On Being with Krista Tippett

John Paul Lederach

The Art of Peace

Last Updated

January 12, 2012

Original Air Date

July 8, 2010

What happens when people transcend violence while living in it? John Paul Lederach has spent three decades mediating peace and change in 25 countries — from Nepal to Colombia and Sierra Leone. He shifts the language and lens of the very notion of conflict resolution. He says, for example, that enduring progress takes root not with large numbers of people, but with relationships between unlikely people.

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Image of John Paul Lederach

John Paul Lederach is a senior fellow at Humanity United and professor emeritus of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the co-founder and first director of the Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. In 2019 he won the Niwano Peace Foundation Peace Prize.


January 12, 2012

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This hour, we take on the generic and strangely divisive notion of “peace;” we infuse it with unpredictable images from a wise and adventurous life in conflict transformation around the globe. I’ve been following the Mennonite activist John Paul Lederach’s work for years. And we hear his stories this hour, which you have never heard in the news — from places like Colombia, Nepal, Tajikistan, and Northern Ireland. We learn what really happens when people transcend violence while living in it — and so find the moral imagination to live beyond it. John Paul Lederach says, for example, that the key to enduring change is not mass numbers of people but a quality of relationship between unlikely people.

MR. JOHN PAUL LEDERACH: In some ways, to be very honest, the sophistication by which they’re doing it at a local level is leap years ahead of how politics is typically done, which is an all-or-nothing kind of format in which every decision is gauged primarily on whether if we haven’t won, we have at least assured that the other cannot carry victory away. And where the bottom common ground becomes some form of sort of weak compromise, but basically it’s assuring that no one else gets ahead of us. And I think those are the challenges that we really have.

MS. TIPPETT: “The Art of Peace.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

For over three decades, John Paul Lederach has spent four to five months a year on the road, mediating crises of life and death in over 25 countries and five continents. I spoke with him in 2010. He comes from a long line of Mennonites, Protestant reformers who took on the biblical command for Christians to be peacemakers with a special passion. Wherever there is war in the world, Mennonites can be found — as mediators and medics, firefighters and mental health caregivers. As John Paul Lederach was entering adulthood, new countries were being born out of colonialism by revolution. He applied to the Mennonite Central Committee to go to the Middle East but was sent instead to Europe. And there he encountered a global mix that has characterized his work ever since.

MR. LEDERACH: So I ended up, for just short of three years, in a large student housing project in Brussels, Belgium, that mostly housed students from then Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, other parts of French-speaking Africa, Latin America, and northern Africa. It was for me probably my real introduction to world politics in a lot of ways.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. Lived.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah, it was. Certainly an education around issues that I felt passionately about that they felt equally passionately about, which was particularly how do you create change. And most of them were very much in favor of violent revolution, coming out of the countries that they were in.


MR. LEDERACH: And I was always advocating some form of nonviolent change. So it was a great opportunity to test the ideas at an early age.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, in the work I do I think a lot about how words — even and sometimes especially words that connote the most valuable things we do — kind of lose their meaning and don’t carry all the meaning they have in real life. And I think peace is one of those. I mean, I want to draw you out on that. But I was intrigued — when I was getting ready to interview you, I found a review of your book The Moral Imagination.


MS. TIPPETT: And the subtitle is The Art and Soul of Peace. I think this was in a conflict resolution publication. Do you know the review I’m talking about?

MR. LEDERACH: There have been a number.


MR. LEDERACH: But probably so, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So he says, “Even before reading this book, I admit to flinching at first sight of the title. I almost always experience a visceral …”

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. It’s Robert Benjamin.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. “I almost always experience a visceral tension and tightening of my muscles in response to words like ‘moral,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘soul.’ The field of conflict management has always been a magnet to many with fuzzy, feel-good, idealistic notions that well-intentioned beliefs anchored in a spiritual, if not religious, foundation can counteract destructive conflict and violence.” Now, he went on to say, “Had I not read this book, the loss would’ve been mine.”


MS. TIPPETT: But I think that the reaction he had to some of the words is not unique. So you do talk about the art and soul of peace-building and moral imagination. Tell me what that really connotes for you.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. Well, on the latter, the moral imagination, what I was after was a combination of things based on experiences that I had had very directly in a number of locations and indirectly, that is, through colleagues. And they were quite varied, from the border area between Kenya and Somalia to West Africa, in northern Ghana, where the actions of a certain set of people in a very specific moment in time prevented what could have been an outbreak of violence that might have emulated what was happening in Sierra Leone and Liberia, to a group of peasants of — probably the most extraordinary group that I’ve come across — in Columbia, to a professor that I met in Tajikistan when I was working there.

In each of the stories, there was an element of something very unexpected. But there was also, I found, sort of four qualities that I made reference to then from there on out as the moral imagination.


MR. LEDERACH: The first was an ability to imagine yourself in a relationship with your enemy and that if that’s not present peace-building itself collapses. The second was that people never fell into a kind of a simple dualistic understanding of the options that they had where it was always an either/or choice: You’re with us or you’re against us. You’re on that side or you’re this side.


MR. LEDERACH: Or you’re in favor or not in favor of this idea. What they sustained was, by my view, a form of curiosity.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You use the term “paradoxical curiosity.”

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. Paradoxical in the sense that paradox is not contradiction — it’s two things or three things or four things that are different but ultimately are tied to each other in a form. And that’s actually the genius of complexity, is that while it can feel overwhelming when we’re in the middle of it, it keeps offering up new ways to understand something that doesn’t require you to choose one option against another.

MS. TIPPETT: You’ve talked about how you’ve seen that violence destroys a person’s capacity to perceive themselves as an integrated part of a whole, and that makes it difficult for people to see themselves in a web of relationships that has to include their enemies and some imagination about their enemies’ grandchildren, right? I mean, it’s almost like you’re asking the impossible of people.

MR. LEDERACH: Well, it’s — it’s the impossible until you consider the alternative, which we’ve watched now evolve in so many places across decades, half-centuries.


MR. LEDERACH: Columbia is a half-century. Middle East can go back centuries. In other words, the notion that it’s more realistic to pursue the other avenue, the one that’s supposed to be more pragmatic, shows itself over and over again to basically reseed the very things that create the cycles of violence that we’re trying to supersede.

MS. TIPPETT: And have you been in situations where that beautiful idea, which can sound abstract, especially when there are generations of violence, where people have transcended that, where people have come to see that?

MR. LEDERACH: Absolutely. Yeah. So the example of the peasants in an area called “La India,” in Columbia, who live in a part of the country that has been hit and overrun over and over again by different armed groups moving through their territory and demanding their allegiances from left to right. And it started when a rather notorious captain connected to the paramilitary as a commander convened a group of peasants from up and down the river to an open meeting in which he was — his opening line was, “I’ve come today to forgive you.” Essentially, his forgiveness was he was wanting them to take weapons up in order to form a kind of a civilian militia that would fight against his enemy, which was the guerilla movement.

And there was a speech made that day by a middle-aged peasant, a campesino fellow who’s name is Josué Vargas that was so powerful that even today in the — and I’ve been down quite a few times in that area — people can recite that speech by memory. This is now 20, maybe 23 years later. He essentially said: “Today, we have decided we are going to think for ourselves. We are not going to join your side, we’re not going to join their side, and we are not going to leave this place.” The miracle was they weren’t all shot on the spot.


MR. LEDERACH: Within the week, they had put out the principles. Their very first principle was, “We choose to die before we kill.” The second one — principle: “We have no enemies. That we will seek out every armed group in our region and we will talk to them about what we are asking and what we want respect for in our areas.”

MS. TIPPETT: But isn’t the hard part of this what’s in it for the armed groups to come into negotiation, right? I mean, these powerless people who are in danger by them clearly have a stake.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. So this group, I mean, one of their principles was, “We will seek to understand those who do not understand us.” And they systematically set about a range of conversations over and again with these armed groups. Now, this organization has existed for the past 24 years. Now, it’s had its ups and downs in a variety of ways and it certainly has not avoided violence at various times when there were massacres. In fact, Josué Vargas and four of the leaders were assassinated about four years later. But the movement itself has endured. And it is an extraordinary thing. So what I’m giving you here in this example are not people who are coming from a place and a location where they can be distant from the conflict and therefore not have to deal with violence or are enclaving themselves in such a way that they have no interaction with those people who are actually a threat to them. You are looking at a way in which they shifted the view and approach to enmity. They changed it.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, we’re exploring what global mediator John Paul Lederach has learned about the work and “the art” of peace. He shifts the language and lens of Western approaches to problem-solving and crisis management. In the process, he begins to clarify some of the reasons that a real end to entrenched conflicts, both local and global, is so often elusive.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I want to talk about creativity, which is one of those core words that, for you, is part of the moral imagination that you’ve seen. And, you know, you’ve been writing a lot — it seems to me maybe more in recent years — about your realization that conflict resolution and the process of creating peace and social change is as much a creative process as the application of tools and skills and templates. So is this something that you saw early on or is this a realization that has emerged for you through experience?

MR. LEDERACH: I think it’s been more emergent. I mean, early on, especially when I got very serious about the studies and early training and formally in mediation and conciliation work, there was a technical side of that. And the technical side in some ways is a bit mesmerizing when you first come into it. You learn approaches and skills that accompany those approaches and how you might use those.

MS. TIPPETT: To mediation?

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. Mediation in particular I think has been a big growth area in a lot of places, but the same would be true of negotiation and even certainly peace-building. One of the shifts that came for me earlier was to move from an understanding that what I was involved in as being defined as conflict resolution in a narrow sense, that is, finding a solution to a problem, to talking about and visualizing it as conflict transformation that included resolution approaches but that went beyond that because it went to the core questions of what are we trying to change and what kind of changes are needed. And those may or may not be well suited by simply solving a problem. You can solve a problem and not change anything. That happens all the time.


MR. LEDERACH: You know, that’s the big criticism that a lot of people in Latin America, Asia, and Africa have of the field that I work in, is that people come in with miraculous process and technique and help people hammer out solutions to a problem, but don’t change anything, and so it keeps coming back.

MS. TIPPETT: So give me an example of, you know, tell me a place or a situation that comes to mind when you think about this distinction between solving a problem and where this creativity kicks in.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. So let’s look for a moment. The last six months, I’ve been three times in Nepal so it’s kind of in the fore of my mind. Now, this is mostly at a local level, although both of the organizations are large. One has about 8 million members and one about 2 million members. So I’m working with a small subset of those to develop an approach to local natural resource conflicts that in and around and out of the civil war period have become very divisive and often move quickly to confrontation and violence between different groups. Now, last time I was there — I’m going to start by describing a photograph that we looked at.


MR. LEDERACH: It was a photograph of a community meeting. There were about 150 people. They were seated in different groups. There was a landless group that had been displaced from the war. There was a bonded laborer group, that is, a group that had come out of bonded slavery …

MS. TIPPETT: You know, these categories are just so amazing in themselves.

MR. LEDERACH: They’re mind-boggling.


MR. LEDERACH: Yes. They’re mind-boggling. There was a group of people involved with the forest conservation group, one of the groups that I work with. There was a district forest office. So at one level in the photo, what you see is a conflict resolution process. That is, that there’s a community gathered to talk about how are we going to solve the problem of who has right to use the wood and the forest among the groups that are here.

But at a second and third level, and here is where I think transformation and some of the creativity starts to come in, there were two that were standing up front who looked to be the most visible facilitators. There was a young woman. She’s about 21 years old. This young woman should’ve been sold into prostitution, but because she got connected to the forest user group, she kind of rose up out that and into a place where she had a little more possibility. And standing beside her was a young man about 24 years old who was a former slave, bonded laborer, just recently released. The young man is actually the enemy group of the young woman. Meaning that this is a person who came from the group that encroached, and he’s helping to facilitate a discussion in the community with a young woman who is a representative of the forest user group who feel they got encroached upon.

Around that circle there are eight more of them, a subset of the people in conflict.


MR. LEDERACH: But they have very carefully over months been circulating around their community, preparing for this gathering of people. Now, the gathering they referred to as — and here’s a bit more creativity for you — a “kwati.” And a “kwati” is the national Nepali soup.


MR. LEDERACH: And the national Nepali soup is made up of nine beans and each bean has its own process of fermentation. And the reason why “kwati” was chosen by them at one point was as we began to develop the question how do communities that have natural resource conflicts, how can they develop a process from and with the groups that are in conflict, how will they do that while they remain people that are parts of the groups that are in conflict? And the tension that came up was, am I an activist for my bonded laborers or am I facilitator? You know, there’s a tension that’s there …


MR. LEDERACH: … that would have to be. And so the metaphor that they came up was with this notion of kwati soup. Of nine beans, every bean retains its flavor. That is, every bean is linked to a group and still is very much a spokesperson, an advocate, and connected to the understanding of that group. But when they’re brought together, the nine beans create a flavor that’s good for the whole. So there have to be some of us that also think about the good of the whole, of the community.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. LEDERACH: Now, in that context we have a whole range of changes that start to come to the fore that we’re working on. One is that the community is not dependant on somebody bigger and stronger to decide for them, but they have a greater capacity to do it themselves.


MR. LEDERACH: A second is that their relationships start to change. They begin to shift their understandings of who they are as a community and how they can work at local levels at these kinds of issues. A third one is that when conflict emerges, the two patterns that have been most common are not the only two possibilities: one being confrontation that leads to violence, and the other being avoidance or kind of a win/lose where one people, you know, the landless people just move on to the next community. So the whole way they framed in that photo — I want to go back to that image — it took them two meetings to arrive at the way that they would establish what they were doing, which essentially was how do we conserve the forest and make sure that people have a livelihood and lifehood around us? So the livelihood, especially for the landless and the Dalit, which is the “untouchable” …


MR. LEDERACH: … and the bonded slaves. Now, I thought that was a brilliant framing.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. LEDERACH: And it was done exclusively by a set of people from within their own community.

MS. TIPPETT: I think, you know, just something you just said that feels so important is not only are they framing a new way of being into the future, but that the old ways of dealing become less possible.


MS. TIPPETT: Become impossible to fall back on. I mean, that really is change, right?

MR. LEDERACH: That is change. Yeah. And in some ways, you know, because I work at both a grassroots level and a very high political level, in some ways, to be very honest, the sophistication by which they’re doing it at a local level is leap years ahead of how politics is typically done, which is an all-or-nothing kind of format in which every decision is gauged primarily on whether if we haven’t won, we have at least assured the other cannot carry victory away. And where the bottom common ground becomes some form of sort of weak compromise, but basically it’s assuring that no one else gets ahead of us. And I think those are the challenges that we really have.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. So this brings me to another point you make. This story you just told, and a lot of the stories you tell, are about change that starts small.

MR. LEDERACH: Yes. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And, in fact, never becomes a numbers game even if the change is sustained and profound.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. The importance is an ability to bring together an improbable set of people because it’s going to be that that shifts it.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. More important to the impact that they can ultimately have.

MR. LEDERACH: The impact and the sustainability of the changes that they’re pursuing.


MR. LEDERACH: Exactly. What we attempt to do is to create more people that think like we do, and I think the difficult work of peace-building is to create a quality of relationships among people who don’t think alike. And that’s precisely what I think is so distressful for a lot of folks right now in terms of the American scene.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. LEDERACH: The more polarized it becomes …

MS. TIPPETT: We are congregating with people who agree with everything we say.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. And very little space for disagreement among us.


MR. LEDERACH: In our little enclaves. But also very little capacity to be in significant and quality relationships with people who think very differently.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You can see that amazing photograph from Nepal that John Paul Lederach described at onbeing.org — along with other photographs that put human faces and meaning on news events. My unedited conversation with him is rich with stories that do the same, and that we couldn’t fit into this hour — more of the world-changing speech that the peasant Josué Vargas made in Colombia, for example, and an experience of people navigating past and present in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, an unexpected place where John Paul Lederach’s work has led him — a fascination with the ancient art of haiku as a way to capture what has been called “the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This, he says, emerges again and again as human beings walk the overlapping territories between violence, trauma, healing, and hope.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re grounding the strangely generic and divisive notion of “peace” — thinking about the real work and “the art” of peace. My guest is John Paul Lederach. He’s one of the most esteemed global mediators in the world today. He is a professor at Notre Dame and a lifelong Mennonite — an icon of this tradition of a lived commitment to peace-building. He’s been describing some of what he’s learned in more than 25 countries over more than three decades — what really happens when people transcend violence while living in it, and so find the moral imagination to live beyond it. His daughter, Angie, has followed in her father’s footsteps, and they’ve written a book together, called When Blood and Bones Cry Out. Her work has primarily been in West Africa, with communities devastated by the phenomenon of child soldiers. The process of bringing these children home is also controversial and traumatic. They have not only been brutalized by their experiences; they’ve been forced to commit unspeakable crimes against members of their own families and communities.

MS. TIPPETT: You and Angie writing together have talked about this phrase that we often use about “unspeakable violence.”


MS. TIPPETT: And, in fact, that the ways human beings transcend or give voice to what they need to give voice to sometimes is not through words and process but through poetry and music in that, again, you know, somebody might hear that and say, “Oh, how sweet. How fluffy.” Right?


MS. TIPPETT: But you see these things as essential to survival in the most excruciating circumstances. So, again, is that something you’ve discovered across the years?

MR. LEDERACH: Yes. I think very much so. And a lot of it by having been very close to people who have suffered not just a single event of violence, which is already horrific in itself, but have lived through repeated cycles of that kind of violence and displacement. And so much of the literature that’s written about healing, trauma healing in particular in the field that we work with, and reconciliation is often written from the standpoint of sort of the bigger picture of the things that happen across time. Here are the stages, or here are the phases. And what we were discovering at several levels was that many of the things that were most important to healing and reconciliation are in the realm not only of the unspeakable, but are often in the realm of things that are not linear. That is, that they are circular. They may be repetitious, they may be ritualistic in form, because people have a capacity to experience and feel something for which they cannot give good, clear, or fully explainable words. The words just aren’t there to do it. And essentially what we’ve come up with is that there are some very significant things that happen in healing and reconciliation that cannot be described as a person progressing from point A to B, but that are in fact very important elements of healing. One of those, for example, is the notion that going in circles, we would typically say if you’re looking at it from the lens of a program that has funding that over the next year or two is supposed to produce something and it’s applied …

MS. TIPPETT: And a trajectory. Right.

MR. LEDERACH: It’s applied to healing or reconciliation, then going in circles is not going anywhere. When in fact, going in circles may be doing something that’s very different. It may be about deepening. So, you know, I somewhat facetiously tell my colleagues at Notre Dame where I teach, I said, “Imagine for a moment if the funding agencies were coming here to Notre Dame and were inquiring about your behavior that they’re noticing, which is you keep doing mass, some of you every day, most of you at least once a week. Is there something that’s not effective about the way you’re doing mass? If you did it once, would it not be” — in other words, we don’t apply that …


MR. LEDERACH: We don’t apply that lens to something like mass or music or other things. We understand that the purpose that it has is to create a space that permits you to get back in touch. Now here’s where it becomes important. That words often move things to a head level, explaining …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. LEDERACH: … but the violation lies at the level of the bone. That’s something that you feel in your very core but you may not have words to express.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you also talk about music in these places of extreme conflict and, in fact, you point at taking something seriously that we’ve all had some kind of experience of. I mean, even if you think about, I don’t know, the civil rights movement, the incredible role that music played. Or the 1960s, how Pete Seeger got people singing, right?



MR. LEDERACH: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Right? And, I mean, you’ve experienced this in many, many places how music has this power to be transcendent and to help people transcend the moment. I mean, again, we’ve all experienced that in less extreme circumstances, but also to connect the mind and the heart, right? That place where we try to put words around things and that level of blood and bone where we are inhabiting the experience.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. Well, this was in part — music, among other things, is based very much on sound, and sound is based on vibration. So the way we experience music is much more holistically — it’s a whole body experience. And music, sound, smell — there are several of our senses — are among the things that permit us to move and transport us in time, actually. You can hear a song and it will take you back to a moment.


MR. LEDERACH: Or you can catch a certain smell and it will suddenly feel like you’re transported. And this notion of transportability, we think, is a window into several places in which reconciliation and healing would do well to give more consideration to.


MR. LEDERACH: One is that this idea that vibration touches us, and that quite often what people talk about when they talk about peace-building or they talk about violation or they talk about a peace process, their biggest complaint is they don’t have a voice in the things that are happening. Now, we often take the notion of voice out to the notion of power, which is one element of it, but there is another element that that word “voice” is a metaphor for, which is that violation, violence, numbs people. It leaves people feeling numb. And there’s an element that when we find that a lot of what’s happening for the healing is about feeling like a person again, that those are things that fall below the speakable. They are dealing with acts that were unspeakable and they are moving into the arena of the ineffable. And in that I think what music does is it permits people to touch again, to feel touched by, and to even maybe touch their own sense of personhood and voice. And so while you may not be able to explain, you may not be able to speak your way through certain things, there are times in which music and/or sound may in fact permit that to happen in a much deeper way.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. LEDERACH: In Angie’s work in West Africa, just as examples, both on the side of poetry as well as some of the music …

MS. TIPPETT: And Angie is your daughter, again.

MR. LEDERACH: Angie is my daughter. Right.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. LEDERACH: So her work was with how and what ways communities and particularly women work with the reintegration of child soldiers. And so you have an identity of being a victim, but you also are brought into a fighting force where you become a part of something that requires you to do violence for survival, so you become a perpetrator. You are a motherless child mother.

What she saw rather clearly in the work that she was doing, that in the times when they were interviewing young women who were child mother soldiers about their experience, they found a very sort of flat effect reporting of their life story. A number of them could not read or write, but poetry permitted them to bring forward a voice that was nowhere present in the interviewing format. On the other side of that coin was how, particularly, mothers and communities brought child soldiers back into communities that they — that is, the child soldiers — had actually violated.


MR. LEDERACH: And among the modalities, especially in West Africa, was that many of these went back to rituals of rebirthing. So you would use a birthing ritual, which would typically be done when a child was born into a family or community.


MR. LEDERACH: They used formats of those rituals in order to bring back people into a sense of connection to the community again. And those almost invariably at one point or another involved singing.


MR. LEDERACH: And certainly in some instances drumming. All of which has sort of this vibrational component to it that sits at a much different level than the ones that are more typically explained, especially in the therapeutic understandings of psychological counseling.


MR. LEDERACH: Which seems to be the least useful things in those contexts.

[Sound bite of West African ritual music]

MS. TIPPETT: This ritual music comes from Sierra Leone, where John Paul Lederach’s daughter, Angie, has worked.

I’m Krista Tippett with On Being — conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Art of Peace,” exploring the unexpected learnings of John Paul Lederach. He has spent his life in global conflict transformation.

MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to know how you think about success, what that word means for you, and I wonder if — I always hate these questions where someone asks you, you know, the biggest success, number one. But talk to me about a situation you’ve been involved in that you define as a success and why.

MR. LEDERACH: Well, I described one of those a little bit ago. I’m actually feeling like we’ve made some very interesting progress with this community approach to natural resource conflicts …


MR. LEDERACH: … in Nepal. The other one that it mentioned historically for me that was very, very instructive was of course the work that I did with a local mediation team in Nicaragua between the Miskito Indians and the Sandinista government.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Tell me about that.

MR. LEDERACH: This was in the 1980s, and it was my first real effort to support a team of people who were mediating, who were from the context and country within which they were mediating. So it wasn’t — it was an all-Nicaraguan team except for myself. And, you know, the success side of it was that over a number of years, it was able to bring together representatives of two sides of a war that ended and was probably a precursor to what eventually was the ending of the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras.

The downside of that is that when you look back 10 or 15 years later, there were still the major issues that were being dealt with have not successfully found their transformation, from poverty and some exclusion, certainly for the Miskito, the indigenous people, to the questions of the kinds of rights and platforms that were being talked about during the course of those negotiations. Nicaragua remains a country that, while not at war, has very significant forms of structural violence that haven’t been fully dealt with.

And that’s where I, you know, I have always a kind of a crisis at a personal and professional level in some of this work. The field that I am in is better at ending violence than it has been at building justice.


MR. LEDERACH: And I think that’s where we really have a lot of challenges. So where I’ve given a lot of my life work to actually more of a local community level is because I think the baseline infrastructure that will help shift long-term justice issues are ones that have to be encouraged and nurtured from the grassroots up and not just from policy statements down. Because it seems to never actually get down.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You know, I wonder. It seems to me also that we, and again, who’s my “we”? You know, we, media, the Western cultural imagination. We’re not so good at seeing that kind of success and celebrating it. You know, once something seems to be resolved, we forget that that resolution was possible. And I think Northern Ireland, to me, is a stunning example of a conflict that in my early adulthood was just another one of these examples of people who’d been killing each other for generations. Right? This endless cycle of bloodshed. It was impossible to imagine an end to it.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, as you’re describing in Nicaragua, it’s not heaven on earth but it still this unfolding, evolving process and it’s a success story. It’s a tale that change is possible, but we don’t — it seems to me we don’t dwell, also, culturally when that happens.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. No, I think you’re exactly right. And Northern Ireland is such an interesting example because you look back at the Good Friday Agreement as kind of the pivotal agreement. That’s the, you know, the peace agreement that was signed. And that’s very visible in the media, very much celebrated, looked at. You know, the questions of whether it will hold or not hold, etc.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. LEDERACH: But you take one of the issues that requires enormous transformation in Northern Ireland was policing. During the period of the Troubles, you know, and prior, it was 90-some percent Protestant policemen, very small minority percentage Catholic. The policing was much resented by many of the Catholic neighborhoods.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Police stations were protected by British military.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. So that transformation of policing has been a significant one, but it’s taken more than 15 years. In fact, only just a few years back did some of the major Catholic political parties actually sign on to parts of it because they still were very skeptical that it could happen. And Northern Ireland is a small — compared to other locations, is small and has had huge investment in its peace process, from Europe especially.


MR. LEDERACH: And so we often want things to happen in these locations around the world and we kind of close our eyes to the depth and the history of what has come before and how much of a challenge it is to create the changes that people are talking about, and particularly in the time frames they’re talking about. So Northern Ireland is a good one because I know very few media celebrations of policing in Northern Ireland, and I’ve heard a lot around, you know …

MS. TIPPETT: The agreements that were reached or the …

MR. LEDERACH: The agreements that were reached.

MS. TIPPETT: … famous politicians who made statements. Right.



MR. LEDERACH: So it is a big challenge.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. LEDERACH: I’ve gotten very interested in the connection between poetry and peace-building over the last years. One of those insights and one of those areas of personal discipline for me was both discovering and working with, but then deepening a kind of a haiku understanding of complexity. Which, as I see it, is an ability not to simplify the complex, but to some degree the haikuist is constantly trying to capture the full complexity of a human experience in the fewest words possible. And that discipline is a very interesting one and it requires haikuists — I’m an especially big fan going back into its origin toward Basho and Kikaku, a variety of these haiku Japanese poets. Their understanding of what they were doing was about a kind of a way of being in a context, particularly nature for many of the haikuists, the link between the human experience and the experience of the richness of nature, in a way that you could fully capture the moment, the season, the human experience, but in this very short five syllable-seven syllable-five syllable kind of a format.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

MS. TIPPETT: I love that.

MR. LEDERACH: And that is what the haikuist is after. So I do a variety of things. One of them is that I’ve become much more respectful of, I think, the link between appreciating being in and feeling nature and noticing things that we’re involved in when we’re in settings of violence. For me it’s like a recuperation of sorts. But the other is that as I travel in work, I listen for haiku in people’s conversation because what I find is that quite often when people say something and we all have a kind of an a-ha moment around what was said, it often is a capturing of the complexity, that simplicity on the other side, and it comes out very close to, if not actually in the form of, a haiku. And I could give you one or two of those if you want.


MR. LEDERACH: I refer to them as conversational haikus or poetry in conversation. That is, that people don’t take notice of their poetic capacity in the midst of their conversation, so I take note of it. So I jot notes of it. I sometimes — I don’t often keep all these in sort of my own repertoire. I give them back to people. In fact, I’ve done whole summaries of meetings sometimes just by capturing a range of these haikus. I think you were in one of those once.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, I was at a meeting and you sent us all the haikus at the end. They were fantastic. Yes.

MR. LEDERACH: Yeah. So if you want, let me start …


MR. LEDERACH: … with one or two that are of that nature.


MR. LEDERACH: Seven years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I was sitting in a seminar and people, while still happy that the agreement had held, felt that Northern Ireland had fossilized in its sectoral relations. That is, that things were simply not changing and that it may not get much better. And in a dinner conversation, one of the colleagues from Northern Ireland I was sitting with said this that I placed into a haiku. I actually gave this one a title. I don’t always title my haikus, but this one’s called “Rainbow’s End?”


MR. LEDERACH: A few that were, for me, things that I’ve picked up in places I’ve been that just give a flavor. I’ve worked on occasion with a group of people from Burma — inside, from the ethnic minority groups. They call them ethnic minorities even though they’re the majority. That means they’re not Burmese. And many of them have armed fronts that have been fighting, some of them for decades and decades, against the current regime. I worked primarily with a small group of people who for one reason or another were brought into being shuttle mediators, attempting to open up, discuss, or move some kind of a negotiation on between people in the Burmese government and various of the armed ethnic groups. There were small sets of people who had these experiences from each of the seven or eight ethnic groups. And in 2003, I spent the better part of a week simply listening to their stories. They were, from a mediator’s standpoint, some of the hardest stories that I’ve ever heard.

I can remember one group who lived very close to the Bangladesh border with Burma who needed to carry a message across the border to the commander of an armed movement that was just on the other side, but they could not pass directly through the border to that area. They needed to travel all the way to the capital city of Yangon, get a passport, and every passport has to be turned in after each visit. So it’s a one-time passport. Then fly to a third country in order to convey one message. And then all the way back again to bring it forward, many times sitting with local commanders or groups who would arrest them and keep them imprisoned for weeks on end until they sorted through whether they were legitimate.

The perspective that you have in these situations is so unbelievable about the kind of difficulties that they’re facing. And the group that I was meeting with used a kind of an informal name. They referred to themselves as “The Mediators Fellowship.” And so I wrote a little haiku when I was leaving Yangon, and this is in March of 2003. It was titled “Advice from the Mediators Fellowship.”

Don’t ask the mountain
to move, just take a pebble
each time you visit.


MR. LEDERACH: You want one more?


MR. LEDERACH: Tajikistan. This was translated back from Tajikian to English, and the way that it rang in the translation, I played with it a little bit and it came out almost as a perfect haiku. They have very odd borders in Central Asia that were created by Stalin that have separated small portions of each major group so that every country has a minority of every other country’s majority. And some of the most significant cultural cities of one group are located in a country where they don’t live. So this was the haiku that came out. This one was in April 2003.

Gods and men love maps
they draw borders with pens that
split lives like an ax.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Find these and other haikus by John Paul Lederach at onbeing.org. He is Professor of International Peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His books include The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace and When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation.

For three days in 2009, I participated in an intense dialogue with John Paul Lederach and others engaged in social change from various directions. It was in part an exercise in the tension and ambiguity that exists around notions like peace and compassion. He condensed this lively interaction into 12 “conversational haikus.” They capture the paradox of moral action, meaningful language, and hope. Find these haikus at onbeing.org.

Coming up next time, some of John Paul Lederach’s themes continue to echo — from Detroit no less. I went there to interview Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary Chinese-American philosopher, civil rights icon, and social activist. I found her surrounded by joyful innovation in everything from housing to food to business leadership. Join me for a kind of immersion in an emerging Detroit that defies this city’s image as a symbol of failed economy. And take in Grace Boggs’ perspective after nearly a century of life.

MS. GRACE LEE BOGGS: When you live in a city like Detroit, it’s not just buildings that have become ruins. It’s that a way of life, a way of thinking has died and something else has been born — a new culture, a new spirit. I mean the opportunity that we now have to reimagine everything — what a time to be alive.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: This is APM, American Public Media.

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