A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapter 3 — The Upside-down Kingdom

A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching: Chapter 3 — The Upside-down Kingdom

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February 23, 2020

About six months ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but 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 the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching itself, and quotes from other TTC readers about how the book has influenced them.

So please check out the podcast — and don't forget to subscribe and share. Our world is so over-saturated with content that it's incredibly difficult to get the message out when you are starting from scratch. Leaving a review on Apple podcasts and sharing the show is the best thing you can do to help support me. If you love the content, please consider becoming part of the community by supporting CRTTC on Patreon.

Read the previous articles in this series here: 

Series Introduction 

Chapter 1: What’s in a Name?

Chapter 2: Non-dualistic thinking and wu wei


Chapter three of the Tao te Ching is sort of an expansion of the previous chapter. Chapter two introduced us to non-dualistic thinking and wu wei, or actionless action (check out the previous post for more on that) in relation to individual lives. In this chapter, those two topics are broadened and applied to society as a whole. Basically, there are two main topics:

1. What do we value as a society?

2. What does an ideal leader look like?

Many authors have talked about how, when Jesus came to preach the Kingdom of God, it was an upside-down Kingdom. The last are first, and the first are last. The poor are blessed, and the rich are cast down. The outcasts are brought in, and the wealthy, privileged, spiritually elite insiders who kept those outcasts on the outside are put up on display as examples of what not to be like. We’re not to work and strive for more, we’re actually just told to take each day as it comes, to live simply, and to entrust all things to God. We’re not to build our own kingdoms, but to give it all up for the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is upside down, and so is the value system of chapter three of the Tao te Ching. There are so many parallels between them, so let’s jump right in.

If you overesteem great men,

people become powerless.

If you overvalue possessions,

people begin to steal.

 

The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds

and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition

and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.

 

Practice not-doing,

and everything will fall into place.

—translator: Stephen Mitchell

Rethinking “success”

The first stanza of four lines speaks to the idea of what we value. If we overvalue possessions, privilege, or powerful people, then we create a system of envy — where jealousy rises up and people begin to view other people as competition, leading to envy, greed, theft, and violence. The TTC calls us to rethink what we value — and how much value we put on it.

If you overly esteem talented individuals,

people will become overly competitive.

—translator: J. H. MacDonald

It’s pretty obvious here. When we put so much value on the talented, the achievers, the powerful, the “successful,” then we create an environment of competition and antagonism. Ironically, the glorification of “success” doesn’t really make society better — it creates a toxic environment where everyone views themselves as competitors for a prize that only a few can achieve.

Just take a look at social media. How many people are trying to post the perfect selfie of themselves on the perfect vacation with their perfect friends and family, sipping the perfect latte, wearing the perfect outfit, with the perfect filter that highlights their glamor and hides their flaws? How much happiness do you think actually comes from this exhibitionism?

True, there is some real joy in sharing great experiences with people you know but can’t stay in regular contact with. As someone who has friends and family in two very different parts of the country and now lives overseas, I get that. But are all of our posts really about that, or are we just desperately trying to prove to others that we are “valuable” because we are “successful?”

Look at it from the other side: how often do you think people are made to feel inferior by looking at those posts? I can tell you, before I started thinking critically about this, there were plenty of times where I would look at these “perfect people’s” lives and feel like my life was kind of crappy because I definitely wasn’t thriving like them. But one day I realized: this isn’t really their life, it’s just the picture-perfect parts of their life that they put online.

All of this goes beyond feelings of inferiority. This distorted value system in our consumer-obsessed culture fuels huge amounts of greed and envy. We don’t just think less of ourselves when we see those pictures, we want what they have… well, at least what we think they have. And it starts to consume us, but we start realizing we can never compare to what they have because, again, we’re not seeing what they really have. We’re not seeing the ugly sides of their life in the same way we see our own. This is why Mitchell’s translation says that people become “powerless” when we put too much value on perfection and “success.”

But it goes even deeper. The spiral of inferiority, greed, and envy that comes from overvaluing perfection inevitably leads to becoming judgmental. For some strange reason, when we feel like they’re just too perfect and we could never be like them, we start judging them. Isn’t it strange how people seem to deeply resent people who they feel are too perfect? How we love to sit around and gossip about how much they annoy us on any number of levels? And even if we don’t say it out loud… well, I’m not sure about you, but in the past I’ve found myself being really "judge-y" towards people for no other reason than that they just seemed too good to be true.

Again, all of this ugliness is the only logical conclusion to a worldview based on competition and antagonism. What starts as an innocent desire to better ourselves by comparing ourselves to other, “successful” people inevitably kicks off a cycle of toxic thoughts and behaviors. The Tao te Ching says we need to take a step back and think about how we think, or evaluate how we evaluate people. If we ignore the ugly side of it because we want to think better of ourselves, then it’s only going to grow like a cancer.

Jesus was absolutely radical in his day. He showed up in a context where there was a massive gap between the rich and the poor, one that makes our modern American wealth gap look miniscule in comparison. And he started preaching,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth."

I’m not sure how Jesus would rephrase this in 21st century culture. But I think Eugene Peterson was really onto something in his paraphrase translation of these verses. He wrote,

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are — no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought."

Where is our treasure?

The third and fourth lines continue this theme of rethinking what we value, only now we are talking about possessions rather than people.

If you overvalue possessions,

people begin to steal.

—translator: Stephen Mitchell

 

Don’t treasure rare objects,

And no one will steal.

Don’t display what people desire,

And their hearts will not be disturbed.

—translators: Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo

Take a trip to your local mall and think about that. Or if you don’t have the time, just turn on the TV and check out some of the commercials. Or if both of those are too old fashioned for you, just scroll through any website and see the number of ads that some algorithm has calculated by scanning your search history and listening through your phone to find the perfect things to tempt you.

It’s true, most of us probably aren’t out there “stealing” things — but as that second translation says, I would say for most of us, our hearts are being “disturbed” on some level. Every time another ad catches our eye, we become a little bit more discontent with what we already have. And unless we have incredible willpower, I think we tend to find ourselves spending more money than we should on products, physical or electronic, that we don’t really need. As Ron Hogan paraphrases,

If you give things too much value,

you’re going to get ripped off.

Shakespeare said, “the eye is the window to the soul.” I’m not sure if he was riffing off of Jesus, but his words sound pretty similar. Jesus said, “Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!”

The verse that comes right before these is much more famous, probably because it’s much easier to quote: “Where your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”

The ideal leader

In the second half of the chapter, we are told about the ideal leader, which in this part of the TTC is referring to a ruler or governor, but I think we can also apply it to people in any position of authority within any community — even if it is just an unspoken “leader,” someone who people look to as an example. And even if you’re not in leadership in that way, I think you will find yourself being viewed as a “leader” if you break away from the norm and follow this pattern.

Humanity has always worked by creating in-groups and out-groups, by defining us-against-them. It seems we can’t really know who we are unless we know who we are not. So many times, friendships are built on just scapegoating another person. How many times have you seen people who don’t get along come together when a greater “enemy” threatens their group? We might have nothing in common, but if we can find a mutual dislike to talk smack about, then we’ll find ourselves building a “friendship,” even though it’s not a real, true friendship. I talk about all of this in my post “Enemies Make the Best Friends."

The ideal leader models what it looks like to live humbly and selflessly, “emptying people’s minds and filling their cores,” or, as one paraphrase edition puts it, “clearing the crap out of their heads and opening their hearts.” The wise person undoes all of this scapegoating and blame-casting. He or she challenges the way the world values people and possessions and leads people into a different way of living.

The Master leads

by emptying people’s minds

and filling their cores,

by weakening their ambition

and toughening their resolve.

He helps people lose everything

they know, everything they desire,

and creates confusion

in those who think that they know.

Practice not-doing,

and everything will fall into place.

—translator: Stephen Mitchell

Marshall Davis brilliantly translates this chapter to demonstrate just how similar it is to the character of Jesus:

Christ leads by having nothing,

emptying minds of desires,

feeding the hungry,

weakening worldly ambitions,

and strengthening the spirit.

He calls people to give up everything,

to live simply and free from the desires of the eyes,

the lusts of the flesh,

and the pride of the mind.

Do nothing by your own strength,

and God will accomplish all things.

—Marshall Davis, The Tao of Christ

So, to put it simply, a good leader — or honestly, just a good person — is one who challenges it all and calls us to us rethink what we value and how much value we are placing on it. She invites us to rethink the way we value success that leads to insecurity and makes us envious and judgmental. He calls us to reconsider how we value possessions to the point that we are filled with greed and hunger for more and more. In other words, the wise leader pulls back the curtain on what Jesus and Paul both call the World and then shows us how much of a lie it really is.

As the Tao Te Ching counsels, we need only reorient our attitude so that we place less emphasis on “attraction” (in every possible meaning of the word). By ceasing to play into the hands of an overly competitive and seductive culture, finding beauty and delight in simple things, and avoiding the urge to show off or feel jealous when faced with other show-offs, we can avoid not only hurting ourselves, but also, hurting each other. After all, hurt and care are like ripples in a pond — the more we give out of either, the more they will spread throughout the populace. This is more than just a fancy metaphysical notion, after all — science supports the notion that our attitudes affect our environment more than we could have ever imagined. Thus, maintaining the right attitude will make the world a far better place. Oliver Benjamin

 

Listen to episode four of the podcast below or on the author’s website:

 

 

Corey Farr is a graduate of Northern Seminary. He is currently located in the Middle East in Lebanon, a tiny country next to war-torn Syria, where he lives and works onsite at a residential facility and elementary school for both Syrian and Lebanese orphans and children at risk. A singer-songwriter and wannabe author, Corey blogs about faith, spirituality, poetry, and (of course) the Tao te Ching at www.coreyfarr.com, where this article originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

 

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