While we are country founded on the principle of the separation of church and state, religion plays a significant part in American life. One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to codify the rights of Americans to be able to freely and peacefully assemble to the faith of their own choosing when he drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Within our borders, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Atheist, etc. are all able to gather and pray (or not gather or pray) to the deity of their choosing. While that concept of freedom of worship is something we take for granted today, it was a revolutionary concept just a few centuries ago.
I thought of that as I watched the memorial service of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. As passionate as the iconic man was for his adopted religion of Islam, he was probably even more passionate about the humanity he shared with different people around the globe. Can you ever recall any type of religious service that brought so many different beliefs under one roof to honor one individual?
It was one of those very rare moments when we as a country, and certainly as a planet, quietly paused and brought together different voices and beliefs to reflect on the life and accomplishments of an extraordinary human being. Not since the funeral of Saint John Paul II in April 2005 with hundreds of foreign heads of state and several dozen religious leaders have we seen a gathering like Ali’s farewell.
As sad as Ali’s loss is, the service that celebrated his life could not have come at a better time. As it’s plain to see, our nation is bitterly divided along political fault lines that only seem to grow wider each day. Adding to the divisions are cultural and societal changes that are both cheered and jeered from almost every corner. That is on top of the lingering prejudices that sadly still exist between races, religions and genders, that are somehow never able to dissipate.
Yet, for one brief shining moment on our planet, it was a wonderful feeling to have so many different voices, cultures and religions come together to offer their praise and thanksgiving for a remarkable life of positive difference. Sadly, we don’t have many of those collective moments, but if there was ever a time we needed it to happen, this was a great time for it to take place.
Religion is certainly not without its controversy or challenge. In fact more people have probably died in the name of God than the pursuit of Gold (but it’s probably close). But for as different as our belief systems may be, there is more that unites us than divides. That’s a premise often overlooked and forgotten, especially in politics, but Ali, by virtue of his actions, presence and personality was one of those people who could transcend differences of race, religion, ethnicity and even geography. He certainly had his detractors and by no means was perfect but try and think of the last time we all stopped to reflect upon such a life.
Lives such as Ali’s are few and far between, which is probably why he was such a transcendent and beloved figure. But if you looked at how different the people are who prayed and eulogized about the man, their diversity is amazing. There are any number of reasons why the people assembled at the Louisville Memorial Service would never interact with the other, but it only took one particular life to bring those differences into a moment of uniformity.
If there are lessons I draw from Ali’s life, it is that it takes courage and guts to want to find unity and commonality with those who pray, look, act and sound differently from me. That is not an ethos you will see promulgated by ISIL or any other extremist group who singularly believe their way of life and belief is the only one to be lived. That’s a life and existence devoid of respect, compassion and the thing that Ali seemed to celebrate the most – humanity.
How cool is it to bring so many different voices in praising God in so many different ways? I don’t think there is any US President alive or dead who could have done that but a kid who had his bike stolen at an early age did and was bold enough to tell the world he was “the greatest.”
I would say he proved it and taught us all how much more we have that brings us together than tears us apart. That’s a message I heard in Ali’s life and Memorial Service and it could not have come at a better time for us to hear and remember.