We all love the idea of changing the world for the better, until we understand the price of actually doing it.
I pray that doing good and fighting for justice never goes out of style. I pray that these virtues are somehow hardwired into the very fiber of our beings, rather than simply being byproducts of our wishful thinking projected onto fantastical costumed superheroes. But lately, doing good and fighting for justice seem to be the fashionable thing to do. No mask. No cape. No problem.
The heroes of the socially conscious world wear chic black-rimmed glasses from Warby Parker, artistically knitted hats from Krochet Kids, and stylish brown boots from TOMS, while drinking fair trade certified coffee, purchased at their local Trader Joe’s. And while these socially responsible brands mean well in empowering us, the consumers, to be heroes by doing good and feeling good while looking good, maybe that’s just the problem. It’s all so superficial; there has to be something more.
We’ve somehow allowed our clothes and purchases to do all the talking and fighting, while we sit on our reclaimed wooden chairs, in love with the idea of doing good, but not actually doing it ourselves. This seems to be the latest trend, a trend that Seattle Pastor Eugene Cho discusses in his book, “Overrated”.
We’ve somehow allowed our clothes and purchases to do all the talking and fighting.
Cho is no stranger to the movement for justice. As founder of One Day’s Wages, a nonprofit organization that has inspired people to donate a single day’s wages in order to help end global poverty, Cho highlights in his book some of the struggles, triumphs, and introspection that he and his family went through after donating their entire 2009 income ($68,000) and couch surfing at friends’ homes for a year.
The experience challenged him and he confesses: “I learned how much I needed to change. As I sought to do justice, God sought to change me.”
As I sought to do justice, God sought to change me.
Cho’s personal example of a family unit working together, sacrificing together, and being changed together is just one of many other collected stories from people who are equally as bold, radical, and inspirational. These stories leave us in an uncomfortable love-hate relationship with the book, because Cho forces us to look at ourselves in the mirror and expose the truth of our own selfishness.
Sure, we all love the idea of changing the world for the better, until we understand the price of actually doing it. This discomfort is a great thing and a much-needed thing. After all, there’s a cost to doing justice, to caring about what Jesus cared about. The cost? Ourselves.
We all love the idea of changing the world for the better, until we understand the price of actually doing it.
While Cho uses familiar language and catchphrases on justice that other pastors and Christian authors have used in their books, Cho’s book is compelling and refreshing because it is written as his own confession.
He reminds us that in doing justice, we have to first become just, lest we run the danger of focusing on a savior narrative of doing “good works” and making justice all about ourselves.
And thus, Cho doesn’t shy away from revealing his struggles with counting the cost and maintaining integrity while experiencing some of the hardest seasons in his life. He’ll be the first to point the finger back at himself and his culpability of being part of the problem.
The book’s strength lies in Cho’s careful deconstruction of our culture. Cho examines our generation of quitters, self-broadcasters, and hash-taggers, and calls instead for a generation of tenacious storytellers who actually live out the stories they tell and are willing to go deeper and find more effective solutions than merely buying things to “look good, feel good, do good”.
Go deeper and find more effective solutions than merely buying things to “look good, feel good, do good”.
While Cho masters the art of weaving stories, analysis, and reflections, perhaps the biggest letdown is Chapter 9. Cho writes about the “irony of doing justice unjustly” and sets up a strong argument with support for finding more effective ways to do mission trips and help the homeless.
During his discussion and critique of well-meaning brands and their business models, Cho compliments them on some of the changes these brands have made, but also doesn’t feel that they are “there” yet. While Cho challenges these brands to figure out ways to not do things “at the expense of those living in poverty”, he doesn’t provide a viable solution or suggestions of his own. This was a missed opportunity, especially because of his experiences in running an organization and partnering with various organizations and brands.
Eugene Cho’s “Overrated” is the much-needed book for our “Me Generation”. While the book has the potential to shake readers out of their complacency and can cause them to tweet about their introspection afterwards (there’s a chapter on that), Cho’s humor and humility will also lead readers to realize that they are not alone with this problem of “being more in love with the idea of changing the world ... than actually changing the world”.
This world needs help — heroes who are willing to take a stand and go do justly. Cho challenges us to go deeper than just looking like a hero and posting it on Instagram for the likes. We have to be the heroes by being just.
This world needs help — heroes who are willing to take a stand and go do justly.
GIO: In Chapter 2, you talked about doing justice as part of discipleship. “Justice involves people and their lives and their value before God.” But as I’m reading the book, I started to realize, maybe this is really a discipleship book in the guise of justice.
EUGENE:While I clearly talk about justice in the book, I really want people to acknowledge and realize that justice isn’t an isolated conversation. Justice is really a part of our discipleship and response to God. I also don’t want people to read this book and think that this is only for “justice-y people” or “social justice” or “Biblically justice-minded people”. There are things I talk about that should really impact and should speak to anyone that is still craving and wants to take their faith in Christ to heart, which is really a part of discipleship and following Jesus.
"Justice is really a part of our discipleship and response to God."
GIO: You shared about your family’s immigrant story in Chapter 5 and said, “It was hard being ridiculed, laughed at, and mocked.” How did your immigrant experience shape you into doing the kind of work you do today?
EUGENE:It absolutely impacted and influenced not just who I am, but as a result of who I am, it influenced how I want to live my life. I tend to really be mindful and sensitive to the other person, whether it’s someone that doesn’t necessarily fit, the homeless person, the quiet introverted person in church who has trouble fitting in, the person on the margin, the person sitting and eating alone in the cafeteria.
Being an immigrant, and always kind of being on the outside, has given me a desire to advocate, which I think is a huge part of what it means to live justly. It’s also helped me become a little more empathetic and sensitive. One of the descriptions of a good pastor is a shepherd, someone who is seeking to protect and care. It essentially helped me to develop that portion of empathy.
GIO: In Chapter 9, you spend some time creating the argument and connecting consumerism and humanitarian work, but when it comes to the well-meaning businesses that do that kind of stuff, you only spend three pages. You critique them, but never really give them suggestions on how to improve. What do you recommend businesses with this kind of model do to ensure that they don’t do things at the expense of those living in poverty?
EUGENE:That’s a very fair critique. The book is far from perfect and that would have been one of my critiques. It’s easy to deconstruct things, and it’s a lot harder to create a better story and better solution. If there’s a sequel to “Overrated”, I would go into that.
Storytelling is important. A lot of social entrepreneurs are telling a better story of what we can do about doing good and feeling good. I would say it’s not just telling a good story, but telling a good, honest story. I think honesty will help us in the long haul.
Storytelling is important. I would say it’s not just telling a good story, but telling a good, honest story.
I mention TOMS shoes in the book. I don’t want to be unfair to TOMS, but they really were aware of themselves and their practices early on — just dropping shoes and taking good photographs with smiling kids in the long run isn’t going to make a dramatic impact. They were bringing in shoes from China and destroying the local economic ecosystem. How can local shoe sellers compete with free shoes? They can’t.
I just saw yesterday from TOMS that they manufactured their 30 millionth shoe from Kenya. Which means that they were employing local Kenyans and contributing to the local economy as well. And that’s the dramatic difference between building shoes from the outside on the cheap and bringing them in and doing it locally [which requires] having more awareness of who you are engaging with in the local market.
The phrase is “doing good, looking good, feeling good”. I get it. I’d rather we pursue those things than other things. But how do we do that? I don’t have all the answers, but what I can contribute is to inform and encourage you and ask you to go deeper into asking questions. How do we do it in such a way that honors the dignity of the people we are seeking to serve and help, as well as bringing a deeper education to those who are purchasing those goods.
GIO: In the last chapter, you reminded people to not reduce others to projects. As Christians, we often endanger ourselves in thinking, “I’m not going to help the homeless or this country because it’s a project.” In short-term missionary work, people are just in and out and never really get a chance to hear and experience the stories of the people they’re helping. Are short-term missions a bad thing for churches today?
EUGENE:I wouldn’t say it’s a yes or no thing. It’s not as simplistic as you want it to be. There are a lot of nuances here. It takes a lot of prayer and humility and discernment and requires for us to be really mindful of the local context we’re trying to serve.
Sometimes what irks and disgusts me is when we make something up to be like, “Hey we’re going to go here and save this village in two weeks, and change the world, and it’s going to be amazing!” Not to say that amazing things can’t happen. But I think we have to call it for what it is. We need to say “Hey, we’re going to go here because we need to have our world blown up, we need to have a deeper vision, we have things to learn.” While we may be serving in some way, there’s a posture of humility. That’s number one. I think at our church it’s called a short-term “vision” trip. It gives it a different lens.
We need to say “Hey, we’re going to go here because we need to have our world blown up, we need to have a deeper vision, we have things to learn.”
The second thing I would say is because it’s been going on for so long, money and economics really skew the perspective. If people can act a certain way, they know they can solicit donations or get churches to sponsor them. We need to be careful in how we go about that because money can do strange things to people we’re seeking to serve, and to us as well. We need to step back a bit and acknowledge that we are inadvertently creating unhealthy, very dependent situations, where we again paint ourselves as heroes coming in, when we can’t build deeper relationships.