16
Hmm… so the empathy Paul is after comes in the context of likely persecution and the potential for division on the basis of status in the church. That complicates it a bit because it reveals how dangerous it was for the early Christians (especially in Rome) – and that was a shared sense of danger. I don’t experience that sense of danger in the same way as my friends, so what can I do? I want to be there for them, I want to help, I want to show them that they are not alone and that they matter. And it seems that the Christians might have been a bit class-conscious and were not being as inclusive as they should, particularly ignoring the underprivileged. But as a middle-aged white cis-gendered heterosexual male human living in England I am one of the most privileged people on this planet. There’s not a lot of danger for me and a lot of potential ways in which I might exclude others.
So then I notice that Paul urged the Christians to ‘live in harmony with one another’. Harmony is the opposite of discord. It doesn’t require everyone to sing the same notes, but to complement and augment each other as we sing the same song. If they are singing a soulful lament, there’s no harmony if you are singing a bouncy pop song. And you have to be there with them to be in harmony, you have to be present with them. To be in harmony you have to listen to the tune the other person is singing. You have to find ways of weaving your music into their music, being responsive to one another and allowing your singing to be shaped by their singing so that the voices blend. Replace ‘song’ with ‘life’ and you get the idea. That’s how we rejoice when they rejoice, mourn when they mourn, scream when they scream and rage when they rage.
And then if we read the whole of Romans chapter 12 we see that Paul seems to be urging the believers to intentionally be aware of themselves and their potential impact on God (‘living sacrifices’) and on other people. If we remember that it’s written to a group of Christians not an isolated individual we see that it’s an extremely collaborative thing, this church business. We collectively need to think about our impact on God and on other people, and to do the latter there is a lot of ‘one anothering’ to be done.
A while ago in our church we looked at the ‘One anothers’ in the New Testament and discovered that all of them are aspects of love – ways of putting love into action:
Love one another in the way that Jesus loves: bear with one another; encourage one another; build each other up; serve one another; forgive one another; honour one another; be devoted to one another; live in harmony with one another; offer hospitality to one another; live in fellowship with one another… and more.
That requires us to have an intention to faithfully put one another above ourselves, to be there for one another, to listen, to seek to understand, and to stand with one another. To give [of ourselves] and not count the cost.
I’m still working on this but I hope it’s becoming less patronising than a short walk in the wrong shoes. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction.