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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After last week’s opaque and enigmatic discussion of the Tao (which makes one, then two, then three, then the 10,000 things), chapter 42 takes a rather dramatic turn and gives us a relatively practical look at the characteristics of a leader. The vision Lao Tzu sets up here is incredibly Christlike; Jesus’ image of servant leadership and humble acceptance of lowly status is right in line with these words from the Tao te Ching.
People despise being orphaned, widowed and poor.
But the noble ones take these as their titles.
In losing, much is gained,
and in gaining, much is lost.
What others teach I too will teach:
“The strong and violent will not die a natural death.”
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
Basically, there are three main points here:
Leaders that truly deserve honor are those who not only take a humble view of themselves, but offer that humility to those around them.
What the world views as gain is actually often a loss of something vital.
Violence always rebounds upon itself. As Jesus said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
First, Lao Tzu gives us three qualities that he says people “despise” to take for themselves. The paradox is that these are exactly the kinds of things that good leaders identify with. In the McDonald’s translation, the qualities are interpreted as being orphaned, widowed, and poor. Whether or not these are literally true for the leader, these three examples are more about the spirit behind those descriptive words rather than actually losing your parents or spouse or living in poverty.
To that end, various translators use different words to interpret the three qualities. I compared a huge amount of translations to compile as close to a comprehensive list as possible. For the word “orphaned”, other translators use words like powerless, alone, or abandoned. For “widowed”, they say things like insignificant, destitute, bereft, lonely, undeserving, or desolate. And for “poor”, different versions say worthless, unworthy, hapless, hungry, ill-fated, or disrespected.
Just like Jesus...
Jesus set an amazing example of identifying with the orphaned, the widowed, and the poor - both literally and figuratively. Not only was he born as a poor man from an unwed woman in a backwater town in a neglected corner of the world, but he spent most of his ministry speaking to, identifying with, and standing up for the poor and the oppressed. Beyond that, he chose to identify himself primarily in the categories of the powerless, rather than the rich and famous. In Matthew 8, Jesus basically calls himself a homeless man:
Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:19-20)
Just a few chapters later, in Matthew 12, he says something that would have been absolutely shocking in his Middle-Eastern culture, a place where (even to this day) family is everything. But Jesus downplays the importance of his family in order to emphasize just how connected he is with those who choose to follow God with him.
Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:47-50)
Now, I think we can assume that Jesus wasn’t actually insulting or rejecting his family. I don’t necessarily think he was trying to say that his mother and siblings were not doing the will of the Father; but he uses hyperbole to make a radical point. He would rather be considered an orphan to his blood relatives if it meant being able to be “family” with those who have chosen to be in the Kingdom of God.
Later on, in Matthew 20, Jesus makes another amazingly counter-cultural statement by redefining true leadership as service rather than hierarchy. This is one of my favorite passages in the entire Bible, and it is one of the foundational texts for my beliefs in nonviolence and the subversive, countercultural, counterpolitical nature of the Kingdom of God (which you can read about in my five-part series on Christian Anarchism).
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
In John chapter 13, Jesus puts this teaching into action. He takes on the role of a poor servant, even though he was the leader of the group. In this famous event, Jesus brings his humility to the next level by washing his disciples feet. Then, in a way very similar to Lao Tzu, he told his disciples that this is what true leadership looks like:
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (John 13:14-15)
Of course, this goes well beyond just foot-washing. Just a few chapters earlier, when he was sharing with his disciples on the very same night he washed their feet, he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) This is what good leaders do.
Violence rebounds on itself
The final line of chapter 42 tells us that a violent man will die a violent death (more literally, a violent man does not get to choose his own manner of death). There are so many different translations of this line, because the language is a little bit obscure, but most of them center around this idea of violence rebounding on itself, that responding appropriately to violence will eventually allow it to run its own course and bring its own consequences back on the violent person.
This was central to the teachings of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies rather than fight them. This was an unbelievably controversial statement to poor Jews in a world where enemy number one was the oppressive, violent, colonizing Roman Empire. Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek and going the extra mile are not passive submissions to violence; they are radical and even subversive ways of allowing the violent system to rebound back on itself. (Even though it’s beyond the purposes of this piece, those links lead to articles I wrote expanding these ideas in those passages.)
Finally, in a tragically beautiful moment on the night before his death, Jesus said something almost identical to what Lao Tzu says in this chapter.
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:50-52)
Surrender leads to success - wu wei leadership
For Lao Tzu and (in many ways) for Jesus, true leadership is mostly wu wei - acting without action/attachments. It is being willing to go with the flow and, in the times we do need to take strong action, being sensitive to the right time and way in which to do so. Oliver Benjamin puts a new spin on wu wei in his translation of chapter 43:
Of course, this can be very difficult to understand—
How it is that surrender can lead to success.
-Translator: Oliver Benjamin
This idea of surrender leading to success is beautiful, but it also requires us to stop and seriously reevaluate what we mean by success (which shouldn’t be too surprising at this point in the series). What does success really look like? As we’ll see next week, it isn’t about fame, wealth, or even our own reputation. It’s about something much more fundamental, much more satisfying, and much more full of positive and infectious vibes: getting in touch with our true, untarnished nature - or as Christians would say, becoming reconnected with the image of God in which we were created by joining our lives to Christ as the image of God made flesh.
However, even as we reevaluate what success means, we also have to figure out what surrender means - otherwise it would be easy to misuse Benjamin’s words. Although Benjamin chose to translate this line as “surrender leads to success”, Stefan Stenudd uses the word “passivity”. Ironically, Stenudd says that passivity is not surrender - and my guess is that Benjamin might say surrender is not passivity. It’s very hard to find appropriate words to put to concepts like this, because many times the English translations of the words Lao Tzu uses are loaded with contextual baggage and negative connotations. This passage from Stenudd’s commentary really clears it up and gives a great angle on wu wei.
The passivity Lao Tzu speaks of is not surrender, but the patience to wait for the outcome. One should show trust in Tao, the Way, and how it governs the universe towards harmony. In many cases, what we perceive as problems demanding our attention are merely phases on the way to a good outcome, in no need of our meddling. How can we be sure of contributing, when we don't even know what will happen by itself?
Certainly, there can be situations when we do need to take action, and quickly, for example to save lives or to avoid disaster. Lao Tzu doesn't deny it, but he doubts that such occasions should excuse our interference when not necessary or called for.
Discernment - Christian wu wei?
Although these concepts sound totally foreign, many times they are almost identical with what Christians call “discernment”. Discernment has a lot of meanings, but it is usually taken to mean knowing the right action to take, at the right time, and in the right way. All three of these are essential. If we know the thing to do, but do it at the wrong time or in the wrong way, then the results can be disastrous.
For example, when there is a conflict, sometimes patiently waiting for the right time to confront the other person is the best thing we can do. We may find a more opportune moment where they are more receptive to the challenge, or they may find themselves convicted to make things right all on their own, or we might even end up discovering new information that shows we misunderstood the conflict to begin with. Now, of course there are times where we really do need to confront the other person immediately, so if used the wrong way, this teaching could lead to forcing people to suppress their emotions and sweep things under the rug in an unhealthy way. Therefore, being truly open to discernment also means considering if taking action is required without waiting any more. This kind of discernment is very much wu wei. Although it is a form of surrender or even passivity, it is definitely not lazy, careless, or apathetic.
I want to close with one of my favorite passages from the New Testament: the so-called “Christ hymn” from Philippians chapter two. This is one of the most important Christological passages in the Bible. Scholars generally agree that it seems to be a poem, and it may very well have been one of the earliest songs sung by Jesus followers. This is fitting, because here we have a picture of Jesus as the ultimate self-sacrificing leader, who gave up even his own position in heaven in order to step down to our level, to be with us, to show us what God looked like, and ultimately to invite us into participation in the divine love. To steal Benjamin’s phrase, Jesus’s surrender truly did lead to success.
Just like the “teaching without words” from chapter 43, it is Christ’s example - and not his words - that are used here as the ultimate teaching device. The Church is told to be just like Christ in Philippians chapter two, and I can’t think of a better chapter to show how both Christ and Lao Tzu had some very similar ideas about leadership.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)