Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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Today we’re going to be exploring chapter 46, which takes up the theme of contentment and discontentment from the last two chapters but frames it in the context of the nations and their military expansion. We’ll start with the nations, then we’ll move to the personal level as we explore discontentment as the source of so much evil in the world. Finally, we’ll move back up the scale to ask the big question: what does it mean to change the world - or is that even possible?
(You will notice I use “Empire” a lot in this article to refer to the abstract, enduring reality of empires in the cycle of history. For more information on why I use it in reference to the United States, check out part one of my five part series on Christian Anarchism.)
A tale of two horses
When the world follows the Tao,
horses run free to fertilize the fields.
When the world does not follow the Tao,
war horses are bred outside the cities.
There is no greater transgression
than condoning people’s selfish desires,
no greater disaster than being discontent,
and no greater retribution than for greed.
Whoever knows contentment will be at peace forever.
The first part of chapter 46 presents a beautiful vision of what it looks like for the world to live in harmony with the Tao. Lao Tzu uses a stark contrast with the way things really are to envision a better reality. Like any parable-teller, he makes his point by using a vivid image from daily life (or at least his daily life): the behavior of horses. A world in touch with Tao incorporates them into agriculture; a world out of touch with Tao uses them as weapons of war.
The problem is that anyone hearing these words would instinctively recognize that, generally speaking, the “horses” in the world are not running free. They are almost exclusively being bred for war - especially when it comes to Empire. David Jones has a creative paraphrase that reframes this paragraph in more relatable terms, helping us identify at least one possibility of what we might call the “horses” of today’s world.
The country that lives outside of The Way,
hooks their horses to chariots.
The country that lives inside The Way
hooks their horses to plows.
When the world is in harmony with The Way,
factories make clothes and cars.
When the world is out of harmony with The Way,
factories make bombs and bullets.
To be honest, I don’t think Lao Tzu’s vision is really possible in a broken world. The fact is that the world has lost touch with the Way, and no human effort can ever fully restore that. However, even if this chapter can’t give us an action plan on how to fix the world, I do think it gives us powerful instruction on how to interpret the world.
Although the passages on leadership in the Tao te Ching certainly envision a “better” form of national leadership - one in which there are less wars and political strife - I firmly believe that the ideal kingdom in touch with the Tao, or “Christian nation”, if you will, is an oxymoron. The world is broken, and empires will do what Empire always does: through military and economic strength and coercion, they will flex their power and influence to grow their control as much as possible until, inevitably, they collapse - only to be replaced by another Empire as the cycle of history repeats itself.
With all of that said, I of course believe there are better and worse kinds of Empire. I’d rather live in the United States - even with all her problems - than in Nero’s Rome, Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Russia. The problem is when we start talking in terms of the empire being “in touch with the Tao” or “following God”, because we run the risk of trying to make the kingdoms of this world look like the Kingdom of God, which is, again, an oxymoron (again, check out that link above to my series on Christian Anarchism to find out why I think so).
Sadly, the world will continue the way it always has. Like it or not, horses will keep being hooked to chariots; military spending will continue growing as each country tries to stay ahead in the race to defend itself and inevitably declare war on others. The US military budget will continue to take up 65% of the national budget (as of 2019) or more (the numbers aren’t going down - it was only 54% in 2015). It is a system based on fear, coercion, and threats, and it cannot be reconciled with either the Tao or the Way of Christ.
Discontent: the heart of the issue
The second half of chapter 46 circles back around to the topic of discontentment, which we talked about in detail last week. In three different parallel lines, Lao Tzu identifies unhealthy desires and discontent - which are intimately linked - as the greatest sins. Although the information here isn’t necessarily new to us, it’s interesting to put it in the context of Empire. Lao Tzu rightly identifies that unmoderated desires and greed are at the very core of the broken human condition. Given the context, it is clear that this message goes well beyond just the level of individuals - it is a societal issue. War and imperial dominance are, at their core, all about the hunger for more.
In other words, Empire is built on greed and discontent - both of which are manifestations of mismanaged/unbalanced desires. Even though the second paragraph of the chapter feels like a significant break from the last one, both of them are connected by this central idea:
No guilt is greater than giving in to desire,
No disaster is greater than discontent,
No crime is more grievous than the desire for gain.
Therefore, contentment that derives
from knowing when to be content
is eternal contentment.
We don’t have the option to change Empire. Empire will always do what Empire does. What we do have is the option to work on our own inner disposition. We may not be able to get rid of the war horses, but maybe hooking our own horses to plows will set an example.
We can pursue contentment by becoming aware of the unmoderated desires in our hearts and then healthily dealing with them. This contentment is part of growing in spiritual health and wholeness, and it is contagious. We can make a difference about, in Marshall Davis’s words, the disaster of desire, the poverty of greed, and the curse of endless discontent by spreading this contagious contentment.
There is no greater poverty than greed.
There is no greater disaster than desire.
There is no greater curse than wanting more.
The greatest peace is perfect contentment.
Or as Ron Hogan writes,
If you know when enough is enough,
you will always have enough.
So what are we to do about all of this? It’s easy to identify the problem and just point it out - our world is very good at that. Just scroll quickly through your Facebook or Twitter feed if you need a reminder of just how easy it is to call out societal problems. Whether it is labeling an organization, a religious group, a political party, or even an entire country, it’s not hard to point the finger at a picture of an abstract group, especially when we make caricatures or selectively portray the collective in the way that we want to.
Now, I think it’s incredibly important to identify and name systemic and collective sins. But finding solutions or positive steps forward is difficult; and actually working to implement them is even harder. Still, I think there is hope. In this beautiful passage, CS Lewis identifies a core problem in his own unique style that both convicts the reader and contains an action plan. Lewis wrote:
“Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Lewis’s words imply that the solution is not just a tempering of our desires, but a reorienting of them. There is a desire for which humanity was made and in which humanity can find ultimate fulfillment: connection with God, union with the Tao (God’s original intention for our existence).
One of the biggest parts of the problem - and therefore, part of the solution - is awareness. In his paraphrase, David Jones’s plays with Lao Tzu’s idea that greed and desire are really nothing more than poverty, disaster, and curse. Although he strays from the original chapter quite a bit, he offers an implicit commentary that is deeply revealing.
Be aware of your poverty, the door to the kingdom of God will open before you.
Be aware of your hunger, then you can be filled.
Be aware of your grief, then you can be comforted.
If you are blind to your poverty, you will lose all.
If you are blind to your need, you will end up desolate.
If you are blind to your sorrow, you will end up shattered.
Ask, and you will receive, but be careful,
sometimes what you want is far from what you need.
Seek, and you will find, but be careful,
sometimes when you’re seeking,
your quest might take you far from the familiar.
Knock, and the door will be opened,
just make sure you are at the right location.
Do not always assume you know what’s best
in your asking, seeking, and knocking.
Align with The Way, and your choices will become clear.
Contentment in the Kingdom of God is not about getting what we want - or at least what we think we want. Despite what I’ve said in the past, the solution to discontent isn’t only moderating our desires or getting rid of certain ones altogether. Although this is the ultimate goal, one of the most important parts of the process is becoming aware of them. When we are aware of our desires, we can put them in their proper place. Lao Tzu says that greed and unmoderated desire lead only to poverty and sorrow and a false sense of needing more things. Jones builds on this: if we are blind to that poverty, sorrow, and need, then we end up losing everything, becoming desolate and even shattered by the force of our own desires. But if we become aware of our poverty, our hunger, and even our grief, then we can find fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.
Changing the world?
So how does this all relate back to the nations and empires of this world? Can dealing with our own discontent really fix the problems of nations fueled by human greed? John Lennon thought so. In the famous chorus to his song “Imagine”, he sang,
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one
Christians have often done the same. Some think that by enacting more policies in line with what they consider to be the teachings of the Bible, we can somehow achieve the fantasy called a Christian nation. Others, like Grammy winning gospel artist Israel Houghton, have equally ambitious dreams, although they picture a more organic, bottom-up change rather than the top-down change of the Religious Right. Houghton’s song The Power of One says,
What if it all depended on me
To change the world?
What if my only responsibility was
To change the world?
Let me be the one to start a revolution
Let me sing my song to the people of the world
It all begins with one, the power of one
Joining the hundreds of millions of people believing
In one, the power of one
Don't hang around, stand up or sit down and believe
We can change the world together
But can we really change the world? I guess we have to clarify what we mean by that. Of course, every action we take changes the world, since we are part of it, and whether the butterfly effect is true or not, our actions and lives have consequences that impact the world around us - for better or for worse. The lives of holy individuals and grassroots movements can definitely impact the lives of so many others around them - even if they’re dismissed as nothing more than dreamers.
But can we change “the world” - that is, the systems of brokenness that exist in a world populated by broken humanity and filled with unspeakable evil? When the apostle Paul wrote about “the world”, this is what he was referring to. Powers and principalities, he said, both spiritual and national. The world, as Paul would call it, is fueled by greed, just like the “nations” in chapter 46 of the Tao te Ching. And as I’ve said already, I don’t think we can ever change that. No matter how much power we acquire, we can’t change it, because power corrupts. No matter how much contentment, peace, and spiritual wholeness we find and share with those around us, we also cannot change it - because it is not our task to fix what Paul calls the world.
We can be lights in the world. We can be channels of the Tao, becoming more and more connected with the image of God in which we were created. We can stand in the face of great evil and even overcome it on a profound level when we follow Christ into the valley of the shadow of death. But what we cannot do is reverse the cycle.
I recognize this sounds incredibly cynical, pessimistic, and even depressing - but that is only because it flies in the face of everything we have been taught to believe. But I don’t think it’s depressing. In fact, I think it’s liberating. There is no pressure on me or the Church to rid the world of evil - an impossible task for anyone but God. If we are able to collectively release that burden, then we will be freed up to do exactly what we are meant to do: by being presences of peace, overflowing with the joy of contentment, and passionately committed to engaging the broken spaces that are set right in front of us, we can change the lives of those around us, we can shine light in broken places, and in that sense, we can indeed change the world.