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The Moral Imagination

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace
by John Paul Lederach 
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005
200 pages
Reviewed by Jane Swan

“Exploration of that unknown land called peacebuilding, I thought, is akin to the mysterious journey toward the sacred” (p. 164) writes John Paul Lederach, one of the world’s foremost experts on peacebuilding. His book is a collection of personal reflections on the importance of the “moral imagination,” and suggests that “to invoke this mystery and creativity we must turn our attention to resources and processes in arenas that to date have been mostly seen as peripheral to peacebuilding” (p. 63). Using analogies and informal “doodles” to illustrate his concepts, the book is engaging and accessible to a broader audience than the peacebuilding community it was written for, especially those interested in fostering links between contemplation and action.

Lederach likens individuals who have a disproportionately large impact on social change to “critical yeast” and he coins the term “voicewalker” to describe those who live in response to their deepest inner voice. Written from the perspective of a peacebuilder, he articulates a vital dimension of the relationship between the individual and the collective. Implied is a role for those whose expertise is spiritual formation and contemplative practices, in social as well as personal transformation.

He poses the question “how do we create genuine, constructive change, in and with the human community” (p. 42). The book, which includes notes, bibliography, and a glossary of terms he has coined, begins with four stories drawn from around the world, and proceeds to explore the role of the moral imagination, or “capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (p. 29) in peacebuilding. Avoiding use of the word God, he states the “moral imagination attends to intuition, what Yeats called the hearts core” (p. 71) and “connects the eternity of truth with the immediacy of experience” (p. 68).

Chapter headings include Simplicity and Complexity, Mass and Movement, Imagination and Creativity, Vocation and Mystery. In each he compares the process of peacebuilding to such diverse ventures as writing haiku poetry and the construction of spider webs. Woven throughout the fascinating accounts of his work in the field, from the mountains of Tajikistan to the markets of Somalia, are parables and glimpses into the cosmological frameworks of the peoples involved. A chapter titled “Time” addresses the African concept of time as going backwards, and a chapter on “Space” as the indigenous Phillipino concept of space as ancestral domain. As I read about the characters in his stories I wonder how the capacity to be “voicewalkers” is nurtured in each of these cultures. The book closes with a discussion on vocation, which “requires us to explore promptings of inner voice and provides a center for this most difficult journey to break out from the historic grasp of violence” (p. 39). He concludes that soul-based disciplines are required to form the conditions that make the moral imagination and peacebuilding possible, and that “we must find ways to create spaces and processes pregnant with Moral Imagination” (p. 61). My hope is that spiritual directors will take on this challenge and this book provides an excellent starting point.

Jane Swan is an artist and spiritual director in Grass Valley, California, USA, and has retired from a career in international relief and development. She studied under the author at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute, and completed her spiritual direction training at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA, USA.

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