Series 24: For The Love Of Faith Icons | Episode 05
Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: Eugene Cho’s Guide to Political Conversations
Our For the Love of Faith Icons series is going strong, and this week we’re diving into an issue we’ve probably all struggled with: how to act like a Christian when we’re riled up about our political views. Without even knowing it, each of us has likely been guilty of having the “I’m-right-and-everybody-who-doesn’t-agree-with-me-is-crazy” attitude when it comes to politics. And today, we’re here to get a little help on how we can engage in politics with civility and openness not only as believers, but as good citizens in general. Eugene Cho, the founder of Quest Church and the non-profit One Day’s Wages, gives his pastoral view on how, if we can keep loving God and loving others as our guiding principles, we’ll be better equipped to engage in civil and productive conversations (and PS: it won’t send us spiraling down to political/moral ruin to listen to a contrary opinion). Cho emphasizes that when we surround ourselves with people who don’t look, think, feel, or vote like us, we are following Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbor.” And it matters how we engage, Cho reminds us, because “politics matter. Because politics inform policies that impact real human people created in the image of God.”
Jen: Hey everybody, it is Jen Hatmaker here. I am your delighted host of the For The Love Podcast and I’m super glad you’re here today. Thanks for downloading. Thanks for listening and being an awesome, loyal, podcast person.
Right now we are in a series called For the Love of Faith Icons, and we have been talking to leaders in faith spaces who have had their hand in this a long time. They’ve got decades under their belt, they have been in service for longer than a minute, and they have a lot to teach us and show us. There’s a lot of interesting challenges inside these conversations and today, Whew. Like, just woah, okay? We are diving right into the thick of things, because we are talking about how on earth you and me, just like regular human people, wade through the murky waters of politics this year. We are going there. Like, we go straight there, and I’m telling you that I don’t know if we could have a better guide than the one we have on the show today.
You’re going to be really glad that you’re listening to this. I’ll tell you that right now. Eugene Cho is my guest today. If you do not know Eugene, first of all, get excited. Today’s your lucky day to be introduced to him and his work. He’s a pastor, he’s a speaker, he’s an author. He’s an incredible humanitarian. In fact—we talk about it at the end of the interview—as the founder of a nonprofit called One Day’s Wages, Eugene is absolutely committed to philanthropy and generosity. He cares so deeply for the poor. He is the founding and former senior pastor of Quest Church, which is a thriving urban, multicultural, multi-generational church in Seattle. He founded it, and then after eighteen years of leading Quest, he and his wife stepped aside in 2018, and he spends his days now traveling all around the world to teach and lead churches and nonprofits and pastors and missionaries and justice workers.
Sometimes that’s done from a pulpit. Sometimes it’s done from underground churches and villages, refugee camps. I’m telling you, he puts his money where his mouth is. I’ve been following Eugene for years. I am very drawn to his humility, and I am very drawn to his consistent message. He’s real deal stuff. His first book is called Overrated: Are We More In Love With The Idea of Changing The World Than Changing The World? which came out in 2014. Isn’t that a great title? And then his next book, which is coming out in March, is Thou Shall Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide To Engaging In Politics. And that, my friends, is the substance of our conversation today. We talk about it all. At one point, I just asked him directly, “What is the Christian voter supposed to do in 2020?” We didn’t skirt around anything.
We talked about identity politics and how we prioritize justice, and where does civility play in? Do those two things ever cancel each other out? I asked him some really hard things, and I think he answered with incredible wisdom and discernment. You’re going to really be, I think, inspired and encouraged by today’s conversation, and I’m telling you that his book’s a definite preorder. I’m really pleased to bring this to you today, really moved by this conversation. I know you will be, too. So please enjoy my conversation with the brilliant, insightful, Eugene Cho.
Jen: I am so, so glad to have you on today, Eugene, thank you for saying yes.
Eugene: Thank you.
Jen: Now, we were just chatting before we started recording, and I think it’s probably been three or four years since we’ve seen each other in person, so we really need to fix that ASAP.
Eugene: Let’s do the sushi in Seattle sometime.
Jen: The answer’s yes.
Jen: You’ve extended to me the perfect invitation just now. Well done. So I would love to just jump right in and talk about this amazing book that you’ve written, with the greatest title I’ve ever heard. I’ve never been so jealous. Of course, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk is your book. Frankly, not a moment too soon for this one. So, well done on the timing. I think I speak for us collectively in that most of us are clenching our teeth and bracing for the year ahead, bracing for 2020. I personally am looking for any thoughtful guidance on how to navigate what is ahead for us, as a country and a culture. Let’s just start at the beginning here. Can you tell us sort of the overarching idea about this book, and why you titled it something so interesting and provocative?
Eugene: Yeah. Well, again, thanks so much for having me, and as you noted, this topic is not something just coming up with the upcoming election. I think it’s been a huge pervasive conversation for the past decade, and whether it’s good or bad, the reality is for the next few decades, I think this thing about politics is going to be a huge conversation. I wrote this book because as a follower of Jesus, as a pastor, like you, I realized that this is all over. Our culture is inundated. We’re almost obsessed by this thing called politics, and so rather than the winds of culture informing us, I really wanted to wrestle as one imperfect Jesus follower to say, “What does it mean that our faith informs this thing called politics?” And so in the book I talk about ten practical things. I think initially it was titled Ten Commandments For How Christians Engage Politics and a few folks at Reddit, they really were enticed by that chapter two, which is “Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk.”
Jen: Yes, it’s so clever, and it just gets right to the heart of the matter. It’s interesting. I applaud and commend you for wading into these murky waters, because in general, you are not necessarily known as a “political guy.” That’s not been your lane, as you mentioned. You’ve been a pastor and an advocate for years, so it’s interesting and important that you threw your weight behind this. Did you receive some criticism before even attempting to walk into political space as a faith leader? The reason I preface that is because I often do this as well, because policy matters to people. That’s really the bottom line, but people, some critics—pretty predictably—will always tell me to stay in my lane, that politics are not mine to discuss. So I’m curious if you encountered that. Of course, your book’s not out yet, but even in the process.
Eugene: Sure. Well, I might not be a political guy, but I did run for middle school president.
Jen: Did you win?
Eugene: No, it was bad. Yeah. I think I did six [or] seven percent.
Jen: That’s hard.
Eugene: That’s okay.
Jen: That’s rough.
Eugene: It’s okay.
Jen: Sorry for your loss.
Eugene: It’s really interesting when people do give pushback, like, “Stay in your lane,” particularly with politics. Because when you say things that they agree with, they applaud it. When you say things that they disagree with, the response is, “Hey, stay in your lane.” I think that’s interesting for us to note. We’re not going to get positive affirmation for everything that we do, but I do think it’s really important for not just Christians or pastors, but I’m thinking about LeBron James, the basketball player who was wading into some political conversations and I was so stunned by certain political pundits that basically said, “Dribble the ball and stay in your lane.”
Jen: That’s right. I remember that.
Eugene: I think that’s a dangerous, dangerous thought, and we need more people. Because I think to be a good neighbor means that there are going to be times that we’ll have to wade into policy conversations and issues, as you know. But as for this book, personally, I really wrestled with it. I quit writing this book four times in the process.
Jen: Did you?
Eugene: And it wasn’t because I was having a hard time writing, I think I was really afraid.
Jen: I get that.
Eugene: I was in my own head. I was just imagining the criticism, the pushback that I was going to get, “You’re too liberal, you’re too conservative,” things of that nature. “Just focus on Jesus,” is sometimes the conversation that I get. So I still wrestle with it. I have shared the book with a handful of folks, and I’ve gotten really positive encouragement and affirmation. But having said that, I know that growing up there were a couple things that I was told not to talk about. “Don’t talk about religion and don’t talk about politics,” and it just happens to be that in this book, I’m trying to, as prayerfully and thoughtfully as I can, talk about those two things.
Jen: That’s great. It’s complicated. Politics are complicated and nuanced, so anything that you can give us as like this overarching rules of the road ethos I think is a great place to start a conversation about how to engage. And not just with politics, but with other people around the conversation, which is why, as you just mentioned a minute ago, I love the ten commandments for Christians in the public sphere. I mean, these are very sort of high-minded rules of engagement, essentially, that you have set out for us. Can you talk a little bit more about those, how you came up with them, and then specifically—this is just personally, because I’d like to hear you speak more on it—your take on number seven, which is, “Thou shalt not lie, get played, or manipulate.” I think that one’s really interesting and really important. But anyway, if you can high-level it and then maybe funnel into one or two for us, I’d love to hear you talk more.
Eugene: Well, I think you nailed it in the question that politics is really nuanced and complex, and that’s the reality, because people are really complex and nuanced. Sometimes I tell people that as a pastor, the best thing about church is people, and then the challenging thing about church is people, and sometimes it’s the same people.
Jen: That’s right.
Eugene: Politics is really complex, and I think anytime we say otherwise, we oversimplify it. I think we’re doing that topic and ourselves and the whole process of governance a disservice. Now, having said that, I think my concern about faith and politics is I’m concerned that politics is what shapes our theology, as opposed to our theology shaping our politics.
Jen: Yes, agreed.
Eugene: And I think that’s just so important for us to just acknowledge that that could be a possibility in our own lives and that’s what’s happening in our current climate. Whether you affiliate with the left or right, politics have become the largest, most significant banner. So I approach this book, again, from the perspective as a follower of Jesus, acknowledging that even within the capital C Church, people have different views. I think it’s really important that we take Jesus’s two great commandments as the bookends that shape high view: to love God and to love people.
Eugene: I think those are our bookends, and on a regular basis, we should be mindful of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, that we should have a particular bent towards those who are vulnerable and marginalized in our society and community. Now, having said that, I think there’s also just common decency that may be spelled in scriptures, but I think just common decency about what it means to be a human being, to be able to listen, to be able to build bridges, to not be able to have stereotypes of other people. I love talking about those things because that can be spoken to everybody. It’s not an agenda on the left or right. I think we’ve lost the art of what it means to be human, to be decent, to be able to not just engage in civility, but to engage in the practice of neighborliness of empathy, and the list goes on. But as you noted, chapter number seven is a bit more specific about [this idea of] don’t lie, don’t get played, and don’t be manipulated or manipulate others.
Eugene: There’s been tons of research and statistics out there that every single human being now has the platform to become sort of a journalist, through our social media, through the news that we’re sharing with other people. And I think it’s really important for us when we’re unknowingly and, even worse, knowingly lying about certain things, because they fit and corroborate a certain agenda that we have.
When we only hang out with people that affirm our views, that simply pat [us on] the back, I think it’s a possibility that we’re part of a mechanism of being deceitful or not entirely truthful. And as a result, we’re manipulating, or being manipulated by others.
And then the other thing that I’ll say about this is: I’m going to be careful about the stereotype about media, but something has shifted historically. When you study Journalism 101, experts will tell you that journalism’s taken a major shift. Several decades ago, they were simply reporting the news. But now, not only are they reporting news, but they’re giving commentary on the news as well. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but we should be very, very clear what’s happening. There [is] news that’s being shared that has its own biases and its own lens, if you will. So that’s what I mean by, “We shouldn’t get played,” because I do believe that while I don’t want to vilify all politicians or all media, there is that conversation of reality.
Jen: I’ve done several episodes on this podcast about this exact thing, this idea of, “What does media literacy look like in our context right now, and how do we develop it and how do we steward it?” And it’s vitally important. And it’s interesting as I hear you talk, because it seems like as a Christian, if theology informs our politics, if that’s sort of our North star, then you can’t imagine a person who could just carte blanche follow either party. You’re going to end up at odds with something inside either space. So it’s a real eye opener for me when I feel this internal instinct to bundle it all and put a yes stamp on it. I feel that instinct to do it, because it lends credibility to some of the policies inside the way that I lean that matter so much to me. And so then, I’m tempted to just sort of sweep the other stuff into the bucket and say, “Well, I guess this is fine, too. I guess this is just the way we’re going to have to [have it].” It’s tempting.
Eugene: Yep. Yeah. And I think some would call that identity politics from a theological perspective. Maybe we call it intersectional theology. It’s very complex, but I think you nailed it,
Jen, to think that a party monopolizes the kingdom of God or the ethics of Jesus is blasphemous.
Eugene: We have to remind ourselves of that so that it extends perspective and grace as we engage with others. If I’m honest, yeah. I think I’m right.
Jen: Right, right.
Eugene: I think I’m right. But I have to remind myself that I don’t monopolize God’s truth, and it puts me into a bit more of a humble perspective as I engage these complex conversations.
Jen: That’s great. For everybody listening, let me just holler out a couple of the other ten commandments, so you can kind of see where Eugene is casting the line into the water.
-Thou shalt not go to bed with political parties,
-Thou shalt not be a jerk (Of course, the title),
-Thou shalt listen to build bridges,
-Thou shalt live out your convictions,
-Thou shalt pray, vote, and raise your voice.
It’s all really, really good, and I really appreciate your point that this is good civic engagement, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. And I think we need this leadership right now. I actually think we’re starving for it. I don’t ever have this conversation, ever, with any kind of leader or ordinary citizen or concerned voter, where they just think, This feels good. This feels like everything’s going well right now. I like this. I like how things look in the public square right now. I like the way that we are dialoguing.
I think we are all feeling these tremors, and we’re scanning around, looking for really strong leadership for a different way, for a better way. And I think you’re giving us this.
Jen: I want to ask you this. We all grew up—I think most of us did, I shouldn’t speak for everybody, but I know I did—with this idea that patriotism is a really important thing to have, that’s a very noble value of an American, but it seems like over the last few years, in some arenas for sure, that we’ve seen patriotism drift toward something different, something that takes on a form of isolationism and xenophobia. And it says, “You,” whoever you is. They can pick a group, [and say] “You do not belong here.” This has been part and parcel with this approach to the public square. So I would like for you to talk about what you see as the key difference between patriotism and nationalism. What are we dealing with here? How are these different or how should they be different?
Eugene: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I think it’s a conversation that people need to be having regularly, because as you noted, that almost in a seductive way, I think the last couple of decades, and especially in the last couple of years, we’ve seen patriotism drift into nationalism. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with patriotism. I think for myself, other than my story, I immigrated to this country when I was six years old. I’m the youngest of three sons. My parents were both born in North Korea. They were free because of the intervention of the U.S. government.
And so when I hear my parents talk about their love for this country, it’s pretty compelling. It always gets me emotional, and I’m patriotic as well. I owe a lot to this country. But I also know that like any country, there is no perfect country. And I think what concerns me in the shift from patriotism to nationalism is that we’re not so much saying, “Hey, there’s so much for us to be proud of,” but we’re utilizing fear-mongering, and I would say not honest in our truth telling about why we should be afraid of others: that people are taking our jobs, people are taking our benefits, people are taking our opportunities. And that’s just not reality.
Jen: That’s right. It’s not.
Eugene: It’s just not true. We’re taking a very small microcosm and then blowing that up to be the majority and reality.
I’ll give you another example. During the economic Wall Street crash of the past decade or so ago, we all know that bankers and banking institutions lied, they concealed, and yet it’s amazing to me that we don’t have a broad stroke accusation or stereotype about all bankers.
Jen: Good point.
Eugene: But when it comes to, let’s just say those who might abuse the food stamp system, truth telling is yes, there is a small percentage of people that have abused that system. But to make that very small percentage the wider majority is simply not true, and we can go on and on about other aspects of it as well.
I think when we venture into nationalism, it’s not just “America first,” but “America only.” That’s not who we are as a nation. That’s not why my parents and my family and I immigrated to this country, fell in love with this country. We still love this country. I would, again, accentuate how important it is that when we’re speaking about cultural Christianity, the danger of cultural Christianity is when we basically have our agenda and we pepper Jesus on top of it. The danger of it is that it doesn’t produce disciples of Christ. We’re producing cultural Christians that are more enamored of building up, propping up the kingdom of America.
Eugene: Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., speaks so eloquently and prophetically about the kingdom of America that we’ve been seduced by. That’s the difference, I think, between patriotism and nationalism.
Jen: That’s a great description. And sometimes can be difficult to discern. The line right there can get hazy, and I appreciate that differentiation, because one criticism that I hear a lot is, “Well, how do you hate America?” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not it at all.” I put these in different camps. Being proud to be an American or grateful for this country is not the same thing as elevating our country to the detriment of every other one. I appreciate you saying that.
I’ve seen you ask other Christians this particular question, “Have you ever had conversations with people who have voted differently than you?” Why is that important to ask? Why are you doing that?
Eugene: Well, I think if we’re honest— and I know that this is part of my confession as well—whether we know it or not, slowly but surely we end up gathering ourselves with people that look like us, think like us, feel like us, worship like us, and certainly even vote like us. And I think when Jesus says to love your neighbor, obviously as Christians, we know this to be an incredibly important part of our identity as followers of Jesus. But I think we just have to pause for a moment and just say, “Is it possible that, for us, loving our neighbors means that we’re loving those that just look like us and think like us and feel like us and worship like us and vote like us?” The latter portion, “voting like us,” has become like another litmus test about who gets to be with us and who we get to hang out with.
So as a result, we’re developing these echo chambers, that I know that you and your listeners are familiar with, that are affirming everything that we believe in. And as a result, we take very complex conversations, painful conversations, nuanced conversations, and we’re having conversations about these things and we don’t know people that have very different views about these things. Whether they’re conversations about refugees, immigration, DACA young adults, LGBT+ issues, militarism, police enforcement, Black Lives Matter. These are all really important conversations, but we actually don’t know anyone from another perspective, from that side.
There’s this initiative called Make America Dinner Again. I write about it in the book, and it was started by two Asian Americans in the Bay area, and they were distraught after the last election. As they were reflecting upon what just transpired in the elections, they realized—and this is, I think, self-awareness and maturity—they didn’t know a single person that would’ve voted differently than they did. And so as a result, they decided to host a dinner, they shared their story and said, “Hey, we don’t want this to be a place of shouting or finger pointing or accusation. We just want to have a meal together and speak about these very things.” As a result, they did this initiative called Make America Dinner Again, MADA, it’s become a global wide movement.
Jen: That’s great.
Eugene: I went to one here in Seattle. It might not change our views, but I think it has the possibility of making us more human, more civil, more empathetic. I think we’re so enamored with shouting and screaming our views and convictions, but I think we also need to take some time to learn to listen as well.
Jen: I want to talk a little bit more about that, because as mentioned, politics are nuanced because people are nuanced, and our experiences are so varied.
So here’s my question to you, and this is a really complicated. I don’t know how you’re going to answer. I don’t know how I would answer this. How do we manage to prop open the conversation long enough—to keep to your earlier point, the dinner table open long enough, to pull up seats around the table—as listeners who are capable of conversation and maturity, who are capable of listening. What do we do inside of those spaces with the very real reality that some of the things that we disagree on, some of the viewpoints that we see differently, are to the harm of people?
At the end of a particular policy or ideology is a person who is going to be harmed or kept out or maligned or dehumanized in some way. Thus, what we have in the middle of the table is, for what I see, and this is not in every case, a lot of our policy differences are fiscal. We think about governing the world differently. But some of them, at the core, is injustice, and it’s a humanity issue. How do we keep dialogue open but keep justice at the forefront where it matters? Does this make sense?
Eugene: It does. It does make sense. And you’re right, it is a hard question, but I think it’s also a simple question, and let me explain.
Eugene: I almost think that you answered the question. I think we need to be able to call a spade a spade. We ought to be able to identify something that is unjust, that harms other people, and call it for what it is. I think that’s really important in our world today, where things become a bit more nebulous and amorphous. It’s not just merely interpretation. When real human beings created in the image of God are being harmed, then I think we have to at least identify it and call it and grieve for that injustice.
Jen: I know you’ve spoken about this at lengths, I’ve heard you speak about this, that for us as Christians, we should all have a pro-life ethic from womb to tomb, and there’s a level of consistency that we should strive to embody in our lives. Now, having said that, I think we can still call injustice for what it is, and then I think there’s still opportunities within that to pursue and to contend, to shape policies, to shape specifics of those policies. Even though it might feel like, Man, this is so hard and challenging, [what is] your whole point about what it means to listen and to engage?
Eugene: Well, politics, I think even though it can get messy, it involves relationships, so we have to keep building relationships with people, and it’s not a one-time decision, it’s ongoing. Governance never ends. And so when we shut the door, we demonize someone else and say, “I’ll never speak with you.” Well, the reality is, there’s more governance and more policies that will be shaped, and it changes year to year, administration to administration. So I would be very careful. That’s what I’ve learned, that I have to be careful not to bash someone to the point that I’m no longer willing to have a conversation with that person again.
But I think the art of listening, which I’ve alluded to earlier in the conversation, really is so important. I’ll just share a story about a policy that I’ve had a change of heart with. Here in Seattle, our minimum wage is fifteen dollars an hour, and depending on where you live in the country, that might seem like a lot, but as a child of parents who ran small businesses, when this thing came up, I thought this was crazy, that this would destroy small businesses. I was very against minimum wage increasing to fifteen dollars, and was actually really strongly against it.
I was surprised how visceral my reaction was, because I thought of my parents and how they would struggle with that.
But as I spent more time intentionally building relationships with people that are living paycheck to paycheck, week to week, at best month to month, and seeing what they go through in Seattle, a city that’s very expensive to live in. I realized that to be for one at the detriment of thousands and thousands of people that I would say are people struggling with issues of poverty, it really changed my heart and perspective. And I realize that this has got to be something that has to be a nationwide policy if we care, as Christians, about the poor among us as well.
Another story is every year I go to Nebraska. It’s kind of a crazy story, but I go to Nebraska every year for about two weeks, and I go there to fish, to rest, to read and pray. But what’s been a surprise in those trips to Nebraska is that I’ve met Nebraskans in a small town of 200-300 people, and I’ve gotten to know people, their stories. I’ve had meals with them, and I’ve had conversations that I would never, ever have here in Seattle, Washington.
Eugene: And I realized that a lot of what they say, if I didn’t know where they live, or the color of their skin or whatever it might be, it sounds eerily familiar with people of color in urban settings that feel like they’re forgotten in our culture and society. I’m not suggesting that this solves all the ailments of our world, but I do think that there are spaces and places where we can build bridges and say, “How can we work together?” And that’s good governance and good politics.
Jen: That’s a great example.
Jen: Jen: So let’s just put it right on the nose. What do you say to the person who believes Christians should only and always vote one party, and they believe it strongly? Like, it’s shocking to them that there could be another path.
Eugene: Well, I would gently and pastorally say that that’s a dangerous, idolatrous, false binary perspective. No one party monopolizes the kingdom of God. I don’t know how more clearly I can say that, because parties also change as well.
Jen: That’s true.
Eugene: Positions of politicians change as well. We know this, because history has shown how much parties have changed, how views of politicians have changed.
Growing up, I became a Christian at the age of eighteen, and when it came to politics, I was told basically two things about politics: don’t talk about it and vote Republican.
Jen: Right, same.
Eugene: Those are the two things that I was told. I have a friend who pastors a church in the South, and his story is comical because he heard the exact same things, but he was told that good Christians, his identity, [revolve around] three things. You’re Southern, you’re Christian, and you’re Republican.
Eugene: And almost kind of in that order. So obviously, I think there is some danger to that thought now, simultaneously in our world today. Living in Seattle—often known for its progressive bent—eerily, I hear the opposite thing. If you’re a Christian, you have to vote Democrat, and there’s just no room, no space for Christians who struggle with their conscience that might vote a different direction. My whole thing is this: yes, no one party monopolizes the kingdom of God. But I think our two party system, it’s sick. It’s failed in some way.
We actually need our Republican party to get healthier, and we need our Democrats to get healthier as well. If I became emperor of the United States, what I would do is for one month, I would order the two respective parties to say nothing bad about the other party, and just spend the month doing a lot of self-reflection of their own parties, where they stand and where they need to grow, and to become more honest and more genuine and more mindful of their convictions.
Jen: I just couldn’t agree more. I have a list a mile long of wishes and dreams and hopes for the political system we have, and ways in which it is corrupt from top to bottom and broken and toxic everywhere, from one edge of the left to the far edge of the right. And I think it’s an honest assessment to say that. It’s an honest place to sit inside of our political system and say, “This part is broken, this is unhealthy.” The way in which we operate has created some real unhealthiness in our country.
What about the opposite? For a ton of us, we’re super dialed into politics. We can barely get away from it. We’ve gotten notifications on our phones and we’re following the accounts and the news all the time. We’re tethered. But there is an opposite possibility where some people who are Christians step away entirely and say things, “We’re in the world. We’re not of the world.” So what would you say to the Christians specifically, but also maybe just the citizen who says, “Politics just don’t matter. They don’t matter and therefore I’m just going to turn my back on them.”
Eugene: Yeah. Sadly, I meet both Christians and citizens who have that posture. They’re exhausted. Some of them have grown cynical, some of them have grown incredibly weary. And I get that. We live in a culture right now where the inundation of all things news and notifications and cable news and our tablets and technology, it can be overbearing. And I would just say one thing, that I think we have to—no matter where you kind of land on the spectrum of engagement—learn how to engage in self-care, to pause and breathe and learn what it means to process things.
But to your question about those who think that politics doesn’t matter, this grieves me tremendously. Particularly when they say that we should only focus on spiritual things.
Eugene: As if politics isn’t part of the larger arena by which God can orchestrate things for His glory and the honor. And so this is what I would say: politics matter because politics inform policies that impact real human people created in the image of God.
Jen: Yep. That’s it.
Eugene: Every single human being is created in the image of God. And if we dabble in politics, we’ll know that there’s so much advocacy or lobbying that goes on. This is the reason why companies hire lobbyists and spend millions upon millions of dollars. And so in the whole political process, it’s not a surprise that those who are vulnerable, those who might be poor, those who might be hungry, those who might be forgotten or marginalized, are often ignored in our political process and system. While Christians have made mistakes over the years, there’s also stories of how Christians, informed by their faith, were part of the abolition movement…
Eugene: …who were fighting for the eradication and abolition of slavery, who were part of the suffrage movement. I’m inspired by those stories. People who said, “My faith in Christ compels me to engage and to advocate and to contend and fight for my neighbors who are often forgotten or overseen in the system.”
Jen: That’s great. That’s just so perfectly succinct. So at the end of the day, tell it to us straight, how do you believe the Christian voter, or just a citizen, should navigate the 2020 U.S. presidential election?
Eugene: [mimics doom-filled music]
Jen: Hot take coming in.
Eugene: You have to cue some dramatic music in the background.
Eugene: Here’s what I’ll say. I want to first take a little bit of a step back, and then I’ll answer your question.
Eugene: I’m really concerned, because relationships, friendships, communities are being broken as a result of political views.
Jen: That’s real.
Eugene: People in churches are splitting over these things, and it just grieves me tremendously. I don’t want to diminish the pain that people have, the feelings of being so overwhelmed and distraught by political views and policies about both sides. What I will say is this: I want to remind people of the Eucharist table, when we gather together as the church, the commune table is just the most scandalous, most compelling image that I can think of. We don’t have a line for the left, a line for the right, and then a gluten free line for our centrists and independents. The table of Jesus Christ welcomes all. It is just something that we have to be reminded of in the middle of a crazy election cycle, and what I think will continue to be crazy for elections to come. That kind of anchors us a little bit. Now to your question, I’ve made a covenant a just to myself as a pastor, never to tell people how or who they should vote for.
Eugene: And I’m going to stick to that. But what I do want to tell people is a couple of things. One is that the night before the elections and the morning of the elections, part of my process is to pray. But I also read the sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.
Jen: That’s good. That’s great.
Eugene: It just anchors me. It anchors me about who I am, who I belong to, and who I serve.
Jen: That’s great.
Eugene: I acknowledge that as a broken person, I’m a resurrection person living in a broken Friday world, and that just because of the election, not everything is going to be fixed. So I want to be mindful of the two great commandments, to love God and love people. Now, having said that, I do think that while I can’t tell people who they should vote for, I do tell people, “Hey, we shouldn’t vote for someone that exhibits a lack of integrity, is deceitful, is demonizing, is bullying.” The list goes on and, and people can interpret that how they want to, but I think it’s important for us to, again, remind ourselves, “Let’s be informed, voter convictions, but always remember, let’s not allow our politics to shape our theology. Let’s allow our theology, our Christology, our convictions in the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ, let that be that which informs our views.”
Last thing that I would just say is I know that I’m going to get pushback from both sides on this, but I think it’s important for us to remind ourselves of the sovereignty of God. I’m not suggesting that the brokenness of our world is God’s will. That’s not what I’m saying, but I do believe that God’s still in control. We have to breathe a little bit and just remind ourselves that as we engage the political process that we’re not canceling out people and eliminating relationships with people that disagree with us, that as we contend for our convictions that we still believe that God’s in control.
Jen: That’s great. I love that. Another thing that serves me, when the rhetoric feels chaotic and polarized and everything is such a high level and a high volume, is to go kind of low and near. Like where do I live? Who is my neighbor? What is happening right here, in the real life of people in front of me? Because there’s one version of our culture online and in the news, and then I experience a different version almost entirely in my real life. These two things do not match in volume. They do not match in constant intensity, in cancel culture—it just feels like real life has a lot more room for humanity.
I love taking a little advice from Mr. Rogers. There’s that very famous quote of his, that when something disastrous would happen, something his parents couldn’t explain, when something felt really sad or scary or broken, his mother would always tell him, “Look for the helpers.” Right? You can always find people who are helping. And there’s just such good news inside of that, and there’s such dignity inside of it, and there’s a sense of hope and even optimism, if we could be that naive to say the word optimism this year.
You’ve been a pastor for years, and you stepped away last year. Was it last year that you stepped down?
Jen: I’d love to hear you talk about that a little bit. You’ve been a pastor for a really long time, and this feels like pastoral advice to me. How would you pastors here, just as normal people, I mean, most of us are not pundits. We are not elected officials. Most of us are just kind of in the realm of ordinary citizenry. So how do we help? How do we stay grounded? How do we make a difference where we live, in our neighborhoods, and why does that also matter? That’s also a bit of an antidote to some of the just fury and fever that has seemingly infected our country.
Eugene: Yeah. I love this question. I love how you articulated the question. I think in some ways, there’s a few things that you shared that answers the question. We can be obsessed about the 35,000, 40,000 foot level. We’re just bantering away at our screens on blogs, on social media. And yet, if it doesn’t impact the way that we live our lives, it doesn’t compel us to cross the street, to love our neighbors, to get to know our neighbors. And this whole thing about loving your neighbors is such an abstract thing if you don’t even know your neighbors. I think the reality is that many of us are living in bubbles, where we don’t know our neighbors. We don’t know the issues that are in front of us, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and such. That when we say we care about justice and injustice, we don’t necessarily engage in issues that, again, are impacting our very cities.
So that’s the first thing that I would say, we have to make that commitment. And if we reduce our civic engagement to a vote every two to four years, I’ll just say it bluntly, even if it hurts, we’re actually part of the problem in this country.
Jen: That’s fair.
Eugene: I hope that people would take that to heart. And again, it doesn’t mean that we can do everything, but we can all do something. It’s our PTA, it’s advocating for issues, for those who have disability issues, it’s homelessness, it’s hunger issues in our very cities. It’s amazing that we live in a country where forty million people experience hunger, right? And that’s happening in our neighborhoods. The list goes on and on.
Jen: It does.
Eugene: But the quote that you mentioned, I love that quote from Fred Rogers. I also feel like sometimes people misuse it or maybe misquote it. Because I get it, we have to look for the helpers, because that will give us encouragement and a sense of optimism. And at some point, my encouragement to people is stop looking for the helpers and be the helpers. We’ve got to be the people that are out and about engaging in these things.
And here’s the thing that I hope people would also walk away encouraged by, is that it might not hit the news. It might not make it on cable news, but I just come across so many people that are doing this very thing. It inspires me so much.
Jen: Me too.
Eugene: Citizens, followers of Jesus, people that may have left the church, people that just really care about their fellow human beings. We hear a lot of this fear-mongering and feverish news, and this is not to diminish the reality of some difficult things, difficult realities going on, but let’s also be mindful that there are so many people doing beautiful things out of their desire to love God and love people.
Jen: That’s so right. It’s so true.
Jen: Before we wrap it up here, I’ve got a couple of quick questions for you, but I would just love to hear you talk for a minute about what you’re doing right now, because you’ve made a pretty tectonic shift in your work and how you were living out your ministry. Can you talk a little bit about where you’ve come from and stepping away from the church last year and what you’re doing now?
Eugene: Yeah. So my wife and I planted a church called Quest Church about eighteen years ago. It’s a very special church. We love the church, but after eighteen years, we felt like it was time to step aside, let younger leadership emerge into the church. And it sounds really morbid and ominous and I know that we’re not old by any means, but she turned fifty last year, I’m turning fifty this year, and we just felt like, “Hey, in our next eighteen years, God, how might You be calling us to utilize our time and our gifts for You?”
As a result, two things came to mind. One is that I wanted to encourage pastors and missionaries and nonprofit leaders in this country and around the world. And so even though I don’t pastor a local church, I still feel like I’m pastoring. This past year, this is not what I imagined, but I’ve made an agreement for one year to help out at Willow Creek Church as they’ve gone through their difficult times.
I’m there once a month helping out, speaking on the weekends. But it’s really about encouraging and trying to support leaders around the world.
But the second thing is just wanting to double down on my convictions about advocating and contending, preaching, encouraging issues around poverty. To come alongside those who experience this reality, whether it’s domestically or internationally. Right now I do that through One Day’s Wages. I know that you’re familiar with it, but for those that might not be, it’s just a small grassroots movement where we’re trying to inspire people to give up a day of their wages at least once a year, and we use all of those resources to help fund collaborative partnerships around the world.
Jen: That’s great.
Eugene: But it’s also spending a lot of time in D.C. It’s not a lot of time, but I made a few trips out to D.C. speaking about the things that we spoke about today, about advocating for policies that impact real human people, to try to dignify and humanize people created in God’s image that are struggling and suffering.
Jen: That’s great. That’s such good work. I’m really proud of you.
Okay. Well, here’s the wrap up questions. We’re asking everybody in this series these kind of quick, top of your head questions. Here’s the first one, there’s probably a lot of answers, so you can just pick one.
Jen: Who’s one of the biggest mentors in the faith for you?
Eugene: Passed away or still alive?
Eugene: Oh gosh. I can’t do one. But let me give you a couple. Obviously, MLK is one. But Brian Stevenson, in today’s context, I wish he’d run for president.
Jen: Oh, so special.
Eugene: I would be all behind him.
But I want to mention one more, because I think it’s so important, and I mention this in the book, but I have been so inspired by a Korean woman who passed away at the age of seventeen in the early 1900s. Her name is Yu Gwan-sun . And I know that your listeners and hardly anybody in this country will know who she is, but she was a follower of Jesus who became an activist against Japanese oppression and occupation during that time. And this movement began because of a sixteen year old girl who had the audacity and the courage to step up. Sadly, she was taken to prison, and she died there. But I’ve been really moved learning more about her story, and she happens to be a big hero in faith.
Jen: Thanks for sharing her name and her story and bringing that forward. I can’t wait to read more. Here’s the next one. If you had a moment to ask God something, do you have a question?
Eugene: Whew. I have a selfish question. Why couldn’t I have been taller in order to fulfill and pursue my NBA hoop dreams?
Eugene: It’s actually a serious question I think I would really ask. I’m a big basketball hoop lover, I’m an addict of basketball. I just wish I could be taller.
Jen: Yeah, so that’s aggravating, God. Like why didn’t He give us just the desires of our hearts?
Eugene: That’s right.
Jen: I mean, it’s so real. Here’s the last one. We actually ask every single guest in every single series this question to kind of wrap up the interview. It’s a Barbara Brown Taylor question, who I love, and you can answer it however you want. Big, small, important, not important. What is saving your life right now?
Eugene: Two things come to mind almost instantaneously. I’ve been married to my wife now for twenty-three years. This gives us great joy. I think having three kids, two in college and one that’s about to leave, and we’ll be empty nesting.
Eugene: Family has meant so much to us, and has given us so much life and joy, even in the midst of hard conversations and challenges.
And then the other thing that I would say is I’m an introvert, and I desperately need the outdoors to replenish me. I’ve learned out of just, I think, self-awareness, that I’m healthy when I’m outdoors a bit more.
Jen: That’s great.
Eugene: I love hiking, I love fishing. Fishing is one of my great passions. Those two things, my family and fishing, have been really saving graces for me.
Jen: That’s great. We’re in a real similar place to you. We’ve got two in college, we’ve got a senior, and then we’ve got two behind him. It went really fast, didn’t it?
Eugene: Oh, man.
Jen: I just look at them and go, “What just happened?”
Eugene: Too fast.
Jen: I mean, just blink. Too fast, too fast. It’s so emotional and so wonderful. And I’m with you in every front of that.
I want to thank you so much for coming on today, Eugene. I mean it. These are challenging and difficult questions. These are important, but sometimes harrowing conversations, and you are a very trustworthy leader through them. I say that with utter sincerity, and I really appreciate the way you approach this arena with such humility and with such a tender spirit, always with Jesus as the North star. That’s evident. It’s so clear, it’s so obvious.
Thank you for being the real deal, and for being who you are in public and private, all the same, and for the steady sort of faithful consistency that you have had all these years. It matters. And it means a lot to me, so thank you just for being who you are, but definitely for coming on the show today.
Eugene: Well, Jen, thank you. Those words are really encouraging. They mean a lot, and I’m really grateful to be able to spend some time with you, and grateful that we get to seek to love God and love people in the same season of life together.
Jen: Me too. Me too. Lucky us. Thank you for coming on today.
Eugene: All right, thank you.
Jen: What a great guy, you guys. What a great pastor. What a great leader. He has born a faithful witness for a really long time and I’m so happy that he said yes to this series.
So my hypothesis is that when talking about politics from the position of being a Christian, that at some point, that conversation is going to make you prickle, wherever it is. And that to me probably means it’s a good conversation, that there are places where I think probably every one of us can do some deep work, where we have overly attached to a political ideology or we have looked the other way when we should have stood up, even inside of our camp, and said no or said yes, whatever the thing is. I notice the places where it rubs on me a little bit, and I’m like, Oh yep. I can see some spots there, where I still have work to do.
So if you were challenged at all by that conversation, I say, “Yay.” I say, “Good.” That means you’re listening and you’re paying attention. And I think that’s just kind of the hard work of the Christian citizen right now in this world gone mad, right?
More to come in this series. More leadership, more ministry, more influence, more challenging conversations. My brain has been buzzing putting this entire series together, and I’m glad you keep listening. Go back and listen to the ones you’ve missed, if you haven’t caught them all. Every one of them has been thought provoking and challenging.
Thank you for being a great, great listening community. We are so grateful for you. If you haven’t already, go ahead and subscribe. Subscribe to the podcast and get it delivered to your phone every single week. You don’t have to do any work for it. Also, we thank you so much for all the times that you write and review our podcast. It’s just great for our show. It just kind of signals to the marketplace this is working and people are interested in this kind of content and keep it going. So thank you for doing that. We’re grateful.
Okay, everybody. On behalf of our producer, Laura, and her amazing staff, and Amanda and I who put this together week in and week out, thanks for being here and we will see you next week.