“Stay centered in the Tao.
When rich speculators prosper
while farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn—
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
As the protests and riots that swept the nation last summer got inevitably got caught and spun about in the current of the culture wars, the journalistic spotlight—or the eye of Sauron, depending on the media conglomerate—briefly settled on a new booked called In Defense of Looting. The Martin Luther King, Jr., quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard” zipped around social media. Activists insisted that liberalism is white supremacy. Looting, vandalism, and outright violence were ignored, downplayed, or excused by much of the mainstream media. Of course, this was prime rib red meat for the Right; you could not conjure superior images or themes to trigger the amygdala of the conservative brain than the chaotic scenes surrounding the BLM protests. The Democrats are lucky the optical fallout only cost them Florida, rather than the White House.
It is tempting to assume that Daoism is a natural ally of the Left, and at some level it is, but it’s complex. King also said “Every time there is a riot, George Wallace wins.” I recently taught his legendary “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he presents what you might call his practical philosophy of protest. He outlines four steps to a successful protest movement: 1) fact-finding to prove the presence of injustice, 2) negotiation with the opposition, 3) purification, and 4) nonviolent direct action.
The most important of these—and the most difficult—is the third step. It involves a kind of ascetic training in order to prepare your soul and body for verbal attacks and physical assaults, to purge yourself of all hatred and resentment of your oppressors, to cultivate compassion for them as human beings possessed by a hateful ideology—all in preparation to put one’s body on the line for the cause of justice. By absorbing the violence into yourself and letting go of the desire for revenge, you put an end to the samsaric cycle of violence and retribution. You have to be willing to let yourself be destroyed so that you do not destroy in kind. You have to, in short, “stay centered in the Dao.”
It may surprise to hear that St. Thomas Aquinas, the moral philosopher in chief of the Catholic church whose Natural Law theory informs much conservative thinking, agreed that poverty in a rich society was “robbery and chaos.” The poor man with a starving family who steals food when there is plenty to go around is not, strictly speaking, stealing; he is taking what he is owed. Private property rights are important but not absolute; they are subordinate to the right to the means to life, what Catholic social teaching calls the “universal destination of goods.” That doesn’t mean looting is legitimate, but it does mean that it is a symptom of a socioeconomic system out of balance.
King, of course, anchored his quest for social justice in the Christian tradition, but any tradition will do. If you don’t have a secure foothold in the “grounded position,” you’ll be in the “floating position,” easily knocked off balance, seized by passion, or swept up in the mob mentality. The more firmly you are rooted in the ground, the less you will need to push, and the more powerful your pushing will be. The less you divide the world into saints and sinners, winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed—the more you keep in view that you are part of a “seamless garment of destiny”—the more you will be able to reweave the social fabric, rather than tearing it even more.
“Stay centered in the Dao.” But lean to the left.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”