The Moral Imagination: John Paul Lederach Visits St. Norbert College


St. Norbert College welcomed John Paul Lederach for the spring semester Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding on Monday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the Fort Howard Theater. Lederach is a professor of international peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His lecture was titled “The Moral Imagination: Conflict Transformation in the Contemporary World.”

The Norman and Louis Miller Lecture in Public Understanding was first established in 1993. It promotes unity, communication and tolerance among different cultures, religions, ethnicities and traditions. It aims to encourage greater interpersonal understanding both domestically and internationally.

John Paul Lederach is widely known for his pioneering work in conflict transformation and he is highly respected for his work as a theorist and practitioner. He is also well known for his incorporation of contextual and cultural resources, his focus on sustainability and his expertise in inter-ethnic, cross-cultural and religious conflict. He has developed and conducted training programs in countries across five continents and is heavily involved in active meditation, consulting and peacebuilding, His most extensive work has been done in Columbia, the Philippines and Nepal.

Lederach began his lecture by talking about recent events in today’s world, titles that had been reduced to simply naming the place it happened: “Ukraine,” “Ferguson” and “ISIS,” to name a few. Lederach went on to describe how, more often than not, people ask the question of how to resolve an immediate problem, when they actually should be asking, “How do we achieve a sustainable change in the world so that these big events don’t repeat themselves?”

“The answer is because these instances are often more difficult situations and take an even longer timeframe to resolve,” said Lederach.

He then talked about how in his work he chose to go to fewer places but to commit to longer relationships with those places, which were primarily grassroots communities affected by cultural conflict on a daily basis.

“We all have the capacity to sustain a sense that change is possible,” said Lederach.

For the next part of his lecture Lederach focused on three small stories about people that he had met over his three decades of work: First, one that took place in Columbia in the 1980s and covered a person’s choices. Second, a story from the 1990s on how six women helped to stop a war. And third, a story of first-generation slavery and the experience of the movement to freedom.

Lederach connected these three stories together by asking another question: “Where do compassion and courage reside?”

To find out this answer, Lederach described how he “looked very carefully at what ordinary people did to shift their situations when they were caught within the shackles of violence during their lifetimes.”

When he looked at these people, Lederach noticed four simple things: that these people had a very peculiar form of imagination, one that put them in a web of relationships inclusive of their enemies; the people didn’t cast others into categories of good or bad, right or wrong; they were enormously creative; and they always took the risk that was clear of the next step, rather than leaping out into the unknown.

These four things are what make up the “Moral Imagination,” according to Lederach. From this, he moved on to talking about the “neuroscience of compassion.”

“I wanted to know more about compassion, creativity and spirituality,” said Lederach. “So again, where do compassion and courage reside? Courage is living from a sense of your heart and compassion resides in your gut.”

Lederach ended his lecture by talking about techniques he uses in his own classroom and relating everything back to conflict transformation.

“Come to a place where you’re able to be with each other with care. It is a gift to be with people side by side that are different than you are, that represent the enormous diversity we have been given in this world and treating it with respect,” said Lederach.

“Contemporary conflict is most affected by our divides. The only way to breach the divide is to come across to the other side and take a step. Take a step in the direction to choose integrity, respect and dignity for those who may wish you harm, a step into yourself and into a deeper explanation of who you are. These principles are at the core of peacebuilding.”


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