“Thank you to God, for whom we are all equal.” So Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Pakistani Taliban last year, began her address to the United Nations Youth Assembly on July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday, and called for improvements in global education.
Malala did not win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, however, despite being heavily favored to do so. That honor, and much deserved, went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Eliminating the curse of chemical weapons from the world is also crucial peace work.
It is well to remember that Mahatma Gandhi never won a Nobel Peace Prize despite having been nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was murdered in January 1948.
The world has given Mahatma Gandhi its prize for peace, however. The world’s peace prize is the way in which, over and over again, Gandhi’s non-violent method of social change has spread and helped empower people to work to change their societies for the better. I wrote that in the #Occupy camps, Gandhi went to Wall Street.
The world has, in a sense, already given Malala Yousafzai the prize for peace this year. The stunned response of Jon Stewart, evident in his widely watched interview of Malala on her new book, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, mirrors the response of many. How can such a young girl speak with such power and compassion? She speaks as and for one of the millions of women and girls who are denied education and subjected to violence. “Education is the power for women,” she said on Stewart’s program, and made a compelling case for why the totalitarian power is so afraid of women and girls.
You watch Malala for only a few minutes and you can see why oppressive power is afraid of educating girls and women.
As wonderfully inspiring as her interview with Jon Stewart was, however, I believe it was her United Nations address that speaks volumes of the spiritual power of courage in the struggle for justice and peace that she seems able to rely on herself, and that she communicates through her work.
Her speech at the UN was one of the most comprehensive addresses I have ever heard establishing a constructive theology for nonviolent social change, and I have assigned it to my seminary students in the senior theology class I teach.
Malala said, at the UN, that though she was shot in the head by the Taliban, and they have killed many other students and teachers, she would not take revenge.
“This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”
At the end of the day, it is Malala’s view that the first thing we need to realize in working for justice and peace around the world is who God is and how God wants us to treat one another.
“I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist, ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply. By pointing to his book he said, ‘A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book,’” she said. “They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school.”
No, God is not a ‘tiny, little conservative’ who sends little girls to hell just because of going to school.’
I believe all our theology and ethics must strive to live up to that profound claim.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President at Chicago Theological Seminary. She is the author of numerous books, including #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.