Violence and Contemplation by Ed Burns

In a passage that appears in the book of the prophet Habakkuk, the author speaks very clearly and in contemporary terms about violence, the violence being experienced and suffered by certain segments of the Israelites at the time:

O Lord, how long will I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me: strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack, and justice never prevails (Hab. 1:2–3).

We can readily read these words about violence in the context of our own time and experience. Violence—severe and death dealing—is a part of our contemporary global scene and seems to be increasingly so. Yet violence has been, sad to say, a destructive element of our world since time immemorial. The Old and New Testaments are filled with stories of violence. Saint Paul himself, by his own admission, was a violent man before his conversion. The crucifixion of Jesus was just one of many thousands of acts of brutal violence that were all too commonplace before and after the death of Christ.

What are we to make of all this violence and brutality and destruction that we continue to encounter every day in our headlines and on our TV screens? Will it ever end, or is violence, like the poor, something we will always have with us?

I don’t know if we will always have violence with us, or if it will ever end. But if it ever is to end, I do know—or at least I am convinced—of something that must happen. We must learn to regain an essential element of our humanity that seems to have been lost, or if not completely lost, then surely something we seem to be losing. This is the practice of contemplation. If contemplation is too strong or misleading a word, perhaps we could call it the practice of quiet, concentrated prayer and reflection. Putting it even more simply: We need time to think!

Can such concentrated prayer and reflection bring about an end to global violence? Probably not. But can it bring about greater healing and less anger and violence to our own personal lives and relationships? Likely yes. In fact, that is the first place, and perhaps the only place, where we can begin to seek an end to global conflict and violence. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Perhaps, even better, let it begin with me being at peace with God and with myself. If any one of us can get to that point, we will be making a real, effective, and invaluable contribution to the peace that God wishes upon all of humankind.

Let me quote a brief but very insightful and critically important observation that theologian and author John S. Dunne makes in one of his books, Love’s Mind: An Essay on Contemplative Life, something he describes as “the missing dimension in American life”: 

Of the three lives, or dimensions of life, that Aristotle speaks of, enjoyment and action and contemplation, the one that is largely missing for us is the contemplative life. We have the life of action and the life of enjoyment, but that of contemplation leaves an empty place in our lives and tends to be filled by violence. A city of action and enjoyment without contemplation is a violent city.

For myself, these words have a ring of authenticity. We surely have more than our share of action today—so much activity, in fact, that we appear to be fast becoming a nation of frantic worker bees (those, that is, who are able to find employment). Everything I read and hear about regarding our current working habits seems to point in the same direction: We are working more—and faster—now and enjoying it less, and we are exhausting ourselves in the process.

As for enjoyment, we certainly have every form of entertainment imaginable and readily available to us. From sports to rock concerts, to video games, to reality TV, to NASCAR races, to—you name it. However, the important question is whether these activities satisfy the deep needs of the soul and bring healing to our spirits, or whether they simply distract us. My own observation is that they mainly distract us. This frantic pace of American life too often adds up to one big distraction, a distraction from what someone once described as “that dreaded, uneaseful inward look.”

Let us suppose, however, that we pursued that “inward look” more persistently. What would we be likely to find? I suspect that with some time and patience and perseverance, we would find something like what Habakkuk calls a “vision”: 

I will keep watch, to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said, “Write this vision . . . For there is still a vision for the appointed time. It speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it: it will surely come” (Hab. 2:1–3).

In the Gospel of Luke (17:5), the apostles approach Jesus and in a clear and straightforward manner plead with him: Increase our faith! How refreshing to hear such a straightforward request. And Jesus reciprocates in kind: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you’” (17:6). I think this was Jesus’s way of telling us that genuine faith will help us to get at the root of the things that we struggle with and wonder about in our daily lives, including matters such as violence. Genuine faith gives us a perspective. It helps us to clarify for ourselves who we are, what we truly want, what will really satisfy us, where we are headed. In other words, genuine faith gives us a vision—one that, like that described by the prophet Habakkuk, will surely come; if it seems to tarry, wait for it. This vision of faith may be slow in formulating itself for us, or within us, but it will not be denied. It will establish us on a rock-solid footing in a shaky world.

It is important for us to be able to hear ourselves think, and in moments of quiet and prayer and reflection, to discover more clearly who we are and in what direction we are going or ought to be going. It is also important for us to realize that we are not left alone and confused to flounder about by ourselves. In fact, we have been told who we are. God has revealed not only himself to us, but he has revealed us to ourselves: “Behold the manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are” (1 John 3:1). To know this about God and ourselves is to have faith, to have vision, to have a perspective on ourselves and on our place in the world, and a direction to our lives.

“A city of action and enjoyment without contemplation is a violent city,” says John S. Dunne. Our culture, certainly our Western culture, seems to be bearing this out. We are increasingly a culture given to action and enjoyment—but also a culture of violence, “a culture of death,” as Pope John Paul II once characterized it.

What can save us from this increasing violence is the vision, the perspective that our faith provides for us, regarding ourselves and the culture that surrounds us. Our faith enables us to see God in the world as it is, with all of its violence and destructiveness. It enables us to realize and recognize that because our God is in the world as it is, there is already more goodness in our world than evil, more goodness in human beings than evil, more goodness in ourselves than evil.

It is this vision, ever so slow to realize itself among us, that the prophet Habakkuk promises will surely come. It is a vision that will enable us to hold onto our souls and our very selves in the midst of uncertainty and turmoil. It is a vision, a perspective, a faith, that helps us appreciate what Jesus meant when he said, “In the world you will have affliction, but take courage, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Ed Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families.


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