Why Liberalism Lacks the Moral Imagination to be a Peacebuilding Movement

by Aaron Stauffer

To the everyday liberal, suggesting that there is a need for peacebuilding in the U.S. might seem a bit odd. Ours is a country of conflicts, sure, but nothing that has kept us from reasoning with those with whom we disagree; peacebuilders are sent to war-torn lands. There are other, more interesting reasons that have kept us from seeing current activism or even historical struggles for justice as peacebuilding. It admits that we are living in a society that permits sustained levels of structural violence on peoples and communities. This violence has become so normalized that when we see ghastly examples, such as the killing of black and brown people by police and the subsequent non-indictment of the policemen, our liberal media focuses on police reform and training, rather than the whole edifice authorizing such violence. And, for example, when three young Muslim university students are killed, liberal pundits shy away from naming it as another result of societal dismemberment.

            The connection between Islamophobia and our country’s racial caste system is an important one, and my intentional focus on religion is crucial. In my experience, what we as a country are facing is more than a set of deeply entrenched biases. We’re facing more than a political economy structuring our desires and aspirations, further isolating us from our neighbors. We’re facing the reality that our moral imagination is stunted. It seems we simply can’t come up with a complete picture of what sort of country we really want to be. Admittedly, this task becomes a bit more confused when religion is in the mix. For centuries, our liberal theory has gone on confidently proclaiming religion and politics don’t mix (in an astonishing denial of its own history). And so, when offering alternatives to our current reality, we end up riffing off of the same tune instead of rewriting the score.

            For the last 3 years with Religions for Peace USA, I’ve helped build a public education campaign in Middle Tennessee to make anti-Muslim bigotry socially unacceptable. This work is not flashy. But it places me in the position of asking everyday southern Christians to come and meet a Muslim, and to do so with honesty. Our current religious landscape is an odd mix of public Christianity dressed up as secularity. Robert Wuthnow put it right when he said that we are a society of schizophrenics when it comes to public discourse on religion. Our public discourse is rife with Christian allusions and symbols, and yet we proclaim to be open and inclusive. This sort of environment encourages an understanding of religion as purely a private affair, and when acts of violence break out against Muslims or Arab or South Asians because they “look” Muslim, we dismiss that religion had anything to do with it. In our current society, outbreaks of religious conflict and bigotry are stripped of religious content under the guise that we live in a secular society – this confuses, sadly a notion of secularism as a political project and secularity, as a cultural process that forces religious voices to the margins. So, anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t connected to the larger racial struggle, but instead is seen as an aberration in an otherwise calm, albeit calcified, society. We may have our political conflicts, most liberals say, but religious prejudice isn’t something pressing.

            Connecting anti-Muslim bigotry to the broader system of structured violence by inserting Christian supremacy into the mix helps us see the full picture of what exactly ails our country.

            Seeing the whole picture requires us to place religion in the mix, and it requires us to take up the task of peacebuilding in the U.S. But to see religions as a potential part of a solution does not mean I’m advocating a service-learning or even a CBCO model of social change. The reason that religion is a vital part of this peacebuilding conversation is because we have for too long been locked into the Judeo-Christian frame of how social change happens. Our religious neighbors can teach us much on how social change can occur. That switch in process can significantly alter outcomes. We have to break our conceptual frames of what it means to do interfaith work. We have to admit that we live in a violent society. In order for us to build the bridges necessary to bring all of our communities together we need to cultivate a new moral imagination.           

            Carrying out the work of interfaith peacebuilding means that we have to admit these points out front. What follows is the tenuous game of building relationships and understanding that subverts our common approach to solving our social, religious and political problems. Peacebuilding asks of us to break out of the polarizing discourse of “us vs. them,” without conceding deep injustices in our society. It doesn’t ask us to forget; it asks us to imagine what could be. We have for too long, tried to “solve all of our problems with a hammer.” If we are truly going to come up with societal solutions we have to take a longer view of the ground from which our problems stem. 

Aaron Stauffer is the Executive Director of Religions for Peace USA where he oversees all projects and initiatives, while working with over 50 member communities to inspire and advance common actions for peace. With nearly a decade of experience in the interfaith movement. He most recently worked as an institutional organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, working to build public power within disenfranchised communities. Aaron’s work in the interfaith movement has led him to hold previous positions with the World Student Christian Federation, The World Communion of Reformed Churches, The Coexist Foundation, The El Hibri Foundation and the Presbyterian Church (USA).