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The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace

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John Paul Lederach's work in the field of conciliation and mediation is internationally recognized. As founding Director of the Conflict Transformation Program and Institute of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, he has provided consultation and direct mediation in a range of situations from the Miskito/Sandinista conflict in Nicaragua to Somalia, Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, and the Philippines. His influential 1997 book Building Peace has become a classic in the discipline. This new book represents his thinking and learning over the past several years. He explores the evolution of his understanding of peacebuilding by reflecting on his own experiences in the field. Peacebuilding, in his view, is both a learned skill and an art. Finding this art, he says, requires a worldview shift. Conflict professionals must envision their work as a creative act - an exercise of what Lederach terms the "moral imagination."

200 pages, Hardcover

First published January 20, 2004

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About the author

John Paul Lederach

24 books57 followers
John Paul Lederach is Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, and concurrently Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Colorado. In 1994 he became the founding director for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University where he was a professor.

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Displaying 1 - 29 of 29 reviews
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
August 31, 2016
A friend here suggested I read this and I’d just recently read The Sociological Imagination and still didn’t make the connection. It is funny how obvious things need to be before I see them, sometimes.

There was a lot of this that I really liked, but also some things I found very problematic (that isn’t the right word or anything like the word I want – but I can’t think of the right word at the moment – we will get there).

Start positive. I really liked that this played with some ideas from what I often refer to as behavioural economics – ideas about tipping points and ways to act as change agents in society. I also liked that he spoke of the ‘gift of pessimism’ – Although I like Gramsci on this too: ‘I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

I also liked that he referred to Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By – but would have liked more on this – and that he drew pictures while listening to people that sought to show the relationships between them, relationships that displayed the problem (which is going to make what I have to say about not liking this book seem, perhaps, a bit odd). And I also quite liked that he talked about being creative as being the best way to solve problems. You know, we think being rational is the best way – and while it really annoys me that we too often draw a thick line between being logical and being creative, it is also clear that you can’t solve intractable problems unless you do act differently – so, creativity is mandatory, rather than optional.

The things I didn’t like relate to what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’. I’ve looked through the book and at no time does he talk about ‘power’ in a way that helps shed light on power as symbolic violence. He talks about people having power to change things, that this power is often not related to military or governmental power, but comes in unexpected places – and this is all good, but if we don’t understand the nature of power in society, I fear change is virtually impossible. To explain my concern here I want to quote a big chunk of one of my favourite bits of this book, his discussion of The Pied Piper.

“The moral of the story seemed clear: When you give a promise, you had best keep your word.

“Four decades later, when I read the story again, this was not the moral that caught my attention. What I saw was the power of a flutist to move a town, address an evil, and bring the powerful to accountability. Without any visible power or even prestige, much less a violent weapon, a flutist transformed a whole community. I was struck with the nonviolent power of music and the creative act. The moral of the story now seemed to be: Watch out for the flutist and his creative music for, like the invisible wind, they touch and move all that they encounter in their path.” p. 152

Like I said, one of my favourite bits of the book – however, while I really like this idea, I think it covers over the idea of symbolic violence in ways that I felt were pretty typical of the rest of the book too. So, what do I mean by symbolic violence? Well, it is the way society keeps people in power without needing to impose that power using real violence. That is, it is the way people are made to be convinced of the ‘rightness’ of the current situation, even when that current situation is badly against their own interests.

My favourite current example of this is the way grammar and English spelling is used to keep people in their place. It is the ‘there, their and they’re’ problem. It is so easy to humiliate people who misuse these homophones. And yet, I doubt anyone has ever been confused by the meaning of a sentence because one of these was misused. The sentence, ‘I am eating there cake’ is perfectly clear in its intended meaning – but the unintended use of the wrong ‘their’ displays a relation to grammar that socially locates (and disgraces) the writer. Here both the reader and the writer (when they are informed of they’re mistake – see, you still knew what I intended, despite also noticing the usage problem) diminish the standing of the person who has made the error. Symbolic violence here relates to our ability to follow the often arcane rules of usage of the language – and these rules are arcane because of the social effects they produce, rather than the lie that is they ‘make language easier to follow’ or ‘help avoid misunderstanding’. Here it is power relations that are being enacted and one person is being put in their place. A place that becomes embodied in them, a shame that silences – so much so that they believe themselves to be unworthy of being allowed to speak, or rather, certainly not to ‘write’.

This is violence that is enacted against us in ways that ends up being done with our own complicacy. And yet, often if we are to overcome grossly unfair social situations then finding ways to overcome these embodied habits and reactions of shame are primary tasks and not things that can be taken for granted as immediate gifts of the piper.

But how do we do this? And there is my problem. I think a lot of what is suggested in this book is really worthwhile – you know, start small, map relationships, be creative, notice the grey and not just the black and white – yes, all that. But what I feel is missing is a notion of understanding how symbolic violence encourages those most disadvantaged by a system to be its strongest supporters – just think of those most upset about Obama Care.

Oh, which reminds me of the other thing about this book I immediately didn’t like. It starts by talking about 9/11. I’d have really preferred it to not start with that. My problem here is that not nearly enough was said about 9/11 being an act of ‘blow back’, that too many people in the West see this as the greatest tragedy in the history of the world, when destroying the Middle East in retaliation and vengeance afterward ranks closer to the definition of ‘greatest tragedy’. Like I said, there is too little focus here on power, just as it is never quite clear what ‘peace’ means. Unless I missed it, it was never defined. And I do think that is a problem.

And now, look... Almost all of this is complaints – and that isn’t really what I wanted to do. There are good ideas here and it is worth the quick read that it is – but retain your gift of pessimism while reading it.
Profile Image for William DiGena.
39 reviews1 follower
August 8, 2021
Really insightful book, not only in the peace building world but also for conflict in daily life.
11 reviews
November 17, 2020
Very interesting book for a current or future peace practitioner. It asks tough questions and force you to think in new imaginative and creative ways to solve complex issues. It also leaves time for self-reflection
Profile Image for William Peace.
Author 11 books8 followers
September 9, 2022
Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.

Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.

Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.

An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.

Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.

In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.

Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.

In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.

Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.

Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.

This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.
Profile Image for Alex.
112 reviews17 followers
March 31, 2021
I would call this a foundational work that must be a required read for all those entering the peacebuilding world. Lederach is not wrong in seeking to push outside the box toward the creative and artistic. He provides countless stories, ideas, examples, and motivations to expand peacebuilding measures while looking at the past, present, and future and how a calm, collective, and appreciative mind can make the biggest and most pertinent changes.

As with any book, I do hold skepticism (though do not get me wrong, I loved the book). Mainly, his book is almost entirely philosophical so that it fights back against the analytical frameworks that trap us in our ways. Lederach rightfully so challenges us to think outside these existing notions, but we cannot ignore them in their entirety. While I do not think this is his intention, I think that an addition to the book or another publication showing the moral imagination in practice and use within modern peacebuilding approaches would address any concerns those and myself might have.

I would recommend this to anyone looking to make a difference. The book is motivation to reshape your existing prejudices or biases of the existing peacebuilding frameworks. It is also an inspiration to apply these lessons to the work you do, whether on behalf of a large international organization or within your own neighborhood.
Profile Image for Alex Shly.
20 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2021
I can’t believe I’m gonna say this about this Peacebuilding classic, but I found it rather boring.

The various topics are fantastic - creative and atypical. This kind of thinking is crucial to make Peacebuilding more soulful and less bureaucratic. However, I often found the substance of the chapters just bland. The waffling felt more like a need to fill space rather than developing some significant idea. Often I found myself re-reading sections trying to understand what the point was.

Also, the whole ‘pregnancy’ and ‘giving birth’ metaphor was way overdone. After the nth time reading about some pregnant opportunities and ripe processes birthing peace, it just made me cringe.

There’s definitely a lot of potential inspiration in this book, I just found that it takes a lot of unpleasant sifting to get to it.
Profile Image for Kris.
15 reviews2 followers
June 5, 2017
While technically written for those in the professions of peace building in areas with protracted violence, I found many lessons for those of us in the field of education seeking to create schools where all students are engaged and achieving high standards.

I found many of the metaphors he presents to be richly resonant for my own work. I recommend this book.
Profile Image for Gordon Mckinlay.
22 reviews
June 29, 2017
This is a brilliant book. Although it looks as though it us for those involved in peace making or conflict resolution there are so many lessons for anyone interested in human nature and building relationships. I will need to go back and read it again as I am sure I have missed so much!
69 reviews1 follower
July 23, 2021
I enjoyed this book because Lederach is encouraging creative thinking and recognised that the arts encourages the development of these skills. His focus is peacebuilding and conflict resolution. I think he could have written this for problem solving in general.
Profile Image for Jeanna.
38 reviews6 followers
June 24, 2022
A meditation on peace, creativity and the inner sanctums of the human soul. Also, spiderwebs!
Profile Image for Pedro Limeira.
47 reviews4 followers
January 23, 2016
'Insight after insight after insight' could be a synthesis of what the experience of reading this book was for me.

One of the first questions posed is: How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human community while still living in them? I think this is pretty much the main issue in life, at least for me; to be counscious of my values and actions even when inside contexts that already have their well defined dynamics.

The moral imagination - the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist (I found it to be really similar to the Theory U by Otto Scharmer)- could be the answer for that. There is some quote about violence that really got me: 'Violence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand'. That made sense.

There are 4 main factors to build the moral imagination: (i) relationships oriented view; (ii) paradoxal curiosity - which is the will to try to see beyond what is in front of our eyes and dualistic views; (iii) providing space for creative acts; (iv) the willingness to risk. These factors are present in the successful peacebuilding processes.

With those definitions, the author brings lots of discussions about notions that affect the views of conflict/relationships/world such as time, vocation, networks, serendipity, art, movement, pessimism... I enjoyed a lot reading his thoughts and reflections about his lived experiences. Some of them were mind bending, such as the ones about time. Have you ever wondered that the current present might embrace a range of two hundred years, if you consider the elders' experience? How much that range can leverage our differences and lead to conflict? Or the african view of time that the past is in front of you, instead of the future, in a sense that considers all the memories of the living ones?

In the end, what stuck with me is the idea that, to deal with conflict, if not with life, we need to consider our shared humanity and all its nuances - thoughts, emotions, expressions, needs.
Profile Image for Paige.
164 reviews4 followers
March 21, 2014
Lederach does a fantastic job setting up the preliminary ideas behind nonviolent peacebuilding and the necessary creativity that goes into such work. Not only does he successfully argue for the vital nature of creativity in such scenarios, but he inspires such thoughts in the reader throughout the book. I was particularly moved by his section on haikus and his discussion of poetry and the arts has realigned my focus with their importance within the academy. Lederach is clearly on who has thorougly practice nonviolent, creative peacebuilding, but he is also willing to discuss theories and strategies, albeit on a much smaller level. Ultimately, I would recommend this book to anyone who desires to work with people. You will undoubtedly encounter conflicts and Lederach helps understand the problem-solving lens through which such situations should be addressed.
Profile Image for Karen.
2,588 reviews
Want to read
June 27, 2016
* 10 Mind-Blowing Books That People Who Love Thinking Can’t Miss
“Reconciliation is understood as both a place we are trying to reach and the journey that we take up with each other.”

John Paul Lederach is a leading voice in the international conciliation and mediation field. He has served as a consult and a direct mediator in conflicts all over the globe. In this book is explores the process of peace-building and reflects upon his experiences in the field. It is a remarkable text that will surely find application in your daily life.
Profile Image for Kevin.
35 reviews12 followers
November 8, 2016
This is THE most powerful book on peacebuilding I have ever read. Lederach uses beautiful language, sometimes close to poetry, to explore what it means to build peace. His basic argument is that peacebuilding is a continuous, simplistic but yet paradoxical, non-linear act of being that is rooted in the creative act of moral imagination. This is in contrast to perceiving of peacebuilding as a process of high-level rhetoric and peace accords among the powerful. Lederach uses beautiful metaphors to clarify his points and thinking (love the web and haiku analogies).
Profile Image for Geoffrey Bateman.
294 reviews2 followers
February 3, 2016
Excellent, thought provoking book. A superb blend of the theoretical with the practical, with a powerful call to rethink our work in this field in terms of artistry and creativity (although there's more to it than that, but that was one of the main lessons I'll be taking away from it). I haven't used it before in the classroom, but think it might make for a great text in our foundations course for our peace and justice studies students.
Profile Image for Bekah.
19 reviews4 followers
August 15, 2013

Four stars for this poetic, thought-provoking book. It's not a novel; sometimes it can be a bit tangential and hard to follow. But it's one of the most inspiring textbooks I had in university. Lederach shares some of his reflections and tells stories that incorporate art and life into peacebuilding. The book itself is written artistically. It's worth reading.
Profile Image for Steve.
107 reviews
Want to read
June 22, 2012
John Paul Lederach's definition of Moral Imagination -- The capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist. I

I didn't get around to reading this book but would like to someday.
Profile Image for Kate Miller.
10 reviews
September 9, 2012
For a textbook, I found this entertaining and engaging. Lederach's use of his own personal anecdotes from his experiences in conflict resolution overseas improved my understanding of the importance of assuming skills in cultural competence before skills in resolving conflict.
Profile Image for Hannah Spangler.
14 reviews
March 5, 2023
Great book for aspiring peacemakers, experienced peacemakers, and the everyday person! Laderach writes beautifully while still articulating his points clearly. It might take a minute to understand everything, but those minutes are worth it.
Profile Image for Lee.
104 reviews10 followers
May 29, 2009
Thank you Charles Reilly. I will never forget "Haiku Moment".
Profile Image for Sharon Campbell.
15 reviews1 follower
July 28, 2013
John Paul is the benchmark we look to when looking to find a communication style that is effective in the conflicts we face in our own lives as well as on the world stage.
Profile Image for Amanda.
17 reviews
January 6, 2013
Another book read for my Reconciliation module. Quirky, original, insightful explorations by an experienced peacebuilder.
Profile Image for Preston.
10 reviews9 followers
May 8, 2015
An eloquent insight into the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation interwoven with beautiful metaphors and powerful anecdotes.
Profile Image for Sep.
25 reviews3 followers
November 6, 2015
I read this for my Peacebuilding class. Hands down, this was the best book I've read all year. I recommend this book to everyone.
Profile Image for John Lussier.
108 reviews7 followers
December 20, 2015
A must read. Lederach's experience in working for peace is beyond exceptional, and his theories are wonderfully explained and very practical.

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