The power of the moral imagination


An Edinburgh based academic finds that the role of the arts in peacebuilding chimes with one of the insights of the teaching of the church.

For four years of the Bosnian War, from 1992 to 1996, the city of Sarajevo was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces. Heavy artillery took up positions in the surrounding hills, and shelled the city on an almost daily basis. Inside the city, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries took up positions along Sarajevo’s main boulevard, the ‘Dragon of Bosnia’ Street, which quickly became known as ‘Sniper Alley’. From vantage points on the many high-rise buildings in the district, they shot indiscriminately at civilians who dared to venture out for food or to move around the city.

On May 26th, a bread shop opened in the centre of Sarajevo for a few hours. At 10am, as local people formed a queue outside the shop door, a mortar bomb landed, killing 22 and wounding many more. The area was home to Vedran Smailovic, an internationally known classical cellist, who spent the afternoon at the site of the explosion, helplessly watching as his neighbours died. The next day, after the shelling had subsided, he returned home, washed, shaved, put on a white bow tie and a black evening suit, and went to play his cello at the sight of the previous day’s massacre. For the next 22 days, one day for each victim of the mortar attack, Smailovic would play his cello in many of the ruined buildings of Sarajevo.

On one such occasion, a television reporter approached him as he sat playing during a brief respite from the shelling. ‘Aren’t you crazy,’ the reporter asked, ‘sitting here playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?’ ‘Playing music is not crazy.’ Smailovic replied. ‘Why don’t you go and ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.’

Intrastate conflict
Since the end of the Cold War, most of the armed conflicts taking place in various countries around the globe have been intrastate. That is, rather than one state waging war with another, these conflicts take place within countries as different political factions, national, ethnic or religious groups fight for power or the right to self-determination. These kinds of conflict pose very different challenges from conflicts between the legitimate armies of separate states. The violence is likely to be very localised, taking place not on some distant battlefront, but in nearby cities, towns and villages. That means that infrastructure and ordinary life suffer badly, and it also results in large sections of the civilian population being severely traumatised by direct contact with violence. Some members of the civilian population will become armed protagonists, others will flee the fighting, but very many are likely to witness or even commit horrendous acts of violence. Even after ceasefires and peace talks, and the end of open armed conflict, such societies often experience high levels of criminal and domestic violence, or sporadic outbreaks of deadly unrest. Once it has established itself, the logic of conflict is hard to uproot: the craziness of violence becomes normal, and ordinary life becomes unimaginably distant.

As the bloody intrastate conflict in Syria has unfolded over the past year, many of us have felt something of Vedran Smailovic’s helpless horror and sorrow as he watched his neighbours dying. The Syrian situation seems to demand more than just anguish from a distance, though: we feel some action should be taken, particularly in light of the recent chemical attacks. The question is what should be done. The UN, hamstrung by Russian support of the Assad regime, cannot back military action and, while the United States and France argued in favour of limited military strikes, the UK parliament voted 285-272 against armed intervention. Recriminations flew, as politicians from different countries and parties accused one another of abandoning their moral responsibility and betraying the Syrian people.

One of the things worth noticing about the debate over Syria is the degree to which the crazy logic of violence also holds us in its thrall. For sure, armed intervention sometimes seems the best or only way to protect basic human rights, or bring a swift end to a conflict that would be otherwise long drawn out and bloody. But there is a working assumption in some sectors of the international community that the only kind of action that would really count as fulfilling our moral duty towards Syria would be military action of some kind: ‘doing something’ is equated with adding violence to violence, and anything short of joining in with the civil war on what we judge to be the right side appears to be a dereliction of moral duty. That violence is the answer is assumed: the only questions left are on whose side to intervene, how, and when.

Moral imagination
‘Why don’t you go and ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello?’ In one sentence, Vedran Smailovic turned the logic of conflict and the craziness of violence on its head. His decision to dress for a concert, take his cello out and play was a sort of protest: the protest of ordinary life and creativity in the face of violent conflict. The peacebuilder John Paul Lederach describes these kinds of actions as displaying ‘moral imagination’: the ability, in the midst of the cycles of violent conflict, to imagine a way beyond them, and the ability to engage in acts of creativity in the face of the physical and social destruction of a society. Lederach argues that moral imagination is absolutely indispensable for peacebuilding. Appealing to creativity, cello- playing and individual moral heroism in the face of a conflict like the one raging in Syria may seem like the worst kind of mushy idealism, but Lederach’s insistence on the importance of the moral imagination springs from three decades of experience as a mediator in some of the most vicious conflicts taking place worldwide. Military intervention, high-level peace agreements negotiated between leaders of armed groups and decommissioning weapons may all have their role to play in stabilising situations of war, but without the imagination of ordinary people like Vedran Smailovic, no negotiated peace will hold.

Lederach’s insight chimes in with one of the insights of the Catholic Church’s teaching on peace. Fundamental to that teaching is a deeply held commitment to the dignity and freedom of the human person. Human beings are created by God, redeemed by Christ who himself is our peace (Eph 2:14), and called to the dignity and freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Violence is neither natural nor inevitable and nor, in the end, will it prevail. Instead, the Church holds up a truth about human beings and human societies that runs deeper than the logic of violence: peace is both natural and possible if, with the help of grace, we strive for it. As the hopeful optimism of the 1960s wore thin, that teaching on peace has attracted criticism for being unrealistic and politically naive, for underestimating the power of sin, and for overestimating human good will. But, at its best, Church teaching on peace is the same kind of crazy as Vedran Smailovic, sitting in the rubble, playing his cello – the kind of crazy that is hopeful, courageous and right.

Dr Theodora Hawksley works for the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues on a project called ‘Peacebuilding Through Media Arts’.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.