Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: "Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk" by Eugene Cho

The cover of "Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk" along with my
trusty highlighter and a paper for notes

"Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian's Guide to Engaging Politics" Could there be a more perfect title for a book about being a Christian in political America? With humility and humor, Rev. Eugene Cho brings us a book sorely needed by both Christians who have entrenched themselves with a political party and those who have entirely disengaged from politics altogether. 

We might think it’s a pretty obvious imperative: “Don’t be a jerk.” But Rev. Cho addresses how the anonymity of online interactions and the dehumanizing nature of extreme political views promote jerky behavior..behavior that can be harmful or even deadly when it translates into government policies. So many of us - including me, including Rev. Cho - fall prey to negative human tendencies. It’s easy to get carried away with political fervor when you’re confident your candidate or party is aligned with your religious values. In reality, no party is completely aligned with any religion. To combat this part of our nature, he encourages Christians to center ourselves on Christ. 

Rev. Cho offers insight from his experience as a pastor to help Christians examine their motivations and approach to politics. His writing shows why he was a superb choice to lead Bread for the World, a leading Christian advocacy group. His non-partisan, relational approach to talking about politics is refreshing and needed today.  

I don’t talk about my faith often on this blog, but it is the part of me that led me to advocacy. I was fortunate Bread reached me with the message that I have an obligation to take part in my democracy and ensure that our country feeds hungry people and protects the vulnerable. Cho elaborates on that idea:

“Hear this well: Politics matter. They matter because politics inform policies that ultimately impact people. When I read the Bible, it’s emphatically clear that people matter to God- including and especially people who are marginalized, oppressed, forgotten, and on the fringes of our larger society.”

One of my favorite things about this book is how it explores practical ideas others have tried in order to break down barriers that divide people politically. One was the “Make America Dinner Again” (MADA) movement. It was a grassroots idea to facilitate potluck dinners between people of different ideological backgrounds. Participants were united in the notion that they were tired of divisive politics and committed to actively listening to the other dinner guests. The stories of past participants and Rev. Cho’s own experience trying it gives me hope for what can happen when diametrically opposed people concentrate on a desire to make things better.  

“Listening” and “relationship” are big themes in this book, which is why it’s so appealing to me. These very simple ideas can be very hard to live out. Connecting them back to the center of my faith raises the importance of seeking commonality, especially when I don’t want to do it at all.

Of course, as an advocate, I love the part of the book when he talks about advocacy and voting as ways to live out our faith. But I was already sold on that part. For me, the most valuable passages are the ones that speak to my own human struggle I face when I feel like someone is being a jerk to ME. So, I’ll leave you with a passage I should probably tape onto the monitor of my computer for a helpful reminder whenever I go out into the wilderness of social media:

“We must learn to be civil with one another, including those we disagree with - even political candidates. This is one of the great challenges in our culture today. We are called to love one another, including those who don’t look like us, feel like us, think like us...or vote like us. 

In voicing and pursuing our convictions, we not only represent ourselves as followers of Christ; we represent Christ. This is not to suggest we can’t have fierce convictions, but there is a distinction between being passionate about our conviction and being mean spirited and jerks. This is worth repeating: be careful not to dehumanize those you disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others. 

There is a difference. 

I’m all for contending for convictions, but let’s not be jerks in the process. Be respectful. Be mature. Be wise. The world doesn’t need more jerks for Jesus.”