ArtWay

The elitism, commodification and commercialisation in the current contemporary art world need challenging, and Christians should be prepared to do that. Adrienne Chaplin

The Moral Imagination: Art and Peacebuilding

The Moral Imagination: Faith, Art, and Peacebuilding

by Laurel Borisenko

I recently completed my PhD on the topic of peacebuilding using the arts, with the following thesis: creative expression is central to conflict transformation in situations of protracted violence. It not only allows – but requires – that we search for creative solutions; it provides a venue for telling and for sharing our stories; and it allows for building of relationships, which is essential for any sustainable solution.[1]

Refugee participants focus group

My research focused on the two broad areas of creative expression and peacebuilding. However, as a Christian, I was also processing my personal questions of how this related to my faith perspective, which added a third dimension for consideration. I was able to find a wide array of resources on any two of these areas (faith and art, faith and peace, art and peace), but I had not found any material combining the three areas of art, peacebuilding, and faith. As I reflected on the intersection of these three areas, I became more and more convinced that the relationship was not superfluous, but central.

From a Christian theological perspective, I propose that creative expression is part of our God-given identity. To be creative is the very essence of who we are as creatures of a Creator-God. I sometimes use the terminology ‘arts-based strategies’ as a kind of short-hand description, but – even as I use it – I recognize that it is a reductionist term. This is not just a strategy, it is our ontology – our way of being. Creative expression is more than simply a tool, but a part of who we are as humans. 

And it is also our epistemology – our way of knowing. The process of the creative act opens us to different ways of knowing. It allows us to ‘know’ things kinetically, visually, orally, and metaphorically. Peace researcher and activist John Paul Lederach makes the connection that this epistemological shift in ‘knowing’ creatively leads to ‘acting’ creatively.[2] Creative expression makes us think more deeply about ourselves and the world around us. Artists take time to penetrate below the surface of things to rediscover the world with the eye of a lover. Art can shift our perspective.

Refugee and American actors perform together

I came to understand through my research that in the context of conflict transformation (and I think in general) the key purpose of creative expression is to provide a venue for people to tell their stories, and for their stories to be heard. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most universal forms of communication that human beings have. What is the first verse of the Bible? ‘In the beginning God created’; not so unlike ‘Once upon a time’. The record that God has given us of who he is and how we should live has been given to us as story in a variety of literary genres. Luci Shaw points out that the word ‘poet’ means ‘maker’ and God is the first Poet. Shaw, herself a poet, observes that far more than we love doctrines and principles we love a good story: narrative, plot, meaning, suspense, all leading us to ask, “And then what happened?” She concludes, “When God reasons with us, it is not by creed or abstract propositions of dogma, but by images.” Jesus in the incarnation tells the story of God with his actions and life.[3] 

How then can creative expression contribute to [re]conciliation? Lederach poignantly articulates the connection between storytelling and peacebuilding. “We live by the stories we tell about each other. Once guns are chosen as the way to tell our stories, the modality by which we communicate, it becomes hard to find our way back to words.”[4] Storytelling offers that first crucial venue to speak of the violence in a safe context where the long road to reconciliation can begin. It provides the platform for communication, which is the first step to understanding and to the possibility of establishing relationship. 

Congolese refugee women perform at World Refugee Day

Creative expression should not remain in isolation, but through storytelling become part of the human connection. Violence is born out of dehumanizing others; healing becomes possible when all sides of a conflict regain their humanity and recognize the humanity of ‘the other’. Arts-based community developer John McNight also looks to creative expression to deepen our human connections. He asks how we create authentic kindness: “... song and dance create kindness in the world... telling your story creates kindness in the world. Those are the building blocks: dance, music, storytelling.”[5] 

Creative expression alone may not transform wide-scale conflict, but it can transform individual participants. As Leonard Bernstein observed: “Art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people... because people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged – they then act in a way that may affect the course of events... by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think.”[6] 

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Laurel Borisenko has worked internationally in the field of humanitarian aid and peacebuilding for the past fifteen years. She has been based primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, working with the United Nations and with faith-based NGOs. Through her PhD research in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Uganda, she examined how communities that have undergone violent conflict have used the arts (specifically theatre) to move toward healing and reconciliation.


[1] Laurel Borisenko, Arts-Based Peacebuilding: Functions of Theatre in Uganda, Kenya, and Zimbabwe (University of Amsterdam, 2016).

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

[3] From blog writing, ‘Because God Loves Stories’, Deb Thomas, accessed May 2016.

[4]  Lederach, John Paul and Lederach, Angela Jill, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation (Oxford, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

[5] McKnight, John, & Block, Peter, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010), 85.

[6] Gruen, John. “Leonard Bernstein.” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1972.