Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by Pastor Eugene Cho is rightly subtitled “A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics.” Commentary on the problem of immoral rhetoric (“being a jerk”) is the opening of and dominant idiom in the book, but the broader aim is to equip Christians for political engagement. The reader is catechized into ten “thou shalt nots” stylistically reminiscent of the Ten Commandments, which are the titles to the ten chapters comprising the book (plus introduction and afterword). It’s an easy and engaging read, and Cho’s gregarious personality shines through.
So what are the highlights and the lowlights? Let’s start with some lowlights. The reader is likely to read this book, in part, to find how they can engage in political conversations without “being a jerk,” where jerkiness is something like engaging in disagreement without sufficient love for one’s neighbor. I was interested to see how Cho would draw together biblical wisdom and contextualize Jesus’ statements about Pharisees being broods of vipers, etc. While there is a lot of good advice that surrounds the titular chapter for this question, the chapter itself did not provide the guidance I had hoped for. Cho briefly glances at some of the problematic passages, noting that Jesus does on occasion flip over tables. But instead of drawing out positive lessons for finessing the distinction between bold prophetic pronouncement and just plain jerkiness, Cho’s analysis of the event simply contrasts that occasion with, “How many other times did Jesus exhibit restraint and love to those who did not deserve it” (70)?
For Cho, since Jesus “exudes tenderness and meekness” and “his life reflects mercy, justice, and kindness,” we can see that Jesus “embodies a life that is antithetical to being a jerk.” Now, in one sense, of course we must agree that Jesus is not a “jerk.” But the puzzle was always over what distance there was between colloquial notions of “being a jerk” and biblical notions of loving God, church, neighbor, and enemy. Calling a group of people a brood of vipers (Matthew 12:34, 23:33) seems, on the face of it, a jerk move; what is the lesson for people who are trying to model Christ? This analysis is missing from the book. Without it, the book risks becoming an endorsement of a certain sort of well-adjusted sensitive personality and a condemnation to those who are rough around the edges. This runs afoul of Cho’s explicit intent to affirm the variety of personalities and cultures in the church.
When we get to more specifically political topics, Cho makes similar exegetical oversights. As far as Cho is concerned, Romans 13’s imperatives for Christians to obey governing authorities might well be “iron[ic]” (149). He does not seriously engage with the parallel passages like 1 Peter 2:13-17, the behavior of the early church in the face of persecution, or the variety of ways the Christian political tradition has handled these claims. Instead, he merely cites an academic source and walks us through an exercise in imagining misunderstanding irony, all before hedging the claim entirely.
Cho instead offers this strange condemnation of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “Following the law—all laws, no matter what—is more complicated than Sessions and the slave holders would have us believe” (149). Sessions was famous for his law and order stance, including on immigration, but comparing any public figure to slaveholders is likely to raise some eyebrows. I am also unconvinced that Cho’s summary of Sessions’ view is sufficiently charitable. We are left with very little guidance on how Romans 13 ought to be understood and applied.
A misunderstanding about power itself motivates these misinterpretations. Throughout the book, Cho contrasts Jesus’ Kingdom power with the national powers of the world. He says again and again, “The Jesus I follow is not the emperor arriving on a chariot, but the humble King arriving on a donkey” (136; 241-242), with the upshot that “we forget how Jesus led since our natural inclination is to gain and exert power” (100).
But is gaining and exerting power a bad inclination? What exactly does Jesus condemn? It may be fairer to say that Jesus condemns not power or its pursuit, but lording power over people (Matthew 20:25). Jesus gained and exerted power whenever necessary, but his goals were (1) to disestablish his Kingdom from the Kingdom of the World, separating church and state powers, and (2) to accomplish the reconciliation of human beings by his atoning sacrifice on the cross. Jesus wasn’t powerless or weak; he was meek, not lording his power over his servants. We are wise to be likewise. On top of all of this, Jesus presently reigns triumphant on a heavenly throne and will return on a white stallion with a sword coming out of his mouth (Revelation 19:14-15).
Of course, Jesus isn’t merely riding a white stallion either. The same Jesus is also Cho’s donkey-riding King. But this should invite us to consider the mystery and complexity of Jesus’s actual intentions for his Kingdom and Christian politics. Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk does not adequately address that complexity.
What are the consequences of such a mistake? In my opinion, the most significant payoff is that Cho misses the mark on the greatest moral-political issue that faces our nation: whether or not the intentional killing of an unborn child constitutes murder. Cho walks us right up to the issue that faces us, asking, “In what ways should our faith decisions manifest into legislation? … Clearly there are aspects of governance like opposing racism and caring for the poor that are clear imperatives for believers. But how, specifically, should our convictions animate into laws” (108)? But when we get to abortion, the zeal for righteousness melts into a death by a thousand “practicalities”:
“How you would legislate and enforce that.” We legislate and enforce all sorts of complex things; murdering children is not categorically different.
“I can’t imagine prosecuting a single, poor woman for having an abortion, potentially jailing and separating her from her family.” Okay, but neither does the pro-life movement, and Cho should know that.
“Should there be legislation banning the procedure, or should it only be a deeply personal, ethical choice? Can we change the narrative in America to be neither for nor against abortion?” NO. It is because the “choice” to kill an unborn child is personal that our banner must be to oppose abortion, full stop. We are literally and immediately killing innocent persons on purpose. There is no way to massage the message into a more comfortable middle ground.
All that said, there are some illuminating parts of the book as well. As is often the case, what Cho cares about most is where he shines. Cho is passionate about pastoring people who make political issues into idols and pointing them toward the surpassing power and grace of God. He points out that justifying President Donald Trump’s immoralities because he’s “not a pastor” ends up giving “license to any Christian who is not a member of the clergy to do whatever he or she wants without consequence” (46).
On the practical side of addressing jerks in the church, he helpfully notes that church discipline is one of the keys to solving the problem of jerkiness, starting with the discipline of church leadership (65). Furthermore, Cho pushes Christians to seek the bond of peace that scripture requires (75) even when cutting people out of our lives is much more comfortable (92-93). Most practically, Cho provides a really valuable guide for how to be an informed and critical consumer of news (176-180). It is this kind of ecclesiastically sensitive yet individually actionable pattern of self-responsibility that can help turn the tide against the division, misinformation, and media manipulation that have become bigger and bigger problems in American political and social life.
Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk has major shortcomings as an introduction to political engagement, even as it has significant contributions to make in coaxing believers to be more self-reflective about whether they are more loyal to their chosen political party than God’s Word. Anyone who is already set in their ways politically could benefit from this invitation to imagine a more capacious view of moral engagement in politics. However, if you have not yet determined your politics or are looking for a guide to building political beliefs from the ground up, you should consider other books first.