Malala’s Magnificat

Earlier this work Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who had been shot in the head by the Taliban as a result of campaining for an education for herself and other young Afghan women, celebrated her 16th birthday by addressing the Youth Assembly of the United Nations in the presence of the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A video and transcript of  the speech is available at this link.

Whilst listening to it I was struck by the similarity between this speech and the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) which was also a speech by a young woman from the Middle East. The result was this sermon delivered on 21st July 2013.

What can this speech tell the church today?

Message for the world

One of the first insights can be explored by the way I’ve phrased this question “what can this speech tell the church today? Malala’s message clearly isn’t for the church. It’s not for the Mosque of Islam either though, or the town of Swat where she grew up, or for Pakistan. It’s a message for the world. This is a difference with the Magnificat which is essentially a Jewish psalm for Jewish people. We as a church spend far too much time thinking about our message for the church or for Christians. How often do we see our message is one for the world?

If you listen to most of the sermons preached form this pulpit they will be about our god, our theology, our way of viewing the world. We often preach a very small god, confined to a particularly range of activities. We seek our inspiration from a narrow range of people, assuming that god can only act through Christians. We expect our god to work in a rather petty way within our personal and congregational lives. We take a magnificent and universal God that is beyond comprehension and try and squeeze him (and it almost always “him” when we act in this way) into a box that suits our existing prejudices and limited understanding.

Malala’s speech transcends all that. It doesn’t close our vision down by erecting barriers and screens. She doesn’t stake out a claim that her way is different and only those like her will be able to see this. She broadens her horizons by assuming that we can learn from people of all traditions. She learnt compassion not only from Muhhamed the Prophet of Mercy but also from Jesus Christ and the Buddha. She demands change not only as did Muhammad Ali Jinnah but also Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. She has seen the power of non-violent protest not only from Bacha Khan but from Mahatma Gandi, and Mother Theresa. How often are we, as Christians, as expansive and inclusive as this in proclaiming our message?

Explained in a language the world can understand

Malala also speaks in a language the world can understand. She is a sixteen year old girl speaking a language that any sixteen year old anywhere in the world can understand. The speech was delivered to other teenagers at the United Nations Youth Assembly. Neither she nor her audience are yet old enough to have learnt the political, diplomatic or theological jargon that obscures truth. She speaks simply and directly from experience. She wanted to be educated, she spoke out when she was deprived of education, she was shot by those who didn’t like what they heard, she has recovered and has a more powerful voice now than her assassins could ever have imagined.

Malala’s is probably one of the most powerful stories of death and resurrection that we have in the modern world. It is certainly a story of Kings being brought down from their thrones and the lowly raised up. We could invest this story with layers of theological significance – you’ll see that even in a sermon reacting against this way of doing things I can’t resist it – but every layer of theology that we wrap it up in risk’s concealing its importance from those who don’t understand or accept that theology. By telling her story simply and directly Malala speaks to everyone.

Jesus spoke simply and directly. I have no doubt about that. He told stories which enshrined universal truths – the prodigal son, the good shepherd, the Good Samaritan. He didn’t have to explain those stories. He didn’t need to wrap them up in complex theology. They spoke for themselves to the people he addressed directly and they have continued to speak directly to the generations that have read them since.

Yet this isn’t the church’s model today is it. We actual invest considerable resources in training our ministers and preachers to think theologically. Our adoption of the lectionary implies that it is more important to have an annual cycle of preaching which addresses the full range of biblical stories and theological topics rather than one that takes its inspiration from the events of our personal lives or the stories we see on the news or the Internet. Let’s do what Jesus did let’s tell simple stories and start to experience God directly rather than learning about him from others.

I believe that there is a world out there waiting to hear God’s message. Unfortunately we in the church are preaching that message in a language they can’t understand. The response to Malala’s speech exemplifies this. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt touched and inspired by it. We are inspired because we can be. The message is a young girl’s vision of what the world can be, expressed in her own words, it’s not a vision viewed through a glass darkly, it’s a vision of someone who has seen God face to face and simply wants to tell people about it. If only the churches preaching could have such simplicity and clarity.

“One child, one teacher, one pen, one book can change the world”. How can anyone fail to understand?

Seeking to inspire

The final point I want to make is that Malala is only intending to inspire people. “Only” is often regarded as a limiting word with an implication that there is more that we are missing, but here I see it as a very strong word that defines a characteristic of Malala’s speech. By only seeking to inspire, Malala empowers herself to do just that.

I was certainly tearful when I heard it the first time and still feel a lump rising in my throat this morning when I hear it again. There have been various newspaper, television and Internet interviews this week with people who have had similar responses, particularly from teenage girls. They are enthused, they are inspired, they want to know more. When I asked Liz, as a steward, if there was a teenage girl within the congregation that could read the Magnificat this morning I was told there wasn’t. We as a church are clearly not enthusing and inspiring young women (or men for that matter), we are not drawing them in wanting to know more.

I think one of the reasons is that we try to do too much. The official church’s response to government policy or world events is often to set up technical working parties to explore and critique the detail. It gets drawn into concerns about balancing its response to be fair to different political parties. It can get out of its depth because there are now a wide range of specialist non-religious pressure groups who are far better equipped to develop this technical critique than we are.

If we limited ourselves to a role of inspiring people we might liberate ourselves to perform a far more useful role for society. Like Malala we could highlight areas where the world could be different and inspire people with a vision of a world that can be better. Malala’s speech doesn’t make any attempt to suggest how that change can be brought about. The assumption is that people need to be inspired with the need for change first and that once they have got this then the change will come. This is a model that the church already adopts in preaching within its walls, maybe it is a model that it needs to adopt in its pronouncements to the wider world.

I’ve spoken for long enough. I’m in danger of not listening to what I am saying myself. Let me finish using the words of two teenage, middle-eastern, women.

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.

My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.




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