Muhammad Ali, Conscience of America

Muhammad Ali died this week.  He is remembered as a boxing legend.  More than that he is remembered around the world as a man of conscience.

Born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, he refused to abide by the rules of segregation and Jim Crow.  He refused to be quiet and go along to get along.

As a boxer he showed himself to be an athlete who fought with his own brand of theater and skill.  He stretched the comfort zone of a society that liked to keep ‘black folk in their place’.  Rather, he stated  recklessly, ‘I am the greatest’!  He inspired a generation of young blacks and in equal measure unsettled many whites.

Later, he changed his name of Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam.

The backdrop for Ali’s emergence as a public figure was the fight for Civil Rights,  the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War.  In this volatile setting Ali emerged as a voice of conscience demanding to be treated with dignity.   He refused to be quiet and complicit in the face of injustice.

Ali rose to international prominence when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.

He said:  “Who is the descendant of the slave masters to order a descendant of the slaves to fight other people in their own country?”

He paid a price.  He was stripped of his standing as Heavyweight Champion.  For three years at the height of his career  he was barred from boxing.  Yet his defiance in the face of racism and injustice inspired millions of oppressed people in the United States and around the world.

photo of Muhammad Ali

Even when Parkinson disease slurred his words and bowed his body, he remained a symbol for dignity and justice.

Over time society tried to domesticate Muhammad Ali, to make him yet another celebrity in popular culture.  But Ali refused to be domesticated.  For the rest of his life he spoke truth to power.

Ali’s witness reminds me of the recent book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’.  We hear the words of a black father to his twelve your old son.   Telling him about how to survive in racist America.

For me the book was a slap upside the head.  Coates confronts me with the racism in America and within me.  As a white man I discover I have much work to do.

Such has been the work of Muhammad Ali all these years.  He’s refused to go along with the majority white culture.  He’s refused to be complicit with those in power.  He’s challenged the health of our minds and hearts.

Ali is lionized as a great boxer.  More than that, he was a great man.




When a Hero Dies

Dan Berrigan is dead at 94. A Jesuit priest and poet whose defiant protests helped to shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War and landed him in prison. Along with his brother Philip (also a priest) a defining point was the public burning of Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, Md. Their action inspired protests, marches, sit ins, the public burning of draft records and other acts of civil disobedience across the nation.

photo of Dan Berrigan

In 1980 Daniel Berrigan was again arrested for taking part in the Plowshares raid on a General Electric missile plant in King of Prussian, Pa. Here Daniel and Philip and others rained hammer blows on missile warheads. They then poured a vile of their blood on the nosecones and waited to be arrested. In 2006 Daniel was again arrested for blocking the entrance to another nuclear missile facility. This is but a sample of their willingness to pay a price for their beliefs.

The Berrigan brothers actions were rooted in the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. They took to heart the words of Isaiah:

“God shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

The witness of the Berrigan brothers fueled debates around kitchen tables and in houses of worship. My politically conservative Dad argued with our pastor, Fred Buker about the Vietnam War. Fred was a veteran who had become a critic. The witness of the Berrigan’s angered my Dad and inspired our pastor. Such is the work of a prophet.

Dan and Philip Berrigan’s activism was rooted in the pages of Scripture as it was for Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and obscure figures like my childhood pastor. The words of Scripture, when taken to heart, have the ability to transform the hearer. To take us from selfishness to selflessness, from war mongering to peace, from fear to hope.

Some years ago I went to hear Daniel Berrigan, then in his 70’s. He said: “Tonight you are going to love what I have to say. And, you are going to be pissed off by what I have to say. The words however won’t be mine. You will be both inspired and angered by the words of Jesus and the prophets. You will be equally inspired and discomforted by the places these words can take you.”

photo of Dan Berigan as old man

Daniel Berrigan inspired and offended many within and beyond his Roman Catholic tradition. He inspired and at times pissed us off. Such is the work of a prophet.

Heroes come and go. The words of faith remain. Who among us will give voice to these ancient words? Who will take up the mantle of a prophet?