Mobilising around our interdependency: Professor John Paul Lederach in conversation with Dr Gladys Ganiel
by Emily DONEGAN
3 February 2021
In an online event organised by Queen’s University Belfast’s Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and as part of the Four Corners Festival, Dr Gladys Ganiel conversed with Professor John Paul Lederach, an internationally acclaimed expert in conflict transformation.
This year’s Four Corners Festival offered a range of daily events for a week, with the overall aim of drawing people together from across Belfast and beyond to develop connections, bonds, and to further peacebuilding in the city.
The online conversation between Dr Gladys Ganiel, a sociologist of religion at Queen’s University Belfast, and Professor John Paul Lederach, Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, was a highlight of the festival. Over 220 participants listened in as Ganiel and Lederach discussed peacebuilding, walking, religion, and art.
Lederach began by talking about how his interest in peacebuilding and conflict resolution developed growing up in the 1960s. Particularly influential for him were Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and the peace movement and protests against US involvement in the Vietnam War. He sought out the then-nascent field of peacebuilding and conflict resolution and never stopped. Expressing his passion for peacebuilding, community engagement, and pacifism, he said, “Pacifism isn’t about just pulling back from violence and disengaging from the world. It’s rather about providing alternatives to violence, finding ways to interact with the messiness of the world.”
Ganiel asked about the influence of religion in peacebuilding, in his own experience. Having grown up in Mennonite communities across the US, Lederach described how religion has played an important part in his life and work. However, he was keen to point out that ideas such as mercy, forgiveness, truth, and justice, while resonating deeply with Abrahamic religions in particular, are also secular notions, universally acknowledged, and that these ideas are the foundation all around the world for peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Lederach also talked about how notions of a complete or perfect peace are giving away to an “imperfect peace”, as better reflecting the dynamic of peacebuilding in the real world. He reflected further on instances where certain aspects have been ignored in peacebuilding efforts, only for these aspects to return and “knock on your door” later — showing how peace is illusory if the process is not inclusive, dynamic, and truthful. Lederach lamented the chronic racism in the United States, as a country built on slavery and the extermination of indigenous peoples, and which has ignored that truth for too long, with black and indigenous communities continuing to be sidelined and discriminated against. He emphasised how much more needs to be done — what he called “a deep reckoning” — to achieve peace, freedom, and equality for all people.
Ganiel then asked how repair can be brought to situations in practice, and pointed out that during his decades-long international career in peacebuilding, Lederach’s distinctive contribution has been to use creative and artistic approaches rather than focus on political negotiations. Lederach explained the important role of art in peacebuilding, as enabling tangible results to be felt in a process that is otherwise mostly intangible, and also as enabling deeper emotions to be expressed, including emotions that may not be possible to express in words, for one as a means of catharsis post-trauma. He illustrated how in past peacebuilding efforts, art was considered an add-on, a bonus, whereas now it is being placed at the centre of the process. Lederach emphasised the importance of recognising the innately human ability of grouping together to move and to create.
Questions were also taken from the audience. Lederach was asked how religious organisations can contribute to healing and reconciliation, given that harm may have been done by religious organisations themselves. Lederach replied that there is no one of religious affiliation who has not created internal harm, and that we need to demand greater accountability and transparency from our organisations, including redefining how organisations are structured.
Asked about what he saw as the post-Trump way forward for the United States, considering the continued defunding of the arts coupled with the persistent resistance to any processing of the systemic oppression the nation was founded upon, Lederach responded with an inspiring call to action:
“Start with what you have access to. We will not get perfect answers from the top down. Ask yourself what you do have access to, and keep reaching one step outwards from there, taking one risk at a time, and strive to get outside of your bubble, whether across religions or race. Stay connected, stay in touch with people who are doing something different, with a range of people, as the one system extends to them, and we can find bridges and gain understandings.”
He continued with remarks about big issues remaining:
“Biggest for me is how fast and furious current social media make the construction of alternative worlds, and we are not fully understanding the pace of that. Also, in the States, with guns, we have a long way to go. Gun sales have exploded in the States since the first lockdown and we need to start tracking and understanding how and why — what is the fear. And be cautious with using “they” — don’t blame somebody or some group. You need to be able to reach out and begin there. We can do better every day, one step better. Plan on a lifetime, because change takes time. So, whatever brings you joy — art, sitting in the sun, walking — build that into your activism because we don’t need you to burn out.”
Lederach closed the discussion with a final message going forward:
“We are in a really significant century. George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have woken many of us up to the profound injustices in our systems. And Covid has taught us that we are one connected and interdependent global family. We are depleting the fundamental resources of our planet and we are treating too many of us horribly.
“We need better models of representation. We overemphasise the idea of the ‘sitting around a table to talk through our problems’, the model of negotiations and political processes, which reduce it to a few speaking on behalf of the whole. The field of peacebuilding has been largely defined by this metaphor of the table. This century we need to evolve new and differentiated metaphors…
“One metaphor which I think could be useful comes from entomology, from the insect world. The key question in the study of social insects such as ants and termites was how whole collectives made decisions without hierarchy. And the answer is they do this with millions of points of scent left across the landscape. Individuals are constantly in movement, within and beyond the community, in conversation and leaving scents. Taking this as our metaphor for action instead then, we can collectively and constantly connect and mobilise around our interdependency.”
Image source: PxHere.