A COMMITMENT to mediating conflicts has taken John Paul Lederach to all corners of the globe. He is professor in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and he recently won the Reinhold Niebuhr Award given each year to a member of the Notre Dame community whose life and writings exemplifies a passion for social justice. His books include The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford, 2005).
How was your approach to peacebuilding formed?
My spiritual formation comes from the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. I first worked with the Mennonite Central Committee. After my sophomore year in college I worked in a student housing project in Belgium that had students from French-speaking Africa and from South America. Those conversations, those people and those experiences gave me an early understanding of how to resolve conflicts. I wasn't doing anything but cooking meals, fixing pipes and occasionally helping students resolve issues at the university The vast majority of the work was listening.
When you write about peacebuilding, you often describe it in a way that makes the mediator invisible. What exactly does a mediator do?
We often think of mediators as bringing to a situation of conflict a new way of doing things. What's less easy to grasp is the idea of opening up a mediating space. A mediator accompanies people so that they can begin to engage each other. This might mean helping people who have been voiceless to make their case coherently. It is equally important, and maybe harder, to accompany those who have been privileged by power as they shift their attitudes. The goal is for groups of people that have been in violent conflict or in complete disengagement to find a way to engage more constructively.
What do you make of you, a Mennonite, from a pacifist tradition, winning an award named for Reinhold Niebuhr, a defender of the just war tradition?
The conversation between the two traditions has always been framed as involving a yes or no to pacifism. But I think the question has to be: What can we do to the best of our ability in a given circumstance? On that issue, the two traditions have far more things that connect than separate them.
I'm working on a project in Columbia that unites Catholics, Mennonites and evangelicals. We located 15 communities that are the hardest hit by violence but that have chosen to respond without taking up guns. Some have declared peace zones; some are looking at reparations to restore their areas. Protestants and Catholics in these areas have similar experiences and have creative ways of cooperating.
A lot of your work requires finding outside sources of funding. What is your wish list for funding peacebuilding?
I would like those who fund these projects to operate with a ten-year perspective rather than a one- or two-year perspective. I've been working in Columbia and the Philippines since the late 1980s, so I am involved in a two-decade process in those places. But in the professional mediation circuit, most people think of bringing people together over several weeks to solve a dispute. When I speak about the need for long-term engagement, I often feel like I am speaking a foreign language in my own professional community.
One has to think both of a long-term strategy and a short-term response. Often in relief work, people focus on the short-term response--but without a sense of the horizon, you become a firefighter. …