Poetics of Peace

“I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness ... The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” ― Nelson Mandela

As conflicts erupt and fill our conscience and screens, we begin to hear calls for ceasefires, cessation of hostility, for de-escalation, for bombs to stop falling, for people to stop shooting. 

If the violence ends, the tension can be released. We may then hear leaders speak of reconstruction, or of bringing food, water, and medical supplies to those in need, all of which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of destruction. But what is needed to rebuild relationships, to build trust? How do we re-seed the humanity that might be lost? 

We tend to think that peace happens when large groups of people call for it and when leaders under pressure make violence stop and hash out agreements that opposing sides can agree to. But peace is not just the absence of conflict, Nelson Mandela said, but the creation of an environment where all can flourish.

As the space for disagreement in our societies erodes, the work of peace becomes harder. Most peace movements emerge on the basis of something we oppose, not something we are in favour of. Professor John Paul Lederach suggests this has been one of our errors because we tend to focus on getting more people to think like us, yet it’s not about quantity. “The difficult work of peacebuilding,” he says, “is to create a quality of relationships among people who don’t think alike.“ 

We also tend to over-emphasise the technical and analytical skills people bring to the table, with the aim of finding quick solutions to problems. But, as he often witnessed, you can fix a problem but change nothing. And when the focus is on negotiation and mediation skills, the humanness, the poetics of human relationships is missing.

“Our security is not tied to the quantity or the size of our weapons, it’s tied to the quality of our relationships. That’s the shift we have to make. From a local community to a global community,” Lederach says.

After decades of working alongside Indigenous leaders, farmers and professors in over 25 countries, he learned that one of the most important ingredients to lasting peace is moral imagination. He believes that we should approach the work of peace, not as technicians, but as artists. 

Moral imagination is usually something we tend to associate with poets or writers, not so much with peacebuilders. Yet, over and over, Lederach found that it was imagination that enabled people to move out of repeated cycles of violence. 

The qualities that he found to constitute moral imagination were fourfold. The first and most crucial - but also most difficult one - was the ability to imagine ourselves in relationship to our enemy. We have to be able to imagine that our futures and the futures of our grandchildren are tied. Without this, peacebuilding collapses. 

The second is continued curiosity, or what he calls ‘paradoxical curiosity,’ an ability to embrace complexity and not fall into polarity. This is an invitation to keep imagining that there are things beyond the visible, beyond what we think is possible. 

The third is the belief in the creative act. Most of the creative and innovative ideas did not come from the technical management process, but from creatives themselves and we must nurture creativity in people. And the final quality is accepting the risks of stepping into the unknown, into mystery, beyond the familiar landscape of violence. 

In “A War Without End,” Ursula K Le Guin writes that imagination is our most powerful tool, it’s subversive, and this is what makes the exercise of imagination dangerous to those who profit from the status quo. Our imagination cannot be commercialised or controlled, it is a tool of the mind, it helps dislodge the mind and allows us to go beyond what we know, beyond our belief that things and people cannot change. 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela.

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, John Paul Lederach.

‘John Paul Lederach: The Art of Peace,’ OnBeing with Krista Tippett, 12 January 2012. Listen here.

‘The War Without End,’ essay from The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination, Ursula K. Le Guin.

Further Resources

Life as War, The New Philosopher #41, September - November 2023.

“To Think in Ricochet: On Violence,” Bayo Akomolafe, 10 November 2023, read online.

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl.

The Expulsion of the Other, Byung-Chul Han.

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