[Note: The following are the remarks from the Memorial Service for Muhammad Ali at the Islamic Center of Louisville on June 5, 2016.]
The world feels like a much less hospitable place today, which is especially sad given the rhetoric that seems to be driving a significant part of our public discourse. At a time when a candidate for the most powerful position in the world encourages us to fear those different from us, we need the voice, the presence of Muhammad Ali.
When those who appear to be running the show awaken in us our darkest impulses toward the stranger, we need someone willing to stand up and say no.
When the clamor of the disaffected targets those considered “other,” we need someone to cry out above the din, reminding us that people are not born “other,” we make them that way—through our fear and prejudice, through our hatred and our desire to grasp for more than is rightfully ours.
When the powerful insist that we wall off our sisters and brothers, that we send the children of our poorest to kill the children of poor people in other lands, that we can only learn how to treat people after we’ve discovered what color they are, or where their parents were born, or how they choose to worship God, we need a voice who knows that true power is to help us to see that our determination to love in spite of our fear is the greatest expression of power human beings can muster.
As people of faith our highest aspirations are caught up in a man like Muhammad Ali, whose life taught us that meaning and worth are not something to be conferred upon us by those who control the levers of power; they are things we earn through our willingness to hold hands with children, through our determination to put our arms around the shoulders of the refugee and the immigrant, through our commitment to guarding the hearts and the dignity of the most vulnerable—when every other voice tries to convince us to look out only for the interests of people like us.
As I was reflecting on the life and meaning of Muhammad Ali yesterday, I remember thinking that there’s a presidential candidate who is what weak people mistakenly think tough people sound like.
Muhammad Ali, by contrast, is what strong people think gentle people sound like—and as a result aspire to be gentle people themselves.
And for the light his life reflected, we all give thanks to God.