Reviewed by Colin Patterson
|I spend quite a bit of my time working with people who have problems with each other. It can be quite unsettling, and my security blanket, in the hard work of building peace between feuding parties, is the process that I have been trained to follow.
But, as you will have found if you too have trained to be a mediator, what you experience during role-plays on training courses can only prepare you to some extent for working with real disputants. In every mediation, you reach a point where there is nothing in the text book that tells you what to do next. For a process-minded, linear thinker like me, this is deeply worrying. I would love to be able to trust in mastery of technique, and I have to push myself to pay more than lip-service to the idea that God will give me the words that I need, when I need them.
But I am also a creative person. That’s why I found The Moral Imagination a very liberating book. In it, John Paul Lederach explains how, for many years, he struggled with a “nagging paradox” of his work in peace-building:
“The more I wanted intentionally to produce a particular result, the more elusive it seemed to be; the more I let go and discovered the unexpected openings along the way, at the side of the journey, the more progress was made. I found myself reflecting on the notion that my greatest contributions to peace-building did not seem to be those that emerged from ‘accumulated skill’ or ‘intentional purpose’. They were those that happened unexpectedly. At a certain point, I came to call this ‘divine naiveté,’ which originally I defined as the practitioner’s dilemma of learning more from mistakes than successes. The reality was that these were not mistakes in the proper sense of the word; they were important things that happened along the way that were not planned.”
This sounds very like my experience, so I lapped up Lederach’s key observation, which is that constructive change is made possible in violent circumstances “by the serendipitous appearance of the moral imagination in human affairs.” He puts this forward not as a piece of abstract theory but as a conclusion from experience of real-life situations. The book recounts stories of people who were able to anchor themselves in the realities of a hostile situation yet at the same time see things at a level beyond what initially meets the eye, and engage in a creative act that made a difference. In Lederach’s words, they found a way to “move beyond what exists while still living in it.”
What does it look like to exercise moral imagination? According to Lederach, it requires “the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.”
It takes a whole book to unpack these four ideas, and you can’t really get the flavour without reading the stories. One of them will be familiar to you, though, if you have done the Bridge Builders course, Transforming Church Conflict. During the course, participants hear the moving account of a young African man, who is denigrated by the chief of another tribe. Surprisingly, the young man finds a way to offer respect to the chief, and in doing so disarms the one who is used to assuming superiority. This is an example, says Lederach, of serendipity, “the wisdom of recognising and then moving with the energetic flow of the unexpected.”
This book helped me to see “the unexpected” in a different light. What if the value of any defined process lies as much in its ability to throw up unique things, as in its capacity to set up a “safe space”? Then the very moment at which the process seems to have nothing further to offer may be the cue for an intuitive act, moving sideways. “If you have ever talked at length with good practitioners about how they know what they should or should not do next,” says Lederach, “you will hear that what they circumvent are the rules of proper procedure. What they follow is their gut.” If this approach can make a difference in situations of armed conflict – and Lederach shows that it can – surely it can make a difference in the less violent situations that I typically encounter in church conflicts.
I recognise that I need to develop more capacity to be imaginative in situations of stress, not just in relaxed, obviously artistic contexts. If, like me, you often lack the courage to go where the current is taking you, read The Moral Imagination.