At 15 years old she was shot in the face by a terrorist and survived. But that’s not why Malala Yousafzai is admired around the world. And that’s not why, at 17, she was the youngest person ever to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
Malala first came to prominence as an 11-year-old anonymous BBC blogger, reporting on events while her home region, Pakistan’s Swat Valley, came under the control of the Taliban in 2009. She expressed her displeasure with the Taliban as they moved to close girls’ schools. Even when the extremists had been pushed back, the crisis had passed and her identity was revealed, Malala, using the toehold of publicity she’d been given, continued to advocate for girls’ education—strongly and publicly.
Here was a child in a Muslim headscarf—just one voice among the subcontinent’s overlooked 1.7 billion people. Her very powerlessness underlined her courage—she was impossible to ignore. And when in 2012 she survived a Taliban assassination attempt—the bullet passing through the left side of her face and neck, lodging in her shoulder—it was as if the world had been granted a miracle. The media went nuts and, after her recovery, the unflinching Malala’s opportunities to share her passion for girls’ education increased astronomically.
God’s upside-down kingdom
Why is it that while politicians and pundits strut the world stage, hogging the mic and beating their chests, many of us find more moral authority in the simple pleadings of a Pakistani schoolgirl?
I call it the Jesus Paradox, because in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ we find perhaps the clearest evidence of God’s upside-down kingdom: where the weak are strong, the poor are rich and the meek inherit the earth. It’s a kingdom that’s not yet fully established, but the tantalising glimpses I’ve seen are enough to make me want more.
It begins with Christmas. The great God of the universe, Creator of heaven and earth, sheds His glory and is born as a squalling infant surrounded by itchy hay and the waft of goat dung. The political and religious elites miss it totally, except for one paranoid powermonger with murder on his mind. Jesus becomes a child refugee as His parents dodge the authorities and carry Him across the border into Egypt.
Back in Israel, some years later, Jesus grows up the Son of a tradesman in a rural village. No grammar school, no university education, no old-boys network. His hands are rough, His face is weathered and His northern accent brands Him a yokel the instant He opens His mouth.
But when He does open His mouth—wow. He doesn’t bother citing the opinions of the so-called experts; He doesn’t dance around factional debates. Instead He cuts to the heart of the matter. He’s a preacher who takes His message straight from the Bible and applies it practically and immediately. This is what Scripture says; now go ahead and live it.
The Jesus Paradox comes across clearly in His often-quoted and rarely obeyed Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5–7. “Blessed are you when people insult you. . . . If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. . . . love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” Again and again, Jesus turned conventional expectations on their head, pointing to a deeper morality and a deeper reality.
And He didn’t just theorise about this new way, He lived it. He befriended both religious elites and social outcasts; His followers were drawn from groups bitterly opposed to one another; He muddied His reputation by reaching out to prostitutes, partying with corrupt officials, touching contagious lepers, and praising foreigners, despite His fiercely nationalistic culture.
But it was when He faced arrest and execution that the Jesus Paradox was tested to the utmost. As the club-waving mob surged towards Him and one of His followers slashed with a sword in self-defence, Jesus stopped him: “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’” (Matthew 26:52).
Jesus was silent for much of the criminal trial during which His legal rights were trampled and His body abused (see Matthew 26, 27). And when nailed through the hands and feet to a wooden cross, He did not protest His innocence, but prayed for His persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
This was the apparently powerless Son of God. Dangling helpless and naked between the earth and sky.
His fate was prophesied centuries earlier: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4,5).
This is the crux of the Jesus Paradox. Through some mysterious law of cosmic justice, Jesus was able to absorb humanity’s guilt and shame into Himself—our “sin”, “bad karma” or whatever terminology you prefer—and exchange it for our wholeness, peace and healing. When He was at His weakest, He put into effect the most powerful transformation imaginable. The apostle Paul summarised it neatly: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Roman 6:23, NLT*).
But is it true?
The most powerful evidence that Jesus achieved this miraculous exchange through His death is the fact that He didn’t remain in the grave. Recent-ish limited release movies Risen (2016) and The Case for Christ (2017) highlight the logical and historical difficulties involved in simply dismissing the story of Jesus’ resurrection as a religious myth.
It makes little sense that so many of His earliest followers—those closest to the actual events; those who were later persecuted for their faith—would embrace torture and execution rather than deny Jesus’ resurrection, unless they completely believed it to be true.
The other evidence is the presence of the Jesus Paradox today. In a world that proclaims “might is right” and “survival of the fittest”, somehow lives like Malala Yousafzai’s continue to hint at another reality. The surprising success of non-violent activists and humanitarians—Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Teresa of Kolkata—demonstrates the transformative power of Jesus’ way.
And then there are our stories. It seems we cannot look away from the hero who risks all in order to achieve a higher purpose.
Consider any number of superhero or action movies—their lead characters run into burning buildings, brave radiation chambers, remain at the controls of doomed spacecraft . . . all for the sake of their family, their friends, their nation or their planet. Triumph through sacrifice is a theme that strikes a chord and finds an answering resonance within each of us.
But recognising the evidence of the Jesus Paradox at work in the world is one thing; making it a reality in our own lives is another. How do we approach our most obnoxious relatives or co-workers with an attitude of service rather than defensiveness? How do we conduct business deals, vote in elections, follow our sports team, participate in our community, in ways that place others at the centre rather than our own self-interest?
If it worries you that you’re intimidated by the powerful, repulsed by the disadvantaged, or overwhelmed by the needs and injustices of the world, you’re in the right starting place. “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” said the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:10). A realisation of our weakness is the door to humility. And a humble person is a person aware of their need for God’s transforming power. Accepting the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection for yourself is the first step towards a new life where His strength takes the place of your weakness.
It will take courage. It will take sacrifice. But He’s the only way.
Kent Kingston lives in NSW’s Lake Macquarie region with his wife and adult sons. He is editor of Signs of the Times.
* Bible verses marked NLT are from the New Living Translation, copyright © 2015 by Tyndale House. Used with permission. All rights reserved.