Sunday, November 25, 2012

Malala Yousafzai: Sharing in the prophetic task

Because she is a girl, she was shot in the head. 

Malala Yousafzai has become a household name since the Taliban attempted to assassinate her on October 9.  That day, as Malala and other girls rode home from school, Taliban gunmen boarded the canopied Toyota pick up truck that served as their bus.

Malala’s crime: her conviction that girls have a right to education. Her advocacy for the education of girls began in 2009, when the Taliban captured her town of Mingora in the Swat valley of Pakistan, and began a reign of terror. Eleven years old at the time, Malala wrote a blog for the BBC describing life under the Taliban. While Malala wrote anonymously under the pen name Gul Malek, which means “grief stricken”, it was only a matter of time before the Taliban discovered her identity. 

Since 2011, when she was awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, and nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, the Taliban have been out to get Malala, who believes that education for girls is a human right, a means of reducing poverty, and a tool for peace. Not surprisingly, these accolades fail to impress the Taliban, and perhaps make them even more determined to harm Malala, whom they consider to be a “symbol of obscenity”, and “an advocate for the west”. They have said they will attack her again.

Malala has power over the Taliban
Even while she is wounded and recovering in a hospital bed far from home, Malala has power over these men. While she is at her weakest and most vulnerable, the strength of her convictions, her spiritual courage, and her ability to inspire others scare these men. Because of her courageous spirit that arises from her deep convictions, Malala has successfully inspired her community and  captured international attention. She epitomizes Ambrose Redmoon’s definition of courage; “courage is not the absence fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

Malala’s courage is contagious. It empowers others. Despite her fears, Malala publicly expressed the grief of her community and persisted in her criticism of their oppressors.  In the words of Malala’s friend Kainat Riaz, who was also wounded in the attack, Malala gave them courage; “she made us powerful.”

As if to prove her point, Riaz has put herself at risk by telling the story of that fateful day. Armed guards are posted outside her home to protect her and her family. Everyday, she and other girls put themselves in harm’s way when they go to school. Since the assassination attempt the Pakistani Taliban has adopted the horrific practice of throwing acid in the faces of girls who continue to attend school.

A voice in the wilderness cries out for justice
The Taliban has presently silenced Malala, but her voice echoes in the courageous but less attention grabbing actions of others who daily challenge their oppressors. Her voice echoes in the determined footsteps of girls who continue to attend school, refusing to let the Taliban dictate their future. Her voice echoes in the fathers who respect their daughters’ desire to learn, and who still allow their daughters to attend school despite the risks. These fathers and daughters are everyday prophets who know that to do nothing in the face of oppression presents a greater risk. They are laying the foundations for change.

While the Taliban call Malala a symbol of obscenity, others call her a “symbol of resistance”, a “symbol of peace,” and a “voice in the wilderness”.  This last epithet strikes me as particularly apt.  It brings to mind Biblical prophets, like Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist.  These were not doom and gloom harbingers of an apocalypse. These were prophets who brought hope to communities that were oppressed with injustice.  They challenged the dominant culture, offered a different vision of the future and energized the people.

Malala is like these prophets. She discerns a reality that transcends her current personal and communal experience of suffering. She envisions a new future full of possibility.  She inspires others to work for change.

Every so often, someone exceptional like Malala appears as a leader in a community. While her prophetic imagination is linked with the culture and history of a specific situation, the call to be a prophet is universal. Each one of us shares the prophetic task of envisioning and building a more just world, where the dignity and rights of all people are honored. Each one of us has a responsibility to do our part so that justice flows like a mighty river, enriching the lives of all people, regardless of sex, race, or creed.

Read more on the courage of girls like Malala in this story from Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press.

Some Biblical references for the requirement of justice:
Micah 6:8
You have been told, oh mortal, what is good
and what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice and to love goodness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

Amos 5: 22-24

 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reasons to show up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day

Showing up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day is a little bit like attending church on a holy day; I need a very good reason to miss the service. 

The act of remembrance honors those who served, and those who are currently serving in missions overseas. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying thank you to them. The act of remembrance is also an expression of gratitude for the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted, and for the gift of this peaceful, democratic nation that we call home. The act of remembrance expresses our collective desire for peace, and acknowledges our responsibility to build a more just world.

Soldier Statue in Veteran's Square, Trail, BC
Louise McEwan photo

We are there to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism
The main event of every official Remembrance Day service is the two-minute period of silence. The practice dates to a November 1919 proclamation of King George V. George V called for two-minutes of silence at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month “so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”  We are there at the cenotaph to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism.

The observation of silence is a public action; it is something that everyone present engages in together. At the same time, the silence has a very private component; we are alone with our thoughts. It is a good time to reflect on the dignity, value, and sacredness of every person. It is a good time to reflect on the harms of war. It is a good time to reflect on our commitment to peace: peace in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world.

A few years ago, my husband and I attended the Remembrance Day service in Duncan, BC, where we were visiting a friend. The reality of conflict was brought home to me in a sobering way.  During the commemorative silence, instead of reflecting, I found myself observing the scene in front of me.  The numbers of young servicemen and women far exceeded the numbers of aging veterans.  Before my eyes, in the persons of the old and the young, I saw the wars of the past and the militarism of the present.  It was, frankly, a little disheartening.

We are still far from beating our swords into ploughshares
For almost a century, we have been remembering, yet armed conflicts continue to erupt around the world.  As a global community, we have a long way to go before we beat our swords into ploughshares.  We are better at waging war than creating the conditions necessary for peace.

Our slow progress at building peace throws into relief another reason why our presence at the cenotaph is important.  Our presence can also express an element of dissatisfaction. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying that we do not like war. War offends us.

Our commemoration is not an acquiescence to war. It is not an approval for spending ever-increasing amounts of money on the machinery of war.  While our presence at the cenotaph expresses gratitude, and demonstrates support for our troops, our presence also expresses a determination to seek peace.

Military training, weapons, and equipment are not the instruments of peace. We do not win peace through violence. We build peace, not through fighting, but through the promotion of justice, and through the work of reconciliation.

The absence of peace is a result of injustice
The absence of peace is always a result of some type of injustice: political, economic, cultural, or social.  Rigoberta Menchรบ Tum, the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, writes, “Building peace requires that we start by weaving a fabric out of the threads of equality, justice, participatory democracy, and respect for the rights of all peoples and cultures.”

This is easier said than done, as almost a century of remembrance and the history of humanity shows.  So, Remembrance Day is also a great challenge to those of us who yearn for a more harmonious world.

While imprisoned during WWII, a prisoner scratched an already famous war memorial epitaph on the walls of his prison cell: “When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” This year, on Remembrance Day, as we honor the past, let us carry the hope contained in these words in our hearts. May they inspire us to acts of transformation, no matter how small, that will advance a universal culture of peace.