Book Review: The Moral Imagination – The Art and Soul of Building Peace


January 10th, 2011

Not long after my return from London late last year I met with friends in Melbourne for lunch. It had been a while since we had caught up so I was full of stories of my adventures in Europe as well as questions and frustrations stemming from a shift in my professional practice. My friend Brendan McKeague listened with a sparkle in his eye, and then in his delightful Irish accent suggested I read The Moral Imagination by John Paul Lederach. He had his copy with him and as I flicked through it I saw the margins were full of his notes. This is always a good sign.

I wasn’t completely convinced. After all, the sub title, The Art and Soul of Peace Building, didn’t really sound like my thing. A couple of months went by and it was time to order some books from Amazon. I remembered Brendan’s recommendations so added it to the order. The books arrived last week. This was the third book in the pile I picked up. The first book I read over a few days, a bit disappointed that there was nothing really new in it; the second book I put down after about 10 pages. So it was with no great expectation that I finally picked up Lederach’s book on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday evening I had read it cover to cover.

What became clear as I read the book was its message is just as relevant to facilitation as it is to those working in mediation and peace building. Lederach uses a lot of stories from his own experience as a negotiator and peacemaker, and questions the over-emphasis on tools and techniques in his field. Sound familiar?

His main premise is that peacemakers need appropriate tools and techniques, skills and knowledge AND also a way of being – personal attributes that acknowledge the humanness and messiness of peacebuilding. He calls this our moral imagination and describes it as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenge of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.”

He invites his readers to suspend the need for tools, answers and techniques and instead reflect on the nature of imagination, social change, and breaking cycles of violence. In essence, he invites us to focus on who we are rather than what we do.

The book explores four key capacities of the moral imagination: relationships – reaching out to those you fear; paradoxical curiosity – touching the heart of complexity; creativity – imagining beyond what is seen; and risk – risking vulnerability one step at a time.

While this may sound theoretical, it is theory rooted in practice. Time and again, Lederach refers to the importance of relationship building through conversations, not as a percursor to the ‘real work of mediation and negotiation’ but as the work itself.

In so doing he explores the nature of turning points and complexity, different ways of knowing (particularly intuition), understanding the essence, the importance of humility, how even the most serious and dangerous situations can be tackled playfully, the dynamic nature of connections, the importance of spontaneous creativity, and stillness.

My favourite chapter was on serendipity, which Lederach describes as “the wisdom of recognizing and then moving with the energetic flow of the unexpected.” He describes three guideposts for finding serendipitous moments: acquiring and building a capacity for peripheral vision; developing creative learning disciplines; and sustaining platforms (instead of structures) that are smart flexible.

A common thread throughout the book is the need to use our full human potential, not just as thinkers and analysts, although that is important, but also as artists, drawing on poetry and metaphor and story and intuition.

Don’t be put off by the title. The ideas in this book, while stemming from and directed at peace building, are relevant in any human-based endeavour. They are very relevant to my field of facilitation, and in particular facilitation training. It’s as if this book was written to shine light on the thoughts and ideas that have been tumbling in my head and on this blog for the last few months.

Lederach, John Paul (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-19-974758-0

2 Comments so far

  1. David Herbert on January 10, 2011 5:50 pm

    Thanks for this Viv. It’s going onto my wishlist.

  2. Brendan McKeague on January 11, 2011 3:08 pm

    Great illustration of a serendipitous moment, eh Viv!
    Who could have predicted such a wonderful tale emerging from Yum Cha (?) in downtown Melbourne.
    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book – it certainly is one of my favourites and inspires me in many ways to continue the journey of peacemaking through facilitation and ongoing co-learning programs with colleagues.
    I’ll look forward to what/who emerges from our next dining experience..’when the student is ready, the teacher will appear’
    🙂

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