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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In today’s post, we’re going to look at chapters 30 and 31, which are all about violence and war. First, I’ll talk about the idea that violence always rebounds on itself and creates a destructive cycle rather than actually solving problems. Second, we’ll talk about the very unnatural fact that human beings are the only creatures on the planet who create weapons to kill each other with, and then we’ll end with a very blunt discussion of Lao Tzu’s point that war is simply murder and should not be glorified.
As we read, it’s important to keep in mind that this is about far more than big armies with thousands of soldiers being sent off to kill each other in the name of their causes. Violence occurs on all scales of human relationships, and it is not always physical. Verbal violence, systemic oppression, and demeaning and marginalizing people are all forms of violence, and we must remember that the ideal form of resistance for both Jesus and Lao Tzu is to defuse and reverse the cycle through a commitment to rugged and unwavering nonviolence.
Whoever relies on the Tao in governing men
doesn’t try to force issues
or defeat enemies by force of arms.
For every force there is a counterforce.
Violence, even well intentioned,
always rebounds upon oneself.
The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Violence rebounds on itself
The idea that we can stop so-called evil violence with a response of overpowering force for the so-called good is a complete fallacy. True, we might be able to put a temporary stop to the violence by a particular group of people in a particular context for a short amount of time, but it’s only a matter of time before they (or others) rise up to fight again or we eventually become just as oppressive in our own violence, because violence is a toxic and corrupting force. Christian nonviolent activist and author Greg Boyd wrote, “Any peace achieved by violence is a peace forever threatened by violence, thus ensuring that the bloody game will be perpetuated.” (The Myth of a Christian Nation) We mirror the violence that came before, and we almost always end up becoming the thing that we hate.
As an example, I live in the Middle East and am doing a Masters degree in Middle Eastern studies. Part of what I have learned is that much of the hatred of Western culture in general and specifically the United States comes in response to Western interference and historical violence in the region. Colonialism from hundreds of years ago right up until today, including things like meddling politically and sending military forces to liberate people from oppressive regimes, are always done with Western interests in mind. Even so-called liberation acts like the war to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq usually had American political interests in mind and not just purely the “good of the people” that was preached to us.
You can see the fruit of this when the next regime put in place, often with American support, ends up eventually becoming just as bad or even worse than the previous one. You can see it in the birth of terrorist groups who are totally reactionary against Western influence in the region, with battlecries of “Death to America” because, in their minds, America is the real terrorist organization - so their response is to lash out. Because violence begets violence. It doesn’t just rebound on itself, it creates a destructive cycle. Any "peace" achieved by violence is temporary. As the cycle continues, pressure builds up until another eruption of violence happens, which is then answered with more violence in turn, etc.
The Tao te Ching recognizes that military actions always leave behind a trail of destruction. Chapter 30 says (in three different translations):
In the places where armies march,
thorns and briars bloom and grow.
-Translator: J.H. McDonald
After each war, years of famine.
-Translators: Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo
An army on the move
leaves a trail of tears,
and a military victory
always lies in ruins.
-Translator: Ron Hogan
In his book A Farewell to Mars, Christian nonviolent activist Brian Zahnd wrote:
The road of “God is on our side, and he shall surely smite our enemies” is a wide road. A lot of parades have gone down that road. It doesn’t take much courage to travel that road; just fall in step and follow the crowd. A marching band is usually playing. But it’s also the road that leads to burned villages, bombed cities, and solemn processions of flag-draped coffins.
Author Oliver Benjamin says that we must be disgusted by violence, and not glorify it, but that this is incredibly difficult because war tends to bring out the uncompromising and idealistic values in everyone. Wartime rhetoric usually circles around lofty and abstract ideals like freedom, honor, and glory, so it’s amazing to note just how different Lao Tzu’s teaching is. Even for generals and leaders, he recommends making violence as an absolute last resort and to use the highest discretion and lowest possible amount of force to defend themselves.
Both Lao Tzu and Jesus recognized the destructive power of violence and war, but Jesus took the response a step further than even what we read in the Tao te Ching when he said that all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Shockingly, this was right after he told Peter to throw down the sword he had drawn to defend him from the soldiers who came to make the arrest. Jesus taught a way of profound nonviolence while still resisting the oppression of the system, which I have discussed in one of my most popular posts, On going the extra mile (and how it doesn’t mean what you think it means).
Nonviolence and nonviolent resistance are not passive, and they often cost us a lot, as demonstrated in the lives of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The difference is that nonviolence works from a position of seeking restoration and even reconstruction, whereas violence operates on destruction. According to Zahnd, “The road of nonviolent peacemaking is not an easy road, it’s not a popular road, and it’s certainly not a road for cowards.”
Let’s continue this train of thought as we look at chapter 31, which is even more direct about the way humans treat war.
Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.
Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn’t wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?
He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
The first half of chapter 31 pulls back the veil on just how unnatural and destructive it is that humans make weapons. Even though it is anachronistic to call Lao Tzu a pacifist, we see his ideal of nonviolence at its prime here.
I really like Joseph Owles’ translation of this chapter, which highlights not only that weapons are evil and destructive, but that they are totally unnatural. He writes:
What else in nature designs and uses weapons?
Everything else in nature finds weapons repugnant.
Everything else refuses to use them.
Those who live Tao refuse to use weapons,
Or even accept their use.
-Translator: Joseph Owles
Most people can agree that war is evil, and that weapons are not exactly “good” things even when they believe they are needed. But this doesn’t stop the fact that human civilization is founded on and sustained by violence - and this means war. Here’s another quote from Greg Boyd. I’m not sure of how accurate this historical statement is, but the principle is definitely true. He writes,
In all of recorded history, only a few decades have seen no major wars—and even during these times of relative peace, much local violence existed. Historians estimate that in the twentieth century alone over 200 million people died as a result of war and political conflict. The history of the world is a massive river of blood.
-Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation
All of human history has been an evolution of weapons and military technology getting bigger, stronger, and more destructive than the ones before. It’s no surprise that military development is always one of the most prioritized exploits of any nation. Somewhere around 54% of the US federal budget goes to military spending - and this is many decades after the atom bomb was invented. There are now enough nuclear weapons to literally destroy all of the landmass on the planet - yet we keep up the research and development.
Thousands of years ago, before even steel was invented, Lao Tzu said the wise person must reject the use of weapons. Yet here we are. We continue to develop more and more creative ways of killing each other, all in the name of various good causes. Ironically, one of our favorite causes to fight for is “freedom”.
Freedom or murder?
To quote Zahnd for a third time, “When your city is built on violence, freedom is just another word for killing your brother.” And human civilization, particularly Empire, is built on violence, something I have written about before in my series on Christian Anarchism.
In chapter 31, though, Lao Tzu does something totally profound and revolutionary. He humanizes the enemy and condemns those who would view battles and wars as things of glory. Lao Tzu says this about the wise general: “How could he rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men? He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.” (Stephen Mitchell)
Joseph Owles’ translation of this section is even more targeted directly at the reader:
Your enemies are not monsters!
They are human beings just like you!
Is it glorious to take the life of another human being?
Is there glory in war?
Anyone who would glorify war would glorify murder!
Because that is what war is!
Glorifying war is celebrating murder, plain and simple.
Tao can never be with anyone like that.
If you celebrate murder,
You will never get ahead in the world.
-Translator: Joseph Owles
War is not enough to solve our problems, and we need people who are willing to come up with bold and creative ways to challenge that ideology. We need people who are willing to identify violence at all levels - not just in matters of so-called national security. Lao Tzu is not just concerned with the military. As we’ve seen so many times, the entire Tao te Ching can be read as helping people live more at peace in all parts of their lives and with all the people around them. Back in chapter 10, we read this challenge:
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
Unfortunately, “letting things take their course” isn’t really the human way of doing things. We are masters of coercing everything - from ourselves to each other to nature itself - to do exactly what we want it to do, and we don’t often think about the fallout of our aggression. And even though today’s episode is focused specifically on war, a strong belief in nonviolence and a commitment to deconstructing the whole system of Empire has a way of changing our perspectives on everything - including our relationships with other people and the planet itself.
If we stay caught up in what feels like the “natural” way of thinking though - even though Lao Tzu says it is totally unnatural - then we will continue to rejoice in evil; but if we are willing to break out of the mold and live in tune with the Tao, then we will find ourselves slowly becoming the change we want to see in this world.