On October 9, 2012, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban for advocating for girls' right to attend school. Malala survived the attack, and earlier this month she celebrated her 16th birthday by giving an impassioned speech to the United Nations, advocating for equal rights to education.
This 16-year-old girl was as eloquent and passionate as a seasoned statesman. Her words rang with truth and power. She reminded us that the world is full of vitriol and violence, hate and ignorance — that this is true for people of all faiths, all backgrounds, all political parties. That there is no corner untouched by darkness.
But at the U.N., celebrating her sweet 16, Malala was a light.
I listened to Malala’s story and got chills. As children, before we learned to use politics and policy to defend the lesser inclinations of the heart, we asked: why do people hate? Why do they do harm?
Malala answers: Because they are afraid. Because they think that violence will silence the message of justice and equality for all. It is easier, perhaps, to think “God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school.”
Easier to misuse, in the context of her faith, the name of Islam for their own personal benefits, when really, “Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood.”
Over the last week, on television and around kitchen tables, American’s have had much to say about vengeance — about one's right to self-defense against an attacker, to stand one’s ground in the face of violence.
In the Christian faith, verses of swords and battles are bandied, and we are left where we began, with each side thinking it is right.
Malala, shot in the head at age 15 by grown men, spoke these words:
"I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. 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. Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness."
In making this claim, Malala reminded us all of the power of forgiveness and that those in faith communities bring hypocrisy into their midst by declaring anything other than peace. I was humbled by this child’s story.
This is what one small girl, standing alone, can do.
We may not be able to share our story the way Malala has. We probably will never have the U.N. as our audience or make the international news. That does not mean we don’t have a story to tell. Not everyone has experienced poverty, violence, a broken immigration system, or discrimination, yet almost everyone has an opinion on these matters. Our stories can better inform those opinions. When we speak boldly of our first-hand experiences, like Malala did, people listen. And from that, amazing things happen.
One person’s heart can change.
Sharing our lives means making ourselves vulnerable. We will be criticized and misunderstood. But ask yourself — what can your story do? Can it in some way remind others that if we are to carry a sword, it is to fight poverty and oppression? If we are to battle, it is to be for peace and mercy? Can it change hearts and minds for the goals of justice and love? Perhaps it can simply help someone else feel a little more understood than they were before.
As Malala says, it is our task as humans to work for peace, prosperity, and the protection of those smaller than us — to fight against terrorism and violence, and to be tolerant and reject prejudice. We truly can do all those things through something as simple as sharing our story.
I will make myself vulnerable. Will you?
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and a Faith Village contributor. Her work can be found online at Christianity Today, Sojourners, and Red Letter Christians, among others. She blogs weekly, and you can connect with her on Facebook or on Twitter @HappyHanauers.