Following his death this week, I stumbled on this old video clip of Mohamed Ali.
No matter what you think of his choices in life, he is undeniably one of the greatest athletes of his generation. If you decide to invest the six minutes watching the clip, don’t let the humor mask the unfortunate history he lived through, and how it influenced the choices he and others made during this time.
Only days after winning a gold metal at the Olympics, Ali was refused service in a restaurant in his home town! His comments, reaction and ultimate decision leading him to a major life-choice and worldview change reminded me of a book I’m currently reading, The Children, where a group of African American, mostly college students, led by John Lewis and Jim Lawson challenged the status quo in Nashville where they, too, had been denied the right of service in restaurants across the city.
For most of us it’s hard, if not impossible, to remember 1960 when these events occurred.
The author of the book, getting at the motivation of people like John Lewis and others who participated, says, what they were doing was not an act of great courage, “it was an act of faith.” They were certain that they would all be arrested. Certainly some of them might be beaten up, and it was quite possible—Jim Lawson had never tried to minimize the consequences—that some of them might even be killed. All they had was their faith, and they were bound together by that, faith.
They had faith in:
- Jim Lawson as a teacher;
- Each other, that they would not let one another down at the moment of crisis;
- What they believed was right;
- Nashville, a city they did not know and which had never been particularly generous or kind to them;
- The country which would, they believed, somehow understand what they were doing and respond generously and support them;
- God, who would not allow His children to be punished for doing what was so obviously the right thing.”
Contrast this with Ali’s comments in the video clip about the church and his question, “Why is Jesus white?” His monologue, delivered with a sense of (sarcastic) humor but with profound meaning, echos the same question asked by Lewis, Lawton et al in Nashville, and it goes beyond is Jesus white? Of course he’s not white.
Ali raises issues and questions also raised by the Nashville group: questions of fairness and justice. The faith of the college students in Nashville in God and country, that, in the end, God and people would do what was right. These are questions that still haunts us today; will we do the right thing?
Of course, this was all years ago, and our country and the church in America is way beyond this level of segregation and discrimination. Or are we?
Recent research suggests the our views and attitudes about immigration, Islam and racial diversity are strongly associated with our support of one political candidate over another. And among one category of voters (39%) who say it is bad for the country that “in the next 25 to 30 years African Americans, Latinos, and people of Asian descent will make up a majority of the population,” lean toward candidates who express this view in terms of exclusion rather than inclusion.
It’s particularly sad and disquieting to hear the current rhetoric that would imply we’ve taken two steps back as a country. As the church in America, as a country, we cannot afford to do that. Invoking the faith of those involved in the Nashville demonstrations, we must have faith in God, do the right thing, and not allow our fears to dictate our current choices whether that’s on a personal or national level.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic event in Charleston where brothers and sisters were murdered by someone they’d accepted and loved. I have no idea how I would react given the circumstances experienced at Emanuel Church, but I know the example they were to the family of believers that inspired. It’s this kind of inspiration that causes people to take a second look at Jesus, not reject him.
We all have blind spots, but lets work hard to overcome this one. A friend said to me this past year, “These are opportunities that beg the question of whether or not we will rise to their occasion. As Christ-followers, we are confronted with a moment; the question is whether or not we will rise to it? Will I rise to it?
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.