Muhammad Ali as Moral Hero
The tributes and accolades began as soon as the news of Muhammad Ali’s death was made public. But what is the reality behind the media hype? I can in no way buy into the media’s presentation of Mr. Ali, who had the reflexes and the strength to inflict great damage on other human being’s brains (even as he was so injured by others). He was a creation of the media and big money interests (legitimate and illegitimate) from the early 1960s with his appearance—under his given name, Cassius Clay—in the film Requiem for a Heavyweight), in the same way that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama—whom we all think we know so well—are little more than media-generated characters.
It’s important to be clear: The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in favor of Muhammad Ali after he was denied conscientious objector (CO) status, but Ali was not a pacifist. His official statement about refusing to serve in the military reads as follows: War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in wars unless declared by Allah or the Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers. His famous remark to the media—I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. They never called me a nigger—is not the reason behind his application for CO status, despite the fact that the media has suggested as much for the past fifty years. That was just another scripted, PR-generated, mass media sound bite. He would have killed the Viet Cong if he believed that Allah or the Messenger told him to do that, and all eight Supreme Court Justices involved in the case recognized this.
Hence arose the need for the Supreme Court to find some contrived, procedural, legal technicality on which to acquit Ali, because only someone who was committed to pacifism under all circumstances could receive CO status during the Vietnam War. SCO, selective conscientious objectors, could not be exempt from military service. So the Court intentionally refused to judge the case on the merits of whether or not Mr. Ali was a CO. Instead, Justice Potter Stewart crafted a procedural legal loophole, was enough to overturn his conviction.
In reality, therefore, the media’s suggestions that his sacrifice was any greater or even equal the sacrifices made and endured by thousands of other COs (or of those denied CO status) is based solely on the cultural value that the loss of money and prestige are the greatest of all losses. I personally know many men and families who paid a far higher price for refusing to participate in that war than did Muhammad Ali. None has had his story persistently marketed and celebrated in the media as this man who was concussing the brains of other human being on a world stage for hundreds of millions of dollars before and after his media ballyhooed court case.
And after Viet Nam? Muhammad Ali publicly campaigned for Ronald Reagan in 1984, when everyone knew Reagan was turning Latin America into an ocean of blood. Surely, this fact speaks loudly and clearly about Ali’s values. Did he have a quarrel with the people of El Salvador? Did anyone in El Salvador ever call him nigger? Ali may or may not have been a nice person to his friends, and to the occasional “little guy” who gained brief access to him, but he was a man of great violence in spirit, word, and deed, who surrounded himself with other people of great violence. The only Muhammad Ali we have knowledge of demonstrated extensive public violence in the boxing ring and extensive public dehumanizing of people through vicious, mocking, dissing language directed at specific persons. If he is an icon, he is an icon of ostentation, braggadocio, and of evil made legitimate, legal, honorable, and praiseworthy. He is an icon of just what humanity does not need for its redemption from evil and death! By the standards of the Gospel, not only is he not a hero to be glorified, his witness to God and truth must be rejected as false.
When I was growing up in Boston in the 1940s, Ted Williams was my sports hero above all others. The belief that he was a great man, someone to look up to, was hardwired into my brain, and it stayed that way for a long time. Then I read, in several places over a short time, that he was socializing with George H.W. Bush when Bush was involved with systematically killing people throughout Latin America. The newspapers reported that Williams said to Bush, I am behind you one hundred percent. Kill all those “gd” troublemakers in Nicaragua. And in an instant, the sports hero evaporated. Here was a human being propagating evil, suggesting that it was consistent with the Gospel, and using his celebrity status to do it. Yes, it is true that he did a great deal to assist children with cancer. And for this he should be lauded. But this work was not his calling card, leading to fame, fortune and iconic hero status. Baseball was. But baseball was only a game, while supporting the killing of the oppressed, broken, enslaved people of Nicaragua was cooperation in murder. When iconic celebrity is used to support violence it must be brushed over and out of the Christian’s consciousness and conscience.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written that the great evil of our time is superficiality. I remember watching Christian nonviolent peace-and-justice folk run in droves to support Kerry in 2004 and then Obama in 2008 and 2012. I was saddened by the fact that they refused to see the obvious, that is, that uber-violent, uber-greedy, uber-vicious people, from inside and from outside the U.S., were orchestrating and financing each man’s billion-dollar campaign and each man’s climb up the bloody mountain to be king of the hill. Mass media gave these peace-and-justice folk Kool-Aid in the persons of Kerry and Obama, and they believed the lie and drank it, and with that act poisoned their own lives and the lives of countless others for who knows how long into the future. Such is the consequence of glorification via superficiality—and of the glorification of superficiality.
Here is a more recent example of the evil of superficiality in U.S. and Catholic culture: this year’s Commencement at the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame is a Catholic university that never ceases to advertise—in gold, neon lights—that it is a Christian institution. Surely this should mean that Notre Dame (which means the people who run it and staff it and govern it) is willing to struggle to follow the Way of Jesus Christ of the Gospels. Instead, this year it gave its Laetare Medal to Joe Biden and John Boehner, naming them the year’s two outstanding American Catholics. Both Biden and Boehner have supported Obama’s murderous agenda in the Middle East for the last eight years and have not stopped voting for the war since 2003, despite its toll of death and destruction—millions of civilians killed and maimed. And, as if that were not enough glorification of the evil of superficiality applied to Christianity, at the 2016 Commencement ceremony, Notre Dame invited General Martin Dempsey to give the keynote address and then gave him an honorary degree. General Martin Dempsey has been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the last four years, the last four years of U.S. slaughter of the innocent by land, sea, air, and now by drone, in the Middle East and in other parts of the world (to say nothing of his prior homicidal achievements). I am sure most of the people at the Commencement drank the glory Kool-Aid Notre Dame concocted for them as wholeheartedly as the followers of Jim Jones drank his deadly poison.
No human can ever judge another’s moral life: Only God can judge whether someone is a sinner. Nevertheless, Christians must decide whether they believe that what someone has done is good or evil by the standards of Jesus, the Word of God in the Gospels, before they endorse him or her. Only on that basis should Christians decide whether a media celebrity is worthy of praise, honor, glorification, and imitation. What champion of the good, what good Muslim, would ever want a man who murdered 400,000 Muslim children under the age of twelve to be the major eulogist at his funeral, as Bill Clinton was at Mr. Ali’s funeral?
And there is more—much, much more: Muhammad Ali trying to pressure Chuck Wepner—a white man about to fight him in a heavyweight championship match—to publicly call him “a nigger.” Wepner refused. Nevertheless, Ali told the press Wepner had called him that despicable name. Fortunately for Wepner, witnesses heard him refuse. But the media did not report that piece of information until years after the fight. I could go on and on: For example, practically every piece of poetry for which Mr. Ali is famous he did not write—most of it was written by Gary Belkin, his ghostwriter. In addition, Belkin wrote literally one hundred percent of Ali’s hit record album of poems, I Am The Greatest, released by Columbia Records a few months before he won the championship, when Sonny Liston sat in his corner and refused to go out for the seventh round, even though his manager told him (truthfully) that there was nothing wrong with him and that he should get out there. Even Ali’s famous tagline, I am the greatest, was written for him by Gary Belkin.
Muhammad Ali is a sinner—but then so are you and I, so are Clinton, Trump, Obama, Boehner, Biden, Dempsey, et al. In fact, for all you and I know, he and Clinton and Trump and company may be far less sinful in the eyes of God than I am or you are—that is the strictest truth, not phony humility. But it is also irrelevant to the Christian living on earth, precisely because God’s judgment is unknowable. What a Christian can know is that The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Heb 1:3), and that The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image (icon) of God (2 Cor 4:4). Cannot see that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:11). Such glory never shines forth from a closed fist or a barrel of a gun directed against a human being.
All that is not a reflection of the glory of God made visible to humanity in Jesus is “ichabod,” i.e., inglorious—and no amount of media cosmetics and puffery can change that eternal truth. The motto of the Jesuit order is AMDM, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, “For the Greater Glory of God,” and the same should be the motivation for all that the Christian thinks, says, and does with his or her life. What is not in conformity with the person and message of Jesus—and the person and message are one in Catholic theology—cannot glorify God. It must be ichabod. The public presentation of Muhammad Ali does not conform to the image, person, and message of Jesus in the Gospels, and therefore, in my judgment as a Christian, he cannot be given a speck of validation or approval as an iconic moral hero. Remember, this does not mean that the Father of all does not love him infinitely and eternally. He does. It means that his PR celebrity media image and all it was, is, and communicates is ichabod today, tomorrow, and forever: