John Paul Lederach is one of the most esteemed names in conflict mediation in the world today. He is also Mennonite, an icon of this tradition that passionately embraces the biblical command to “be peacemakers.” In our conversation in “The Art of Peace” he calls his work “conflict transformation” rather than the more commonly used term of “conflict resolution.” Across three decades, in over 25 countries on five continents, he has sought to help people transform their relationships with their enemies.
You can solve a problem without resolving a conflict, he points out. And you can resolve a conflict without setting real change in motion, without creating justice that will make the renewal of conflict less likely in the future. This, he says, is the true challenge of peacebuilding, one that always takes generations to accomplish. It is as much the work of creativity and “moral imagination” as of dialogue and commitment.
He tells remarkable stories from around the globe. These are stories that live below the radar of mainstream international news, and yet they offer powerful and empowering examples of real, systemic change in individual lives and in societies. He takes us inside a photograph of a dialogue, which you see above, between former enemies in Nepal. The participants range from ex-slaves to landless “untouchables,” to conservationists, to agencies regulating the use of forests. Their conflicts are the shape of the 21st century — a complex and perilous balancing act between the distribution of natural resources for a particular group’s survival and the greater good of preservation. Around the world, such conflicts are increasingly devolving into war. By contrast, in year seven of a ten-year process, these Nepalis are finding very creative and sustaining ways to honor their competing needs while nourishing a new common life.
Even as John Paul Lederach describes situations worlds away, his stories hold wisdom for all of us. Change, he asserts, always begins with a handful of people in relationship. In his writing, he makes a helpful distinction: while large-scale movements — including peace movements — can forge turning points, they tend to form around what they are opposing and do not necessarily carry the seeds of new, positive forms to shape the future. He is more interested in finding what he calls “critical yeast” rather than “critical mass.” To put it another way, in John Paul Lederach’s experience, enduring change is seeded not by large numbers of like-minded people, but by a quality of relationship between unlikely combinations of people.
This creativity and courage of relationship is evident in the Nepalis to whom he introduces us. It is there, likewise, in a remarkable organization of peasants in Colombia who have forged improbable relationships with warring militias, in whose conflicts they had previously been caught as victims and pawns. One of the principles of this group that has endured for over two decades is that “we will seek to understand those who do not understand us.” On the basis of formulating and living such an idea, they have created a heretofore unimaginably peaceful space for their children and grandchildren.
John Paul Lederach with his daughter Angela in Cape Coast, Ghana. (photo: George Wachira)
This is not, however, an abstract or sentimental conversation that denies the hardness of the tasks at hand. That same “successful” group in Colombia lost its founders to assassination. In West Africa, where John Paul Lederach’s daughter Angie has followed in her father’s footsteps, the trauma of the horrific phenomenon of child soldiers goes far beyond anything that will be “resolved” in this lifetime. These young people have not only been brutalized, they have been forced to commit unspeakable violence against members of their own families and communities. We hear what John Paul and Angie Lederach have learned in a context like this about the non-linear and non-verbal nature of healing. He helps us understand why, even in the course of trauma in ordinary life, music and poetry can help us re-inhabit places in ourselves at the level of blood and bone, where violation has marked us and words cannot initially reach.
We end this conversation in an unexpected place where John Paul Lederach’s life and imagination have led him — a fascination with the ancient art of haiku as a way to capture what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” that emerges again and again as human beings navigate the overlapping territories between violence, trauma, healing, and hope.
This conversation with John Paul Lederach is one of those redemptive experiences I get to have and share in this line of work — of discovering someone who is nourishing the world, though rarely making headlines. He emboldens the rest of us not to be overwhelmed by the unremitting images of violence and despair that come at us from every direction. He urges us to remember the importance of the immediacy of human relationships, especially the unlikely ones, and the worth of investing our imagination, courage, and time in them. This, too, is peace.