Raising the Bar

One of my greatest joys as a philosophy professor is that I get to be bad on a regular basis. There were a number of people about whom I was told little growing up, other than that they are dangerous and to be avoided like the plague. images.1I work out my rebellion against these restrictions now by ensuring that these thinkers make as many appearances on my syllabi as professional integrity will allow. So I teach Darwin, for instance, with gusto in the interdisciplinary program I direct and participate in, and took great delight a few years ago in hearing an older Benedictine monk—a biologist by training—say that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all the theologians put together.” indexI take a perverse pleasure in making sure that my mostly parochial school educated students know that Marx is more than a four letter word and, more importantly, is not an irrelevancy simply because the Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago.

And then there is the the biggest and the baddest of all the dangerous thinkers I was taught to fear in my youth—Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s the philosopher who infamously proclaimed that “God is Dead,” after all. But humor me for a bit, because a few moments with Friedrich will help illuminate just how radical and subversive today’s gospel—imagesthe conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount—actually is. And yet it this very text, hopelessly beyond the highest standards we can imagine for ourselves, that completes the road map for the life of faith that we all profess.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist, despite the fact that his father and grandfather were Lutheran ministers. Yet throughout his life he focused his philosophical and creative energies on ethics, on the ways in which human beings make moral choices and use them to shape their lives, to create their character, and to influence others. friedrich_nietzsche_in_christianity_neither_mousepad-r6e52a64025c1012fb64900ffb0cb9003_x74vi_8byvr_324It was this intense interest in morality that caused him to be one of the most eloquent and influential critics of Christianity who has ever lived. He developed his critique in response to texts such as the final paragraphs of the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” eye for eye copyBut I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Nietzsche complained that this is a moral framework for the weak, for those who are incapable of asserting their own excellence or even protecting themselves. Jesus is telling those lacking the power or will to be independent that it is okay to be mediocre or weak. In so doing, Nietzsche complains, Jesus is turning the natural moral order of things upside down. Nietzsche’s critique is borne out in the very next paragraph from today’s gospel.

love-your-enemiesYou have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Our natural wiring inclines us to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus is asking us to embrace and love those who we should hate, as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount. As do many moral philosophers, Nietzsche insists that moral requirements should be fitted to what human beings actually are, not to what someone might wish them to be—hence his charge that Jesus’ challenge is inhuman and unnatural. We expect that good people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished, but Jesus reminds us, just as Job found out, that it rains on both the good and the evil, that the sun shines on everyone regardless of whether they have earned or deserve it. spirituality-science-beyond-good-and-evilEventually, in one of his most important works on ethics—Beyond Good and EvilNietzsche summarizes his critique of today’s gospel and of the moral standards that arise from it.

What is it I protest against? That people should regard this paltry and peaceful mediocrity, this spiritual equilibrium which knows nothing of the fine impulses of great accumulations of strength, as something high, or possibly as the standard of all things.

Jesus is describing a moral framework for losers, one that enables the weak and exalts those who cannot make it on their own. This is a powerful critique, one that over the century and a half since it was written has for many been the basis for an outright dismissal of Christianity as a workable moral system. For persons who take a faith commitment to Christ seriously, these should be fighting words. But how should we respond? Nietzsche.2

We might start with a certain amount of defensiveness, by noting that if Friedrich thinks that what is described in the Sermon on the Mount is for sissies or for the weak, he ought to stop pontificating about it and actually try living it for a day. Anyone who has ever turned the other cheek, who has been harmed or betrayed and has actually tried to love that person in response, knows what extraordinary strength doing this even once requires. This is not a morality for wimps, Friedrich; this requires strength of character of which most persons only dream.

Recall, though, that the heart of Nietzsche’s critique is that the blueprint for a human life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is unnatural—it does not square with what we actually are. And the gospels confirm, in no uncertain terms, that Nietzsche is exactly right. Jesus’ final words in the Sermon on the Mount?be-ye-perfect1

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Really? Are you serious, Jesus? Iris Murdoch once responded to this command by asking “Wouldn’t it have made more sense to say ‘be ye therefore slightly improved?’’ The standard of divine perfection is so out of the reach of human effort that it blows our first response to Nietzsche out of the water. We might be able to turn the other cheek once in a while or even convince ourselves that we forgive and love those who have hurt us and who wish us harm, but who but an insane person would claim to have attained perfection? Nietzsche is right—Jesus is asking us to do what no one could possibly do, except by watering it down so far as to be unrecognizable. The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are humanly impossible and entirely ill-fitted to what human beings are capable of achieving.

Elijah-in-desert-lowEach of us , in a moment of honesty, should tell God “I can’t do this. This is impossible. I quit.” In the spirit of Elijah hiding in a cave from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, we might as well say “I can’t do what you are requiring of me.” And in the same still, small voice that Elijah heard, we hear “you’re right. You can’t do this. And that’s the whole point.” Nietzsche’s mistake is not in his judgment that the demands of the Sermon on the Mount are ill-fitted to human nature. His mistake is not realizing that this is the whole point—Jesus is describing a transformed human nature, a transformation made possible by the Incarnation. The bar has been raised to a level that cannot be reached by the greatest of human effort, but is the hallmark of a human life infused with divine energy and love. Those who follow Jesus can expect to see every expectation that is natural to human beings turned on its head. As Paul wrote, every person who is in Christ “is a new creature. othpa-iconOld things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation, not to endless frustration and falling short of the mark, but to the discovery of divine life within, a life that Jesus promises will “overcome the world.”

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

A Reluctant Rose

In spite of my love of and occasional success with flowers and plants, I have a checkered history with roses. They are temperamental, picky, and have a general attitude that I don’t appreciate. Previous owners of our house apparently had little interest in landscaping; there was nothing other than grass in the back yard and a meager collection of scrubby evergreen bushes in the front—the sort of bushes that people who don’t want to give a second thought to watering or taking care of plants place in their yard. The only exception to this general ignoring of plants was two rose bushes—one on each side of the front steps.002001 (2)

Red on the south side which gets tons of sun; pink on the north side which gets very little.  Both bushes did well for several years after we moved in, but during the past decade there have been fewer and fewer flowers, more and more spotted leaves, and this spring something new—little green worms who ate the insides out of the first few flower buds on the red rose bush. “Aaphidsphids!” the guy at Lowe’s said; “very common on rose bushes.” He directed me toward seventeen different products designed to kick aphid ass and strongly advised me to get the most expensive one (I didn’t).

The product I did purchase worked and the early returns are positive—the red rose bush is cranking out better flowers than it has for years. The pink bush was so pathetic last year that in the fall I cut it back to the ground, fully expecting it not to survive the winter. Whoever originally planted this bush knew less about plants than I do, since it is clearly in the wrong spot—roses do like at least a few minutes of sun per day. I have restrained myself from just digging the thing up year after year, since it and its red companion might be as old as the house which was built in the 1940s. Against all odds, the pink bush did survive our relatively mild winter—barely—and is now growing a few new shoots from the mulch up, currently with one meagre bud. We’ll see if it survives Morgan natural selection for another year.

Anna 1Several weeks ago I received an email from my friend Marsue, announcing that she had a birthday present for Jeanne (whose birthday was not for another month) that she needed to transfer to us as soon as possible. Marsue is an Episcopal diocesan priest and had an all-day in-service close by that day, so we rendezvoused at lunchtime to make the exchange. Her gift for Jeanne was a Rose-in-a-box named “Anna’s Promise”—after the lovely and wonderful Anna from Downton Abbey. anna and batesThis was an appropriate selection, since the love of Anna and Mr. Bates was one of our favorite story lines in the show. Furthermore, a Buzzfeed quiz once told me that if I were a Downton Abbey character, I would be Bates. Other than both being quite attractive, Jeanne and Anna are not very similar; the same Buzzfeed quiz told Jeanne that she would be Lord Grantham.

The Anna’s Rose propaganda on the box promised that the bush would produce “Large, novel tan flowers with a copper reverse, exhibiting a sweet & spicy, fruity fragrance that will freshen up your garden”—Annas promisea description probably written by the same people who write descriptions for the labels on wine bottles. Upon opening the box, I found a plant as bare and naked as Ezekiel’s dry bones. Three or four sticks upward and an equal number of them down; it took me a few moments to figure out which sticks were the branches and which were the roots. I had tried a plant-in-a-box a few times before, with consistently poor results, so I was not optimistic about Anna’s prospects. She came with extensive planting instructions, which I largely ignored. I followed my usual new plant regimen—dig a hole twice as large as the roots, throw in some manure, put the dirt back in, cover with mulch, and water. We agreed that the best location for Anna’s home would be next to the red rose bush; I planted her and we waited.

And nothing happened. Days turned into weeks, and Anna still looked like a pile of dry bones. After a couple of weeks, around the time that new plants generally reveal if they plan to survive, Marsue started emailing. “How’s the rose bush doing?’ “It’s doing nothing,” I said each time, eventually confiding that I was pretty sure that Anna was dead. Her box might actually have been a coffin. This, of course, was a disappointment to all parties involved—to me because it was an indictment of my plant skills, to Marsue because she gave a dead plant to her friend for her birthday, and to Jeanne because she received a dead plant from her friend for her birthday. More than a month after the planting and a day or so before she left for a three-week conference, Jeanne confessed that she prayed for Anna. rose boxMy complicated history with prayer did not cause me to leap to the conclusion that signs of life were immanent. A week after Jeanne left, now about six weeks since the planting, Anna was still dormant, comatose, or dead. Then a miracle occurred.

I was weeding the plant beds in front of the house and noticed Anna looking pathetic and dead; I considered pulling her up then and there, but decided to wait until Jeanne got home in a week. Two days later I was mowing the lawn and noticed that not only was Anna showing signs of life for the first time, but she had a lot of leaves on every branch I had assumed was dead. I took a picture and emailed Jeanne and Marsue: LOOK AT THISSHE’S ALIVE!!reluctant rose Jeanne took full credit for having raised Anna from the dead with her prayers; whatever happened, she’s sporting more leaves every day and I can now tell where her first flower-bearing stalk is going to be.m m and l Anna’s probably sick of my checking her out three times a day, but I’ll bet that’s what Mary and Martha did when Lazarus rose from the dead as well.

In a subsequent email, Marsue noted that there was something Biblical in the saga of Anna and she expected a blog post about it. I thought similarly and had already started typing in a few thoughts. Here’s what I think—Anna’s a good example of how things that are apparently dead are often simply taking their time gathering inner strength for a reawakening. As I have frequently written about in this blog, I am a case in point. Life is always a possibility for even those things and people who are, to all appearances, corpses. I gave a sermon once a few years ago about how this happened for me on a Sunday when the gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus.

Loose Him, and Let Him Go

Death and resurrection is part of the world we live in. It is part of each of us. There is no guarantee that Anna will produce spectacular roses—she may not produce any at all. But she’s a reminder of how things work in the larger scheme of things. Death is never the final word and there’s always the possibility of new life. The tag that was attached to the apparently dead Anna when I took her from her box/coffin read

“Anna’s Promise” praises the true heart and steadfast love that transcends the trials and tribulations endured by Downton Abbey’s character Anna Bates.

At the heart of my faith is the belief that such a transcendent, steadfast love is the backdrop for this often disappointing and difficult world that we find ourselves in. May it be so.

soccer togas

Holding Off Socrates

As is often the case in June, several huge soccer tournaments currently are under way in various parts of the world; furthermore, both men’s and women’s soccer will be front and center at the upcoming Rio Summer Olympics. This reminds me of a post I wrote a year ago about the greatest soccer match ever . . . 

The United States national soccer team, after a strong performance, was eliminated last Tuesday from the World Cup. world cupMillions of typical American sports fans were stunned the following morning to find that the World Cup would continue, even though the only team that anyone cares about is no longer playing. But keep watching, because the World Cup every four years, along with the Olympics biannually, provides American sports fans with an opportunity to be just a little less parochial than usual and to challenge their innate superiority complex. It’s a tough sell, though, beginning with the fact that the rest of the world calls soccer “footballNFL,” while everyone with any sense knows that football, as in NFL, is the multi-billion dollar game played by millionaire gladiators in helmets and pads on gridirons.

There are many reasons American sports fans give to justify their lack of respect for the world’s favorite game. For instance,

It’s boring, says the couch potato who has no trouble watching several consecutive hours of hole-to-hole coverage of the Masters or US Open golf tournaments.

There’s not enough scoring, says the baseball purist who considers a 1-0 pitchers’ duel to be a work of art.

Ihockey soccer don’t understand the rules, says the hockey fanatic who is apparently unaware that hockey is essentially soccer on skates, played on a much smaller field covered with ice by gladiators with helmet and pads similar to American football.

It makes no sense that a team can lose (as the US did to Germany) and still advance to the elimination round (as the US did), says the fan who has no trouble understanding something like the following that happens for several teams at the end of every NFL season: Team A will make the playoffs if: Team A wins on Sunday OR Team A ties on Sunday and Team X loses OR Team A loses on Sunday but both Teams Y and Z lose OR Team X loses by more than 20 points OR the rapture occurs.

Don’t get me wrong—I am not a soccer fanatic. But I very well might be if world-class soccer got the same 24-7 air time in the US as baseball, American football, basketball or hockey. I have never played soccer, probably because its only appearance in the northern Vermont of my youth was a week during the late winter/early spring in Phys Ed when the instructor had run out of things with which to make our lives miserable. I grew up fifty years too early, apparently, since I am told that youth soccer is huge nowadays. There was no such thing in my youth.

Central AmericaThe first full World Cup game that I had the opportunity to watch this time around was Costa Rica vs. Greece. That’s one of the many cool things about the World Cup—countries that get very little face time in the news or anywhere else all of a sudden have their 90 minutes (or more) in the sun. I’m pretty good with my geography, but I would have had to take a moment to pick Costa Rica out of a Central America map lacking the names. I do know that it was the last of the Central American countries to visit my blog (after El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Panama).

europe-mapAside: I was appalled, but by no means surprised, when only one of five twenty-somethings interviewed in Chicago’s Soldier Field prior to the US-Belgium game could locate Belgium on a map of Europe. One might hope they would know where it is after Belgium beat us, but I doubt it. (It’s #7).

When watching the World Cup, I tend to favor the small, lesser known countries unless I have a vested interest, so I was pulling for Costa Rica. And sure enough, they won a nail-biter with a 5-3 advantage in penalty kicks after 90 minutes of regulation and 30 more minutes of extra time produced a tie. Soccer purists don’t like penalty kicks, but they provide a guarantee that the game won’t last twelve hours or more (something that baseball could use), and are very exciting. socatesThe best part of the Costa Rica-Greece contest, though, was this accolade tossed by the announcer to a Costa Rican defender: “He did a great job of holding off Socrates.

How to hold Socrates off is something Thrasymachus, Euthyphro, Glaucon, Adiemantus, Laches and any number of other Socrates-abused conversants in Plato’s dialogues would have loved to learn, I suspect. Athenians eventually decided that the only foolproof way to hold off Socrates was to kill him, which turned out to be a good career move for Socrates since he is now generally considered to be the godfather of Western philosophy. CompleteFlyingCircusDVDBut fans of Monty Python know where I am going with this. One of the greatest Monty Python skits from the seventies (my personal favorite) is the soccer match between German and Greek philosophers. The Greek squad, captained by Socrates, includes Aristotle, Empedocles, Sophocles, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Archimedes, Plotinus, Epicurus, Democritus, and Plato in goal. The German team is captained by Hegel, who is joined by Wittgenstein, Kant, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Beckenbauer (“bit of a surprise, there”), Jaspers, Schlegel, Nietzsche, and Leibniz in goal, with Marx coming off the bench in the second half for Wittgenstein. soccer-pythonThe Greeks play in togas, while the Germans are wearing various period costumes and wigs. The head referee is Confucius, who is keeping time with an hourglass. He is joined by Augustine and an appropriately portly Aquinas, both sporting halos.

2731250As one might expect, nothing happens at the opening whistle other than the twenty-two philosophers wandering around the field individually or in pairs thinking hard and/or explaining the fundamental precepts of their philosophies to anyone within earshot. The first half ends in a scoreless tie; early in the second half there is a bit of excitement when Nietzsche accuses head referee Confucius of having no free will and Confucius responds by giving Nietzsche a yellow card. Marx substitutes for Wittgenstein later in the half, but accomplishes little. hqdefaultThen in the eighty-ninth minute, Archimedes has one of his classic “Eureka!” moments and decides to do something with the ball. In quick succession, the ball is passed from Archimedes to Socrates back to Archimedes to Heraclitus to an obviously offside Empedocles on the wing to Socrates who sends a beautiful header past the helpless Leibniz into the net. While the elated Greeks run around in joyful celebration, the Germans are outraged. “Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside.” But to no avail. The final grains of sand run through Confucius’ hourglass and the Greeks win. As they should—they are the fathers of Western philosophy, after all.

So enjoy the rest of the World Cup as well as the highlights of the historic match between the Greek and German philosophers. Had the German philosophers only been able to find a Costa Rican philosopher to play defense for them, they might have been able to hold off Socrates.

Greek vs. German philosophers soccer match

Gun Speak

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosophers love words and language. We love to dissect them, analyze them, write insufferably boring and inscrutable articles and books about them, and talk amongst ourselves in a code that only the most inside of the insiders understand. But beneath their PhDs and pretension, philosophers are on to something. Words matter. A lot. WittgensteinAs Ludwig Wittgenstein—arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century—pointed out, our words shape our world. And if we want to change our world, we might want to consider paying close attention to our words—and changing them.

I first encountered both the difficult and liberating aspects of changing my words and language when writing my Master’s thesis thirty years ago. I grew up in a world where language was entirely skewed in the direction of maleness—pronouns, examples, collective nouns for all human beings, God—everything I thought and talked about came packaged in gender-exclusive language, as if one half of the human race wasn’t worth mentioning. The Bible that I grew up reading and memorizing was soaked through and through with patriarchal language. During the 60s many voices began pointing out both how pervasive and offensive sexist language was; I also noted that many people, including most of the people I knew, were not inclined to change their speech habits. gender inclusive 1Not because they didn’t think that feminists and others had a point, but because they were used to using sexist language and they perceived that it would be difficult to change their language default setting.

During my early adulthood I worked on changing my own speech patterns away from sexist toward inclusive; in the late eighties, as I tackled the task of writing a Master’s thesis, I decided that I would make a conscious and concerted effort to write the 100+ page document using entirely gender inclusive language. And it was very difficult to pull off. Not only did it require my becoming entirely conscious of my own sexist language habits, but the primary texts from ancient philosophy that were at the heart of my thesis were written by males who used exclusively male-oriented discourse. My new writing vocabulary and style seemed forced and stilted at times, but I attributed that to the difficulty of breaking bad habits and establishing better new ones. Over the subsequent three decades using gender-inclusive language has become so natural and habitual to me that hearing or reading sexist, male-oriented language screeches like nails on a chalkboard. gender neutral 2One of my regular classroom missions is to make students aware of how important it is to use gender-inclusive language. When some students—male and female—don’t see the moral reasons behind my mission and resist it, I sell it to them practically by assuring them that gender-inclusive language is a standard expectation in business communication. Try getting a good job without gender-inclusive language in your skill set.

Now I find myself faced with a new language challenge. The horrific massacre at The Pulse in Orlando a week ago has placed the issue of gun violence and control back into public conversation, something that happens for a brief period every time such an incident occurs until various forces push the conversation off the table. I am a strong advocate of significant gun control (extending far beyond prohibiting private ownership of assault rifles), do not own a gun, do not intend to ever own one, and am both incredulous and frustrated when, time after time, no real changes ever happen—even in the wake of Newtown. ammosexualI’ll leave it to my colleagues in history and sociology to explain this country’s general obsession with guns. Prompted by a brief interview that I heard on the radio a few days ago, I started paying attention to my speech, looking for ways in which words and idioms involving guns appear in my everyday communication. I was more than disturbed to find that I, a gun hater if there ever was one, say things like the following on a regular basis:

  • He was so nervous that he was sweating bullets.
  • I wish the people on that committee would stop deliberating and just pull the trigger on a decision.
  • I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, so I just took a shot in the dark.
  • Sometimes it is really important to just stick to your guns.
  • Wow, did that plan ever misfire.
  • He just needs to bite the bullet and get on with things.
  • She really jumped the gun that time.
  • It may not work, but we need to give it our best shot.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Such words and phrases are so common in ordinary conversation that many of us—including myself—are entirely unaware of how pervasive they are. “Blown away,” “Bullet points,” “Locked and loaded”—our language reflects the pervasive presence of guns in our culture and our collective psyche. And I, for one, think that this is more than just a harmless habit.words matter

How we speak matters. The words and phrases that we regularly use matter. If we’re uncomfortable with the fact that so many people get killed by guns in our culture, then it would be a good thing for us to slow down and listen to how many different expressions that we use have to do with firearms, shooting, and guns. And just as I made a deliberate project of becoming gender-inclusive in my writing and speaking several decades ago, I am beginning a new personal project—eliminating words and expressions having to do with guns, shooting, and firearms from my communication. My newest book is currently in the midst of the editing process at my publisher; I was pleased to find when I checked that in the roughly 62000-word text I do not use the word “gun” at all, and use the word “bullet” only once when I refer to the assassin’s bullet that took the life of Bobby Kennedy. I’ll need to look more carefully for some of the phrases and idioms listed above. minute manApparently my project is close to complete when it comes to my writing. But in speech I have a lot of work to do. One way to do this is to make Jeanne aware of the project and to point out every time I inadvertently use a gun-violence-related phrase. I’ll be including a section on guns and the second amendment in my upcoming General Ethics classes in the fall—that will be a good place to practice (I might start the section with consideration of this post).

I frequently wonder what I can do to turn the tide against our culture’s collective obsession with guns and the violence that invariably accompanies it. My project is something I can actually do—not easily, but with awareness and fortitude. And significant change sometimes begins with simply being aware. If enough people worked at dropping gun-related words and phrases from their vocabulary, perhaps our conversation about the Second Amendment would begin to change in fruitful ways. It’s worth a shot. Whoops! I have a lot of work to do.end gun violence

What I inherited from Mad Eagle

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering my Dad with whom I had a complicated relationship but who I miss very much. He has undoubtedly made more appearances in my blog in its four years of existence than any other family member other than Jeanne. This post–originally titled “Tapestries and Quilts,” was one of the first posts I ever published–it reminds me just how much of who I am is due to Mad Eagle (one of Dad’s many nicknames).

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the seven-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, during a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar a couple of semesters ago, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper not long ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

A Free Man of Faith

I wrote this essay last Saturday as a reflection on Muhammad Ali’s memorial service that I had watched the day before and scheduled it to go out on Monday morning. Then the Orlando massacre happened early Sunday morning; I moved this post to this morning and posted something different on Monday.

The day after . . . again

As I reread today’s essay this morning, it strikes me that we can learn a great deal from the life of Muhammad Ali about how to respond as individuals and communities to such horrific events. The life of one of the greatest boxers ever should inspire us to come out of our corners.

Thowewo of the greatest sports stars of their generation—indeed, of any generation—passed away last week. Gordie Howe, known as “Mister Hockey,” died at the ripe old age of eighty-eight; he was a star on the Detroit Red Wings when I was a kid, so long ago that there were only six teams in the National Hockey League. Each team had a large collection of stars, but Howe was the greatest of them all. He played for so long (well into his fifties) that he described his play toward the end of his career as “poetry in slow motion.” He was not only one of the greatest scorers in hockey history, but he was also tough as nails—as players from bench warmers to superstars tended to be in those days. Scoring three goals in one game is called a “hat trick;” howe hat trickHowe patented the “Howe hat trick,” which was awarded to a player (often him) who scored a goal, got an assist, and got into a fight in one game.

Then there was the champ. I spent three hours on Friday afternoon watching the remarkable memorial celebration of Muhammad Ali’s life in Louisville, Kentucky. I wrote last Saturday about my admiration for Ali and the subtle influences that his life had on mine during my formative years. I am not usually inclined to watch an interminably long memorial service, even one for a man who was one of my heroes. I’m not sure that I would have sat through such an event for Jesus had there been one and had I been invited. But the service was riveting—it should be required viewing for any person who believes that our world is beyond hope. Just the visual of representatives of five different faiths on stage and delivering eulogies at a memorial celebrating the life of the world’s most famous Muslim was beautiful to behold. memorialThere was not a false note in any person’s remarks—there was nothing perfunctory going on. I turned coverage on as Ali’s funeral procession was still inching toward the downtown sports arena in Louisville where the memorial took place. Thousands of people lined the nineteen-mile route from Ali’s childhood home to the arena; many ran up to the hearse bearing Ali’s casket just to touch the side of the vehicle or to run alongside while shadow boxing as the champ used to do. Inside the arena there was no decoration other than an American flag hung with an Olympic flag next to it hanging over the stage. No pictures, no video montage of Ali’s life. Simply as many thousands of Louisvillians as could be stuffed into the arena to share in the celebration of a remarkable life.

Eulogies from two presidents were part of the program. President Obama, unable to attend because his oldest daughter was graduating from high school on Friday, sent his senior advisor Loretta Lynch to read his remarks. The program concluded with a beautiful ten-minute remembrance from Bill Clinton. clintonClinton, who is as good at capturing the mood and emotion of a room as any person—president or otherwise—that I have ever seen, did not disappoint. Describing Ali as “a universal soldier for our common humanity,” the former President chose to focus his remarks, not primarily on what made Ali unique and remarkable, but rather on what every one of us shares in common—both with the champion and with each other.

The first half of Muhammad Ali’s life was energized by his many stunning natural gifts, from physical speed and strength to intelligence and eloquence, gifts that set a unique trajectory to his story. He chose to write his own narrative and embraced the consequences of the story he lived. But Clinton’s eulogy focused on the second half of the champ’s life.

The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. The second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned . . . ali parkinsonsIn the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have, gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.

The second half of Ali’s life, of a course, was lived with Parkinson’s disease, a fate which, from the outside at least, seemed particularly cruel. It was painful to see such brilliant physical and mental abilities slowly and inexorably eroded. But those who knew him, whose lives were touched by the ailing champion, experienced something quite different.

Muhammad was a truly free man of faith. Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life. Being free he realized that there would still be opportunity for choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today.

Muhammad Ali was as free as a human being can be, free because he dared to choose and to embrace the responsibility for those choices. But, as President Clinton pointed out, it was his profound and deep faith, the faith for which he was willing to sacrifice his title and place his freedom at risk, that caused him to flourish in the midst of adversity.

ProtagorasClinton’s insight is a powerful one—“Being a man of faith, he realized that he would never be fully in control of his life.” Each human individual’s natural orientation reflects what Ali so often said publicly: “I am the greatest.” As Protagoras reportedly said, each of us believes that we “are the measure of all things,” and few of us ever have as much empirical evidence to support the claim as Ali did. But a person of faith knows that there is a great deal more going on in heaven and earth than meets the eye. There is much that is beyond the control of even the most powerful and charismatic person, much that limits the choices of even the most influential and effective individual. But our choices are never entirely taken away, even when the scope of our freedom is severely limited. With his remarkable physical and intellectual gifts reduced, Ali’s choices were those that are available to even mere mortals—the choice of how to respond freely to what is beyond our control. Ali chose to release the gifts of love, gratitude, joy and peace into the world, rather than bitterness, anger, and regret. And, as Bill Clinton noted, it was those choices that defined his life and made him a beloved figure and icon in a world badly in need of something good to embrace.

The outpouring of love for Muhammad Ali over the past week is an appropriate tribute to a man who was “The Greatest” in many ways. But as several people on the platform at the memorial service reminded us, Ali’s greatness was not primarily because of his special gifts and abilities. His greatness was rather due to his having made extraordinary use, throughout a life marked both by great triumph and crushing adversity, of choices and gifts that are available to all of us on a daily basis.I am ali

We all have an Ali story. It is the gifts we all have that should be honored today. Because he released them to the world. We should honor him by letting our gifts out into the world as he did.

orlando

The day after . . . again

I learned at church yesterday morning of the horrific massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando during the early hours of Sunday morning. I had a new blog post queued up as usual for this morning, but bumped it to tomorrow. I am saddened and disheartened this morning in the wake of what tragically is the latest in a never-ending string of violent events. Three and a half years ago, upon hearing about the massacre at Newtown Elementary, I briefly reflected on what my reaction as a person of faith should be to such a tragedy. I’m still wondering that again today.

At Providence College’s annual Advent lessons and carols service two weeks ago, the choirs opened with a beautiful Advent hymn that doesn’t happen to be in our hymnbook.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away
.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.
 

This hymn unexpectedly popped into my consciousness this afternoon when I heard the news of the mass murder of young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Who doesn’t want sadness to flee away? Who doesn’t want to see the dawn of grace that will drive away the night? But when the sadness is palpable, when the night is especially dark, what hope can a song offer? More importantly, in the midst of Advent, do we have any reason to believe that what we hope for—a divine presence in the midst of human sadness and darkness—is anything more than a fairy tale we repeat regularly in order to convince ourselves that there is a glimmer of meaning in a horribly dark world?

I don’t know. There are days, and today is one of them, when my Christian faith seems little more than whistling in the dark. But I do know that the divine response to human frailty is not a “problem-solving response.” It’s something much more mysterious, much stranger—and may seem frustratingly impotent when we want “somebody to do something.” The last verse of the hymn captures it: 

You come in peace and meekness,
And lowly will your cradle be;
All clothed in human weakness
Shall we your Godhead see.

As we hope for, pray for, and demand answers and solutions, it’s good to remember that answers and solutions are wrapped in human weakness just as God was, and they begin from the inside out. They begin from where we believe the divine resides into the world that badly needs help.

Ali Liston II

Simply “The Greatest”

Upon hearing a week ago that Muhammad Ali had passed away, I posted something very simple on Facebook and Twitter: “Muhammad Ali’s sports nickname says it all. He was simply The Greatest.”the greatest Jeanne and I left shortly afterwards for a weekend trip to Pennsylvania, so I did not get to see or hear the dozens of tributes from across the globe both mourning the champ’s passing and celebrating his remarkable life until returning home. Ali won the heavyweight boxing championship for the first (of three) times when I was a young kid; my growing up years were regularly marked by the latest explosion of this very public man’s life into the news from the boxing ring and the court room. What possible impact could the life of a Muslim, African-American boxing champ have on a white boy as he inched toward adulthood in northern Vermont? A significant one, as it turns out.Ali liston 1

I was eight years old when Cassius Clay won the heavyweight boxing championship at the age of twenty-three, defeating the fearsome Sonny Liston in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. He was loud, brash, an entertainer, extremely confident and full of himself—and was poetry in motion. I was used to watching the Friday night fights with my father on television when he was not on the road, but I’d never seen anything like this guy—a heavyweight who moved like a middleweight. As a white boy growing up in northern Vermont, I was mildly aware of what was going on in the early Sixties—the civil rights movement, early resistance to the Viet Nam war, the counter culture—but the champ was the first public figure who embodied all of it for me. When, shortly after winning the title, the new champ announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, that he was rejecting his “slave name” Cassius Clay for a new name—Muhammad Ali—then that he was refusing to be drafted, confusion and cognitive dissonance reigned at my house. My father was a big boxing fan and had declared Clay (he wasn’t inclined yet to accept the champ’s new name) the best boxer he had ever seen (and Dad remembered Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis). But my father found it hard to believe the Nation of Islam business and declared the champ to be a traitor and coward for refusing to serve his country (even though my father had escaped the draft during the Korean War, due to a deferment available to seminarians). Ali draftI knew no black people and knew nothing about Islam, but was intrigued by Ali’s principled stand and refusal to compromise his beliefs—even if I didn’t know or understand exactly what they were.

Because he refused to be inducted into the Army, in 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title, forced to surrender his passport, and could not get a license to fight for three-and-a-half years. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, attitudes concerning his resistance to the war had changed, both across the country and in my family. My father, who had originally called Ali a coward and traitor, came to understand along with many others that Ali’s resistance to the war was absolutely right, just four or five years ahead of its time. My Dad testified in front of our local draft board in support of my older brother’s case for conscientious objector status in the early seventies—rumble in the jungleI have no doubt that Muhammad Ali’s stand had something to do with my father’s change of heart.

Ali’s greatest fights happened during my high school and early college years. I watched in disbelief when Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw and handed him only his second career defeat. I skipped class my freshman year in college to listen to the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire on the radio. In what was perhaps the greatest sporting spectacle of the twentieth century, very few gave Ali a chance against the devastatingly powerful and much younger champion George Foreman—but he knocked George out in the eighth round. I skipped class once again a year later and listened to the “Thrilla in Manila,” the rubber match in Ali’s epic three fight rivalry with Joe Frazier. thrilla in manilaAli won what was perhaps the greatest boxing match in history with a fifteen-round unanimous decision. But for me, Ali’s larger-than-life persona was even more riveting than his boxing. Looking underneath Howard Cosell’s toupee during an interview; getting into a scuffle on air with Joe Frazier during another Cosell interview prior to their second fight; breaking into impromptu rhyme at the drop of a hat; cleverly insulting his opponent speechless prior to each fight—I loved everything about him. When ESPN awarded it’s “Athlete of the Century” to Michael Jordan instead of Muhammad Ali at the close of the twentieth century, I dismissed their decision as a laughable mistake. Ali not only transcended his sport—he changed the world.

The most lasting memory of Muhammad Ali for many people is probably his lighting of the Olympic torch to officially start the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. OlympicsAfflicted with Parkinson’s disease for more than a decade, the image of an obviously frail and shaking Ali completing his task successfully was truly compelling. Many of the tributes in the days following his passing focused on that image, as well as his philanthropic work; they were remembering a kind and generous ailing elder statesman. That’s a worthy tribute, but that is not the man I remember, the man who regularly burst into my early years in various ways. Muhammad Ali was an original, edgy, flamboyant, and always a bit scary. My people became comfortable with Dr. King’s role in the civil rights movement over time,Ali and X but Ali was in the mold of Malcolm X. Angry, abrasive, eloquent, successful—and not the least bit concerned with playing any of the roles or saying any of the things that white folks expected black athletes and public figures to do or say. He refused to accept the world he was born into, and throughout his life he explored his power to change it.

My son Justin, was born just a couple of weeks before Ali retired for the last time in late 1981 after making one too many comebacks, as many aging athletes do. We talked on the phone a few days after the champ died; Justin told me that for many years, first in his dorm room, then in the bedroom of various apartments, he hung the iconic picture of Ali yelling for Sonny Liston to get up after knocking Liston out with one devastating punch less than a minute into the first round of their second bout. “He was one of my heroes,” Justin said. That makes sense, because he was one of mine as well. He was simply The Greatest.Ali Liston II