The Tao of Politics

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The Way of Politics, Chapter Five

This column originally appeared as part of the Way of Politics series for the Democracy Cell Project, an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) created by former members of Kerry-Edwards 2004 blog team. The Way of Politics attempted to explore the intersection of religion, spirituality, and politics from a contemporary Deistic or secular and spiritual perspective.

In the Fifth Chapter of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse offers his thoughts on an old controversy that has been receiving renewed attention as of late.

The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.

Never has the sage's wisdom in this verse been more pertinent than in our era of sacred madness. For while President Bush is apt to describe the terrorists as “evildoers”, we do well to remember that they see themselves as holy warriors striking a blow against the imagined enemy of God. They expect their ultimate end to be an eternity in Paradise, not the Inferno.

This same President views himself as having an intimate connection with his Heavenly Father. He views this bond as being so up-close-and-personal that he relied on it (according to Bob Woodward) when deciding upon a course of action in Iraq – eschewing more experienced counsel, including that of his earthly Father, the only other American leader to seriously contemplate the removal of Saddam Hussein. Yet, despite this alleged relationship, others around the world, and even here in his own country, have come to view him as the embodiment of a malevolent spirit.

And speaking of evil and infernos, can anyone deny that the Bush Administration's botched occupation plan for Iraq has brought its people a living hell – through a daily diet of car bombings and other suicidal acts?

As has so often been the case in human experience, have “good” intentions given birth to evil?

Should religious piety be considered a credible substitute for critical thinking?

And can a man or woman who refuses to admit their mistakes, when the fate of billons of people is at stake, still be described as "good"?

With his next verse in Chapter Five, Lao Tse offers his advice on the proper attitude of spiritual teachers.

The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

Lao Tse's observation here mirrors Jesus' example, set forth in the Gospels, where Christ scandalized both the Pharisees and his disciples by welcoming “sinners”. Lao Tse's and Jesus' shared approach strike me as eminently sensible. Who else but “sinners” are most in need of a teacher? Certainly not the self-righteous, whose minds are so securely defended by notions of “moral clarity” that they cannot allow the entry of a single challenging thought.

Moreover, the idea of welcoming implies an attitude of authentic hospitality, fairness, and equal protection under cosmic law. Contrast this attitude with that of the inhospitality increasingly advocated by adherents of so many fear- and rule-based religious sects, who today seek to impose their authority on entire nations, and eventually the world.

With the next verse of Chapter Five, Lao Tse turns his attention to the crucial difference between authentic spiritual activity and empty words.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it,
the less you understand.

Hence, the Tao, or the “the way”, as it is translated from the Chinese, is ultimately a path of effective spiritual action, of emotional and intellectual accommodation to the demands of the living moment. It is reality-based spiritual activism that transforms the world through luminous example, not compulsion or fear. It is decidedly not a path of tortured ideologies, empty political spin, and philosophical discussions whose intent is not mutual enlightenment, but conversion.

Lao Tse concludes this chapter with this advice:

Hold on to the center.

In my view, Lao Tse is here reminding us that the ultimate answer to so many of our vexing questions will inevitably be found in the center – in the human center, at the core of our common humanity, and in the healing of the human heart and psyche. While in contact with this shared center of truly timeless values and curative emotion, no man or woman could ever contemplate crashing an airliner into a skyscraper filled with innocent civilians, or launching an ego-driven war of liberation in the hope of initiating a “New American Century”. Those kinds of thoughts are, at least as seen from my window on human consciousness, proof positive that one has truly lost “the way” – and instead found oneself in the grip of a deadly form of collective insanity.

This translation of the Tao Te Ching is by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988. It is available in paperpack editions from Harper Perennial Classics (ISBN: 0060812451) and Harper Perennial Persona (ISBN: 0060812451).

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2005. All rights reserved.
Originally published on June 26, 2005, as part of The Way of Politics series.