- William Sloan Coffin, Jr.
Citation: Lederach, John Paul. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford, MA: Oxford University Press. 2005.
A Portrait of the Artist: Exploring the Creative Act of Peacebuilding
John Paul Lederach's The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace is a tour-de-force — it challenges, it engages, and most importantly, it inspires its readers to celebrate the creative act of peacebuilding (its art and soul). Lederach makes his purpose very clear from the early pages of this work and offers his readers a new way to understand conflict spaces and relationships. The Moral Imagination should not be read as a guide on how the creative act manifests itself, nor on how we, as peacebuilders, solve violent conflicts. This would be counterintuitive to Lederach's logic. Likewise, my detailing each chapter here would obscure the holistic nature of the manuscript. Lederach invites his audience to participate in the creative act by reading The Moral Imagination and challenges them to reawaken their own senses in the process. Lederach engages his readers in an inspiring discussion of life's beauty and the power of art to re-imagine complex situations. This being said, for some, The Moral Imagination is far too abstract and far too reliant on the same poetic prose that so deeply guides its implicit logic. But, for me at least, this criticism seems to be missing the point. Lederach attempts to capture the wonder of human relationships and the complexity of conflict situations, and paints a truly compelling and inspiring portrait of what the world is and what the field of Conflict Analysis & Resolution (CAR) can become. But before I go any further, I would like to briefly touch on literary history, namely Modernism, whose influence is undeniably present in The Moral Imagination.
A Brief History
In the late 19th century, a profound shift in thought and expression occurred, first visible through Freudian psychology, but later echoed within the literary movement known as Modernism. Many followers of the new movement expressed a fascination with the same deep realms of subjectivity and unconscious thought. Also during this period, the form of the novel was deconstructed and rebuilt as something entirely unique and original. Narrative began exploring the unconscious patterns of human thought and behavior and themes of fragmentation, isolation, and chaos became the undying problem in need of a solution. Bearing this in mind, the creative act of writing became the method for treating this ageless epidemic. In other words, the process of creating art, by way of the novel, served as an antidote to soften the chaos of the world through the aesthetic capacity of language. Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man captures this theme perhaps better than any other work, and ultimately, celebrates the birth of the artist and his pursuit of the creative act — the act that ferociously expresses the essence of life.
At the core of Lederach's The Moral Imagination, specifically his section "On Aesthetics: The Art of Social Change," is a beating pulse so closely kin to the Modernist movement, that it almost reads like an applied practice. Lederach even invokes Modernist poet, W.B. Yeats, as the muse for his chapter "On Space: Life in the Web," emphasizing the connection between his purpose and Modernist thought ("the falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart"). Like the Modernists, Lederach teases out themes of chaos and complexity, but through the new lens of CAR. He later echoes Joyce when he says, "[w]e need to envision ourselves as artists." This claim is central to the right of passage catalogued by Joyce's Portrait; similarly, it is central to Lederach's The Moral Imagination. But, if everything does in fact fall apart and "our social realities splinter into a thousand pieces," what, in Lederach's mind, is the role of the artist in re-assembling these pieces? Moreover, why does the author choose the metaphor of the artist?
The following passage highlights why Lederach believes the CAR peacebuilder, as the artist, is an appropriate analogy:
I fear we [peacebuilders] see ourselves to be — and have therefore become — more technicians than artists. By virtue of this shift of perception our approaches have become too cookie-cutter-like, too reliant on what proper technique suggests as a frame of reference, and as a result our processes are too rigid and fragile.
For Lederach, the "pursuit of the creative act" has not been properly considered in the CAR field. As technicians, not artists, the approach and diagnosis of complexity has become second nature; and due to this rigidity, the sense of humanness is lost. For Lederach, the humanness, and all of its mystery and complexity, is where the beauty and insight lies. This is where his discussion of the moral imagination truly begins. The author defends the use of this phrase (the moral imagination) through a comprehensive review of other literature that has similarly emphasized a need for the creative act.
Unpacking the Moral Imagination
The discussion around the moral imagination implies a few things immediately relevant for the CAR field:
- The word imagination emphasizes the necessity of the creative act within the field of CAR.
- This term implies a transcendence that takes place when the artist gives birth to something that does not exist (she or he re-imagines a landscape beyond the narrow confines of a conflict space).
- In reference to the CAR field, the moral imagination "has the capacity to imagine and generate constructive responses and initiatives that...transcend and ultimately break the grips of those destructive patterns and cycles."
His very rhetoric is pregnant with passion and hope. If the field of CAR, as Johan Galtung says, is "the art of the impossible," then being deeply immersed in this art, as a way of achieving social change, is the role of the artist. She or he must embrace the beautiful paradoxes that characterize our field. These complexities should not be an insurmountable chore but rather a work of passion for the peacebuilder.
Moreover, the artist must provide insight of a conflict situation that does not initially meet the eye; she or he must capture the "heart's core" as Picasso's Guernica captures chaos of war, as Keats' poetry captures beauty; and use this insight to change conflict dynamics. By using this metaphor, Lederach does not infer that CAR practitioners should practice reductionism; rather they should synthesize the art and soul of a conflict through aesthetics. Thus, CAR practitioners should seek a higher state of clarity, an epiphany, or an insight within conflict situations. The author likens aesthetics to "finding the elegant beauty of simplicity." This logic emphasizes the power of an image, a word, or a musical peak to inspire and move "individuals and whole societies." Consider the beautiful symbolism of a painting; imagine the triumphant swell of a classic song; remember a moment of transcendence where emotion is no longer restrained by any rational notion of time and space. According to Lederach, through the artist's intuition, similar moments of insight are possible in conflict situations. The author firmly believes in the role of intuition in the field of peacebuilding. Strikingly for Lederach, the moment of deep insight is not realized through cognitive analysis, but rather, through aesthetics (the way art speaks to us). Moreover, the philosophy of aesthetics is deeply rooted in the intuition of the audience and of the artist. The Modernist poet, T.S. Eliot, captures this brilliantly with the following: "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." Relating this to conflict, the insight moment transcends rationality — it is something we feel only when we step back from the canvas, the art, and reflect on its deep mystery. Thus, through the creative act, the artist listens for beauty's soft treble and synthesizes deep human experience. Just as the Modernists attempted to make the world stand still, even for a moment through a saturated image, so must the artist and peacebuilder attempt to create shared meaning through the diverse canvas of human experience. How is this achieved? Lederach says it begins with listening. But, listening not only to what is being said, but also to what goes unsaid.
In the CAR field, we all accept the inherent risk that comes with the work. Chaos and disorder are common thread to our field. But, when we step into this mystery, these uncharted waters, and become the artist, Lederach believes that we can connect the poetics of human relationships in order to help others "penetrate and transcend the challenges of violent conflict." Acknowledging, and helping others to acknowledge, the art of life is the first step in the process.
So, in the words of Thom Yorke, where do we go from here? Lederach would say: always follow your intuition; delight in beauty; find the image that captures the "heart's core" of a conflict; listen for the poetry of human relationships; etch a shape into the chaos, beat a rhythm into the dark; and rely on the creative act, as the artist, to bring into existence that which has never existed before.
 John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. (Oxford University Press, 2005). <http://www.beyondintractability.org/library/external-resource?biblio=23721>.
 Ibid P 75.
 Ibid P 73.
 Ibid P 5.
 Ibid P 27.
 Ibid P 29.
 Ibid P 66.
 Ibid P 73.
 Ibid P 71.
 Ibid P 73.