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Willie James Jennings

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A Christian Who Loves a Muslim

Posted: 09/19/2012 6:45 pm

Last Thursday, Muhammad Ali received the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia. He was flanked by his wife and daughter. At 70 and showing the signs of his struggle against Parkinson's disease, Ali needed help to stand and receive his medal. I think there are millions of people, especially black men who would have carried him on their shoulders, gently placed that medal on his neck, and carried him back to his seat. I would have been one of them.

I love Muhammad Ali as much as I love my own parents because for me like so many others growing up in America, he embodied something that others talked about, claimed to have but rarely could make as concrete: faith. Muhammad Ali was and is a man of tremendous faith. When he stood in the ring as a young man, an underdog against a proud champion, when he changed his name, entering a life of submission to God, when he stood against the government of the United States of America, when he opposed the Vietnam war, when he simply refused to stop talking, stop signifying, he became a powerful and consistent thread that runs through the fabric of my Christian life.

I cannot imagine courage, intelligence, justice, righteousness or even hope without at some deep level remembering the words and deeds of Ali. I remember watching his fights with my very Christian mother as we cheered for his victories. I remember Sundays at church when Muhammad Ali was the principal illustration in Sunday school, the sermon and Sunday dinner. How was it possible that one of the prized converts to the Nation of Islam, who emerged as a devout believer in Allah, a follower of the prophet Muhammad, a powerful voice for global Islam, could also be a catalyst for my Christian faith? From Ali I learned that surrender to God means that one can never surrender your will unthinkingly to any other power, especially political, economic and religious powers. Ali taught me that the endeavor to perfect one's faith in God takes an entire life time and requires the willingness to expose one's mistakes, and live on through them.

I am not saying that Muhammad Ali is Jesus Christ, but he certainly helped me become a better follower of Jesus Christ. Ali also taught me the way of nonviolence. It may seem counterfactual to say this, but Ali gave the American people and especially its Christians like me a marvelous gift. He showed us how to handle the constant stream of violence that flows through and around us. He took that violence and rode it like a skateboard, twisting and turning it toward something better, something beautiful. Here is precisely where I think Ali offer a lesson to Muslim-Christian relations that we desperately need to hear now. If boxing has always been an exorciser of street violence, drawing out that poison that inflects so many and turning it toward productive life, then Ali has been one of our greatest exorcists.

Should Christians and Muslims climb into the ring? Yes, but in a different way. Certainly, violence and its theological justifications are part of both Christianity and Islam, yet this is a part that can be avoided, side-stepped, held in check by a rope-a-dope, or even a brilliant repartee. That is, the central stories of both faiths do not bring us inevitably to violence, but to life. Violence is the enemy that must be defeated, but not through violence. No Christian or Muslim believes that violence is more powerful than their God or that their God's most reliable and handy weapon is violence. Divine love holds that pride of place. At a moment when Muhammad Ali is being honored, it would be good for all of us, especially in this country to once again learn from this man that the faith of one religion can be nourished by the faith of another, and that any disrespect of Islam diminishes our moral life. We also can remind ourselves to have the courage like Muhammad Ali to resist the powerful currents of violence even if some believers or our nations cannot.

Ali has been vastly more than an example of a kid gone straight who lived the American dream. He has been as a political activist, humanitarian, sage and, especially as a Muslim, a guide for this Christian -- and I suspect for many more. Equally important, at a time when Americans seem to be addicted to hoarding weapons (as never before), Ali reminds us that the ring is a better place than the streets and boxing gloves are better than guns for working out our anger and our fears. The violence that once again knocks at the doors of our embassies sickens me just as much as hatred against Muslims. Maybe those of us who are Christian and American could be helpful at this moment by remembering Muhammad Ali and saying to our near and distant neighbors: Assalamu alaikum -- Peace be with you.

 
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