A Review of
Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging in Politics
Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
*** This book was featured in our
Reading Guide on Cultivating Kindness,
Civility, and Truth in the Election Season
“It was not you who consumed the idea, the idea consumed you,” says Pyotr Stepanovich to Alexei Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Kirillov is “possessed” — an appropriate diagnosis if ideas can become the demons of Dostoevsky’s title — by an ideological fervor that ultimately leads to his tragic end. His story plays out in the revolutionary froth of late 19th-century Russia, but even now we hear echoes of consuming fervor in Twitter feeds or debates around Supreme Court nominations: “We and our tribe, we hold high principles; our opponents merely traffic in pathologies,” the fervor whispers. Eugene Cho, founder and former senior pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, Washington, and current president of advocacy group Bread for the World, encourages a different path in Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging in Politics.
The book works like a testimony at an evangelical revival. In a revival, a testimony tells a story: “I met Jesus, and he saved me, and this is how.” Cho offers a corollary for political engagement: “I follow Jesus, and this is how he called me to engage our broken world. He is calling you too.” Cho frames that calling as ten “Thou Shalts,” including the titular example as well as others like “Thou Shalt Be about the Kingdom of God,” and “Thou Shalt Listen and Build Bridges.” The “shalts” are a skeleton on which Cho hangs story and anecdote, rumination and proclamation, all of which enflesh his effort to discern Jesus’s call to follow Him in the cacophony of ideological voices, each demanding exclusive allegiance.
This struggle to discern Jesus’s call thrums beneath the surface of the text. It’s a serious topic and, despite the somewhat campy title, Cho treats it seriously, always in earnest and often with real insight. Trenchant observations sprinkle the text: “In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others and not even know it.”
That’s good, one more,
“Jesus proclaimed that his kingdom was already here, and not yet come, a tension by which we await the future glory while being invited into God’s redemptive work in the world.”
Yes, that too.
These nuggets and others like them — a pithy sentence, a thought-provoking paragraph, an inspiring example — jump out of a book that is peripatetic in the main. Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk can feel a bit like a compilation of disparate Facebook posts. Reading it, to extrapolate from a story Cho tells, may be like watching him play basketball — it hops around quite a bit. No matter, the value of Cho’s book does not merely arise from the occasional quotable idea. Taken in its entirety, it coalesces around two animating convictions.
First, Cho argues that Christians should engage in politics. ”Hear this well,” he says, “politics matter. They matter because they inform policies that impact people, and people matter to God.””] Through examples and admonitions, Cho encourages his Christian reader to invest deeply in the messy particularities of our political system. Why? Because politics are one method by which temporal justice is achieved, and Christians are called to seek justice. Political engagement involves, according to Cho, voting (of course), but it also includes marching, “raising your voice”, engaging in advocacy, and perhaps even starting a non-profit. In short, Cho urges participation in myriad forms of civic life, pulling levers of power and influence to achieve just ends. “As Christians,” he writes, “we cannot pretend we can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the gospel’ if we want to truly love our neighbor and pursue public faithfulness.”
Second, Cho warns, strongly, against conflating the earthy kingdom of political power with the Kingdom of God. Per Cho, “It is impossible to have one party that fully encapsulates what it means to be about the kingdom of God. It doesn’t exist.” Christians create an idol when they accept one party’s platform as uniquely capable of bringing about Kingdom ends. Idols always fail, but they corrupt their worshipers in the process. From false worship flows so many of the horrible elements that characterize our current political engagement (and against which Cho writes): dehumanization of the political other, pleasure at “owning” (directly or by proxy) those with whom we disagree, living in (real or virtual) self-affirming communities of the like-minded, an unhealthy hunger for power.
These two convictions — first, that Christians should advance justice through politics, and, second, that justice will always be imperfect in the temporal kingdom — can be a challenge to hold simultaneously. One says, “Achieve justice now;” the other says, “Justice will only be complete in God’s Kingdom.” The lens of “now” can blinker things eternal; the lens of “in the hereafter” can cloud things temporal. At best, they leaven each other, even as they compete for primacy of place in our allegiance.
Yet they will always remain in tension and, therefore, no single lens will reveal the full need of any particular social issue. Accordingly, and because he holds both convictions, Cho leans heavily on proclamation and sermonic interlude rather than rigorous argument. Some will find that off-putting; they will want Cho to put more flesh on key ideas to provide a clear voice to guide them through the noise of ideological fervor. Some will believe that each conviction, in isolation from the other, has a tendency to create “ideas that eat” — to return to Dostoevsky’s implicit caution — and the tension between them is both necessary and not ultimately resolvable in an argument, but must rather be lived. “As I see it,” Cho writes, “we must be flexible in our political leanings but inflexible with the way Jesus taught us to live and love – and that’s a lot of tension.”
One can disagree with Cho’s approach and still appreciate the singular value of the book, which is to place Jesus in the middle of immediate efforts toward justice and at the end, when the Kingdom of God will one day be fully known. “Hope came not in the form of a politician, political party or system or great nation,” Cho writes, “Rather, hope arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.” This hope, anchored in the historical and particular, looks forward even as it calls us to the tasks of justice and mercy now. In this long wait, and in light of the high calling, Cho’s book is an appropriately challenging testimony of how Christians should be political, without being a jerk.