Having recently commemorated Pentecost, followers of Christ have only to read on in the Acts of the Apostles to revisit the thrilling accounts of how Jesus’ living presence was experienced practically and powerfully in the early church. Looking around today’s world, one can easily lament the seeming scarcity of similar divine intervention, on any scale. Horrific reports from the world stage assault us daily. Perhaps many positive stories are simply being drowned out by a slanted media. Or perhaps our own biases blind us to authentic works of God in disguise.
Muhammad Ali. Three time heavyweight champion of the world. Arguably one of the most recognized public figures of the 20th century. Voted “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated. As a young athlete, brash and boastful:
Float like a butterfly
Sting like a bee
His hands can’t hit
What his eyes can’t see
To be sure, success in boxing requires such bravado – plus extreme dedication, discipline, mental toughness, courage, stamina, and perseverance. But let’s be objective: boxing is a brutal sport – organized brutality. What sort of a man sets out to physically pummel an opponent into unconsciousness? Indeed, Ali spent the last decades of his life severely debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, a product of the punishment he himself absorbed in the ring.
However, let it also be said that Muhammad Ali was a man of uncommon conviction. In April, 1967 – in the prime of his career at age 25 – Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army. “Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
As a high school sophomore, I vividly remember the intense stir which this pronouncement generated. It was just the kick I needed to start to get my 15-year-old mind wrapped around this faraway conflict. Ali’s stand – just as the “police action” in Vietnam was rapidly escalating into all-out war – incurred not only the wrath of the U.S. government, but immediate venom from sportswriters and the public alike. He was stripped of his title and banned from boxing; sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. The felony conviction was appealed, but would only be overturned three-and-a-half years later, at a time when public sentiment had turned decisively in his favor, when it was ruled that Ali had wrongly been denied conscientious objector status. Certainly, this ordeal called for a different kind of courage and integrity than had been demanded in the ring.
On January 19, 1981, Ali was in Los Angeles for a business meeting. His boxing career was painfully winding down, and clinching a venue for the next match was proving difficult. His friend and personal photographer, Howard Bingham, called in from downtown LA to report that “this ‘brother’ was going to jump [from the 9th floor of an office building] and the people were yelling, ‘Jump! Jump!’ to him, and the cops were going to quit, they couldn’t talk sense to him.” Bingham said, “He needs you.” Ali said, “I’ll try.”
Boris Yaro, a photographer for the Los Angeles Times who had been on the scene early, continues the account:
There was this great confusion, and people yelling. I saw this two-toned Rolls-Royce drive through the police lines and a lot of guys jump out, Ali in front of them. He turns into the building, and soon I saw him at a window maybe 20 feet from the jumper, and he yelling at the guy.
We can hear Ali yelling, “I couldn’t lie to you. I love you. You’re my brother.”
“Don’t cry for me, I’m going to jump,” the guy yells back at Ali. And then the guy yells, “Look out! The VC is in the schoolhouse!” God, it was weird. The cops think he was having a flashback.
Anyway, Ali keeps talking. We couldn’t hear all that he was saying, not down on the street. Ali was now talking low and soft to the guy. Then Ali appears right behind the guy on the balcony. He puts his arms around the guy and maybe he stays that way for about a minute and a half. I expected him to pull the guy back, but he didn’t. He took his arms off the guy. Maybe he did that three times, put his arms on the guy and then takes them off. You know a cop would have yanked the guy back, but Ali didn’t. He wanted the guy to come off on his own. It was like Christ making a disciple. Then the guy put his head on Ali’s shoulder and you could see his body quiver like he was crying heavily. You could see Ali’s face was contorted, that he had been crying, too. Then Ali put his arms around the kid and lifted him, and the kid sort of folded into Ali’s arms. Then they disappeared inside the building.” (Newsday, January 21, 1981)
A few days later over the phone, Ali would tell Newsday’s Bob Waters:
I felt love, maybe for the first time. That kind of love, like killing me inside. I love Allah, my wife, my kids, friends. I even love you. But this was screaming inside of me. And I said to myself, “Cool, cool, stay cool. Help this brother. Allah, help me help my brother. Oh God, help me.”
Yes, it should be noted that for almost his entire adult life, Muhammad Ali was an avowed Muslim. Still, as a Christian, I see Christ at work in the world through his actions – and wherever people serve the Love that triumphs over the evil in our chaotic world.
Now it’s your turn: How do you remember Muhammad Ali? And can Christ work through anyone, regardless of their professed religion? Tell us what you think, or share a story. For more on this theme, read Everyone Belongs to God: Discovering the Hidden Christ.