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Essay II
Last Updated: 02/05/2009
Storytelling and the Moral Imagination: Mothering Peace
Grace Kyoon

Key words: moral imagination, storytelling, peace building, transforming conflict, creativity, peace leadership, peace practioners

Theories appear to be the kinds of things that are true or false; but they are also the kind of things that can be e.g. useless, arrogant, disrespectful, ignorant, ethnocentric, imperialistic[1] – Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman

This paper discusses the importance of the moral imagination as a powerful peace building tool in the hands of peace practitioners. It stresses storytelling as an effective method of building the moral imagination and calls upon the individual peace practitioner to look inwards and examine what values they hold true, to recognize that these values get passed along to others in the process of conflict resolution and peacemaking, and to work to nurture and then transfer useful values to others. This paper assumes that peace building is an important enough work to be carried out conscientiously, and that the practitioner’s role in this birthing process is a key one. Therefore, practitioners are invited to think of themselves as being the “mothers of peace” and, in that position, to strive towards being the best they can be.

From Lugones and Spelman’ thoughts on theories, it is safe to say that the Moral Imagination is not a theory. According to the Oxford Canadian dictionary (2006) the word moral “is concerned with goodness or badness of human character or behavior; or with the distinction between right and wrong” while imagination is “mental faculty forming images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses, the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.”[2] The moral imagination has to do with the ability to paint persuasive mental pictures of good or bad human character and behavior, and to be creative in so doing. It is about human experiences, connections and relationships that can influence (and be influenced) positively or negatively. Moral imaginations have the power to shape and transform thoughts, beliefs, ideologies, convictions and conflicts. McFaul (2003) describes the idea of the moral imagination as follows:

The moral imagination sits at the center of the transformation process. In short, transformation presupposes the existence of a vision that will guide it. When we speak of the imagination, we refer to the ability of the human mind to create mental pictures of various types such as ideas, impressions or descriptive and colorful visions. The moral imagination can combine previous experiences and anticipate the possibility of new ones. It can draw from memory and invent alternative ways of perceiving the future. It can take old ideas or impressions, break them down into smaller parts and reassemble them into new patterns that have never before existed.[3]

John Paul Lederach (2005:29) prefers to think about the phrase “moral imagination” as the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world, yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist. This relates quite nicely to peace building – the idea that there exists the capacity to imagine and generate constructive responses and initiatives that transcend the challenges of violence and work to break the grips of destructive patterns and cycles of violence. Lederach further opines that, in order to transcend the vicious cycles of violence that bewitch the human community and ensure the survival of a global community, the imperative of the moral imagination must be understood and practiced. Humans must accord proper space to the moral imagination in human affairs (p.172).

The moral imagination can be thought of as the womb where peace is born. Just as an egg is fertilized, finds growth, is born, and then continues to develop, so peace is born in the domain of its believers’ hearts up until it can be transferred to the hearts and thoughts of other persons or communities, and then made to function for the benefit of the human community.

In the heat of deadly conflict, parties locked in violence and entrenched positions are usually not in the best position to think creatively or to invoke the moral imagination. Valerie Rosoux (2005) writes about how conflicting parties tend to retain or even over-accentuate negative memories of events occurring in times of conflict. Sometimes, negative memories can be seized by politicians and used to propagate political interests that serve to fuel deadly conflicts. Such politicians drum up past suffering and injuries and make no attempt at using positive memories to promote peace. Indeed, many of those in conflicting situations may not have the capacity for the moral imagination at all.

Therefore, in order for seeds of peace to be planted, and eventually bear the fruit of reconciliation, the moral imagination needs to be made mobile. Practitioners, as bearers of peace seeds, must be willing to incubate its delicate nature and to nurture it among conflicting parties. Peace practitioners become the “mothers” of peace as they incubate, birth, and spread her message abroad.

Peace scholars and practitioners have an imperative to “mother” peace because, left in the minds of only a few, peace will continue to be a far-away thought, a mirage. The quest for peace becomes powerful when it is effectively interpreted and conveyed to the mind (imagination) of others, and then made to function and flow through their actions.

The functionality of peace depends to a large extent on the ability of peace practitioners to transmit its abstract values to their subjects. Douglas Fry (2006) has noted that, although conflict and aggression are inevitable features of social life, there is a certain peacefulness in humans that can be tapped into. The onus for nudging ahead the human potential for peace necessarily lies with practitioners, and practitioners are daily at risk of becoming pathetic bystanders – what William Zartman (2005) refers to as “Cowardly Lions” – if they do not find the daring to invite conflicting parties to the moral imagination.

An effective technique for developing the moral imagination is through storytelling. During violent conflicts, people may lose the moral imaginations that they may have previously had, and need to relearn how to be human, how to think in moral terms and how to focus on positive mental images that are essential for reconciliation and peace. In order to approach their “enemies” with peacemaking in mind, parties to a conflict need a common ground basis from which to rehumanize their perceived “enemies”. In this regard, storytelling becomes a powerful means through which the moral imagination is brought to conflicting parties. Storytelling is one strategy for peace building that has the capacity to transcend cycles of violence and reach into the forgotten recesses of the human heart to appeal for peace. Stories have the powerful quality that they are non-threatening in nature and can step into a tense situation without having to put actors in a conflict in an awkward position (Senehi 2002).

In situations of protracted violent conflicts, where there is a dearth of moral imagination and people are in need of a mental reshaping in order to recover from the polarity violence creates, Jessica Senehi (2002) argues that, through constructive storytelling, listeners can learn to build relationships that are safe, trusting, intimate, and characterized by openness. Practitioners in the process of birthing peace by constructing the moral imagination through storytelling are, in effect, creating a safe environment for their listeners. By gently refocusing the imaginations of their listeners, modeling peace and emphasizing respect in their storytelling, the practitioner reintroduces the value of peace to aggressors and victims of conflict, thereby providing a common ground for reconciliation.  Through storytelling, “enemies” relearn the core human values that have been lost with weeks, months, or years of antagonistic behavior.

As advocates and conveyors of the moral imagination, peace practitioners are exemplary leaders; they are models of peace, speaking and acting in ways that help shape the thinking of communities that have suffered a void of peace and the moral imagination. Through this effort, the practitioner should speak with words and personal conviction exemplified by action. Parker J. Palmer (2000) argues that “the power of authentic leadership is not found in external arrangements, but in the human heart, authentic leaders aim at liberating the heart, their own and others’ so that its powers can liberate the world.”[4] To hear about and watch peace in a model practitioner is a powerful way to help conflicting parties reconnect with each other and others in more constructive ways.

In mothering peace, it is the practitioner’s duty to ensure ease and multi-level safety for conflicting parties. Through storytelling, the practitioner provides what Lederach calls a “safe space for the creative act”[5] – a space where human action finds expression. Storytelling creates such an environment. Sometimes, formal peace meetings, such as conferences, seminars, and workshops, may convey a sense to parties in a conflict that they need to speak or behave in ways that are “politically” correct. Storytelling on the other hand, has an appearance of informality that significantly puts people at ease and presents a setting where “enemies” can share human traits like laughing or crying together.

Dan Bar-On (2000) adopted the storytelling model to bring together descendants of Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust perpetrators so they would meet face to face and share what were the true human experiences of that time. At these expectedly intense meetings, storytelling provided a forum and also became the medium for conveying the moral imagination; through stories, participants were able to see inside each other’s experiences. To look into another’s (“enemies”) soul and see the wounds that conflict causes, is to share their humanity and is the core of the moral imagination’s power to deter the recurrence of wanton violence.

Stories in the hands of skillful peace practitioners serve as threads that tie humanity together. If these are constructively told with peace building in mind, they can question the status quo of hate that conflicts and violence create, by questioning the moral value of such actions. The moral imagination brings people to a place where they are able to step back and objectively consider how they have contributed to hurt the other. As the practitioner relays the moral imagination, the hearer makes mental notes, analysis and judgments of the situation without feeling threatened.

For instance, in the Bible story of King David and Bathsheba[6], Prophet Nathan confronts the kings “sin” of adultery and murder with a story. He appeals to the king’s moral imagination through a story that does not make the king feel threatened or accused. Using the story, the prophet painted a moral picture that the king quickly identified with. With his acceptance also came the willingness to own up to his guilt, and the power of the moral imagination prompted him to decide on a plan for justice. Even when it eventually turned out he had made a moral judgment on his own action, the story had compelled him to a graceful acceptance of the consequences of his actions. Justice had taken place without resistance, rationalization or a perception of unfairness because the moral imagination was at play in the hands of a skillful peace practitioner.

In conclusion, it becomes evident that in addition to intellectualization and academic analyses of issues from many dimensions as peace builders/scholars/practitioners do, there ought to be a component of the peace building process that is highly effective in directly transforming conflictants, attitudes and relationships. A creative tool such as storytelling fulfils this role in peace building, with the power to convey moral imaginations that transform perspectives and relationships of listeners. For their part, practitioners must invite conflicting parties to see in addition to hearing the value of peace. These pictures of hope and peace must be skillfully painted by peace practitioners.  Storytelling plays an important role in the practitioner’s work of building peace. As conveyors of the moral imagination practitioners are exemplary leaders with authenticity; they are mothering peace, they must never forget!

[1] Janet Kourany et. Al eds. (1992) Have we got a theory for you? Prentice Hall pg 385.

Taken from Edward Stevens (1997) Developing Moral Imagination: Case Studies in Practical Morality Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. pg. v

[2] Oxford Canadian Dictionary 2nd ed. (2006) Oxford University Press pg. 486 & 650

[3] Thomas R. McFaul (2003) Transformation Ethics: Developing the Christian Moral Imagination University Press of America Inc. pg. x

[4] Parker J. Palmer (2000) Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation Jossey Bass Publishers CA pg. 76

[5] John Paul Lederach (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace Oxford University Press New York pg. 38

[6] Holy Bible – 2nd Book of Samuel Chapters 11 and 12. 


Dan Bar-On (2000) Bridging the Gap: Storytelling as a way to work through political and collective hostilities. Korber-Stiftung

Douglas P. Fry (2006) The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. Oxford University Press, Oxford New York.

Holy Bible New International Version (1984) Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I. William Zartman (2005) Cowardly Lions: Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse. Lynne Rienner Pub. Boulder, London.

I. William Zartman ed. (2007) Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods & Techniques (revised ed.) United States Institute for Peace, Washington D.C.

Janet Kourany et. Al eds. (1992) Have we got a theory for you? Prentice Hall

Taken from Edward Stevens (1997) Developing Moral Imagination: Case Studies in Practical Morality. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc

John Paul Lederach (2005) The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace Oxford University Press New York

Parker J. Palmer (2000) Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation Jossey Bass Publishers CA

Senehi Jessica (2002) Constructive storytelling: Building Community, Building Peace. Peace and Conflict Studies Journal.

Thomas R. McFaul (2003) Transformation Ethics: Developing the Christian Moral Imagination University Press of America Inc.

Valerie Rosoux (2005) Memory and International Negotiation: The Franco-German Case. In I. W. Zartman and Victor Kremenyuk (2005) Peace Versus justice: Negotiating Forward-and-backward-Looking Outcomes. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Oxford.

Grace Kyoon is a PhD Candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies at the Arthur V. Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice, University of Manitoba.