Still Honoring Muhammad Ali -- And Why That Matters

A woman photographs a mural of Muhammad Ali's 1965 victory over Sonny Liston June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
A mass f
A woman photographs a mural of Muhammad Ali's 1965 victory over Sonny Liston June 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. A mass funeral procession for Muhammad Ali began Friday in his hometown Louisville, with a hearse carrying the boxing legend's remains heading into the streets where thousands gathered to say goodbye. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Can you imagine my surprise when I got a call from a representative of the Muhammad Ali family a few days before his memorial in Louisville, telling me that Ali had remained a "fan" of mine and of Tikkun magazine for decades (long after we had been friends and allies challenging the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s --both of us were indicted by the federal government for our anti-war activities -- and two decades after I had received a note from him praising the book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin that was a challenging conversation between me and Cornel West)! Ali, I was told, had decided some seven years before that I would be the person he would want to represent the Jewish world and speak at his memorial. I felt honored and humbled by the invite.

Ali knew me well, and would have only invited me to speak if he wanted me to continue articulating the Jewish prophetic tradition Tikkun magazine has been representing for the past thirty years -- in a voice that, as my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary taught me, is meant to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Ali knew that there would be powerful people both in the audience (in the actual reality, it was Bill Clinton and the heads of state of some other countries who heard my talk) and among the ten million who viewed the talk live around the world. In choosing me to speak (and others as well) Ali obviously wanted his memorial service to go beyond kind words about what a wonderful a person he had been through much of the past several decades, and instead reach for the discomforting ideals that he and I shared. Or as his wife Lonnie put it, this memorial was intended to be "a teaching moment."

And as I said in my talk, the best way to honor Muhammad Ali is to BE Ali now in our own lives, and I was trying to model what that could possibly look like. And that is why it matters to still be honoring the memory of Muhammad Ali--because doing so means taking on ourselves the responsibility to speak truth to power even at the risk of real loss of money, influence, or friendships from those around us who think that doing so is irrational or whatever else they come up with to justify their own passivity in the face of evils that in their heart they know to be wrong.

Of course, I also knew from much past experience that when one speaks in this prophetic way, the powerful who are being critiqued tend to pull their normal tricks: either by saying that it was rude to speak in this discomforting way at this (or any other) particular occasion, or by trying to discredit the speaker rather than address the ideas being put forward. I've found this second response particularly distressing when coming from those in the Jewish world who give blind support to the right-wing politicians in Israel who refuse to negotiate a peace treaty enabling the Palestinians to have a politically and economically viable Palestinian state -- an issue that particularly concerns Muslims like Muhammad Ali who have expressed to me and many others their belief that Israel could live in peace and security if they would treat the Palestinian people with respect, and if Israel's main military supplier and political defender at the U.N. -- the United States of America -- would stop trying to overthrow the governments of (or invading and bombing) Muslim countries. These right-wing Jews have consistently attacked Tikkun magazine and me personally (a rabbi who teaches Torah on Shabbat to my Berkeley, California based synagogue-without-walls Beyt Tikkun and has people from around the world coming to our High Holiday services) of being self-hating Jews, or anti-Semitic, or wanting to see Israel destroyed (the opposite of the truth, since my criticisms of Israel are motivated precisely by my love of God and Judaism, with its strong Torah command "when you come into your land, DO NOT OPPRESS THE STRANGER -- the OTHER -- remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt -- and my desire to protect the Jewish people from the anti-Semitism Israel's oppressive treatment of the Palestinian people is generating around the world, unfairly I insist, but still actually, among people who never had any bad feelings about Jews till they learned about the fate of the Palestinians).

I had another motive in giving this talk. I wanted to use this as a moment to communicate to the Muslim population of the world 2 important messages that are not communicated by President Obama's drone warfare or by the U.S.'s failure to open our gates to Muslim refugees from the war in Syria and Iraq, nor by the overt fear and hatred of Muslims expressed by Donald Trump.

The first message: that we in the U.S. do not support Islamophobia, and that a majority of us want to live in peace with Muslims.

The second: that we in the Jewish world will not allow the Muslim population in our own country or around the world to be demeaned or Islam characterized as essentially a religion of hatred-- that we will stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters, recognizing that the way all Jews were blamed for the behavior of a few is now being repeated in the way that (very legitimate) anger at Boko Haram in Africa and at ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan (whose combined numbers are less than 100,000 people max) are now being blamed on the entirety of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. I knew that Ali would have wanted these kinds of ideas to be presented, and at a memorial which had already taken a clear political direction after the first speaker detailed how Ali had helped African Americans in the U.S. overcome some of the ways that they had internalized negative stereotypes put on them by the racism of American society.

You can listen to what I actually said with the full feel of the response by going to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cza0IY1h6VI&feature=youtu.be

Or you can read it below.

But in either case, after reading or listening to it, please come back to this page to read what I had to cut out from my talk because of the amount of time taken up in the few allotted minutes we had to speak by (in my case, certainly unexpected) applause and standing ovations from the audience. So come back to this page if you would after listening to my talk -- it is printed here after the talk itself.

TRANSCRIPT of Rabbi Michael Lerner's talk at Muhammad Ali memorial June 10, 2016

Master of compassion, god of compassion, send your blessings to Muhammad Ali and send
your blessings to all who mourn for him and send your blessings for all the millions and millions of People who mourn for him all over this planet. I come here speaking as a representative of American Jews -- and to say that American Jews played an important role in solidarity with African-American struggles in this country and that we today stand in solidarity with the Islamic community in country and all around the world. [applause]
We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims and blaming Muslims for a few people [standing ovation].

We know what it's like to be demeaned. We know what it's like to have a few people who act against the highest visions of our tradition to then be identified as the value of the entire tradition. And one of the reasons that we in Tikkun magazine, a magazine of liberal and progressive Jews but also an interfaith magazine have called upon the United States to stand up to the part of the Israeli government that is oppressing Palestinians [applause] is that we as Jews understand that our commitment is to recognize that God has created everyone in God's image and that everyone is equally precious and that means the Palestinian people as well as all other people on the planet. [standing ovation]

I know the people of Louisville have a special relationship to Muhammad Ali and I had a personal relationship in the 60's when both of us were indicted by the federal government and for our various stands against the War in Vietnam. I want to say that although he was cheered on as the heavyweight champion of the world, you know the truth is -- and all the honor to him -- but heavyweight champions of the world come and go and sports heroes come and go. There was something about Muhammad Ali that was different. At the key moment when he had that recognition, he used it to stand up to an immoral war and say no, I won't go. [applause]
And it's for that reason that tens of millions of Americans who don't particularly care about boxing do care about Muhammad Ali, because he was the person who was willing to risk a great honor that he got and a great fame that he got to stand up for the beliefs that he had, to speak truth to power when the rest of the people around him said No, no, you're going to lose your championship, and it was taken away from him for five years, but he stood up and was willing to take that kind of a risk because of that kind of moral integrity. [applause]

So I want to say how do we honor Muhammad Ali? And the answer is the way to honor Muhammad Ali is to BE Muhammad Ali today. [applause]

That means us, everyone here and everyone listening. It's up to us to continue that ability to speak truth to power. We must speak out, refuse to follow the path of conformity to the rules of the game in life. We must refuse to follow the path of conformity. Tell the 1% who own 80% of the Wealth of this country that it's time to share that wealth. [applause
]
Tell the politicians who use violence worldwide and then preach nonviolence to the oppressed that it's time for them to end their drone warfare and every other form of warfare, to close our military bases around the world, to bring the troops home.

Tell those who created mass incarceration [Lerner looking directly at Bill Clinton in the front row] that it's time to create a guaranteed income for everyone in our society. [applause]

Tell judges to let out of prison the many African-Americans swept up by racist police and imprisoned by racist judges. [applause]
Many of them in prison today for offenses like possessing marijuana that white people get away with all the time. [standing ovation]

Tell our elected officials to imprison those who authorized torture and those who ran the big banks and investment companies that caused the economic Collapse of 2008.

Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing the Kurds.

Tell Israeli prime minister Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian state.[applause]

Tell the next president of the United States that she [sustained applause]-- tell the next president of the United States that she should seek a constitutional amendment to make all national and state elections funded by congress and the state legislatures and all other sources of money be banned, including money from corporations, from individuals, all other money, make it all public funding. Tell her that the way to achieve homeland security is not for us to try new ways of domination, the strategy of domination of the world of the other to get security has been tried for the last 10,000 years and it doesn't work. The way to get security is for the United States to become known as the most generous and caring country in the world, not the most powerful. [applause]

We could start with a Global and Domestic Marshall plan www.tikkun.org/gmp to once and for all end global and domestic poverty, homelessness -- hunger, inadequate education, inadequate health care. [applause]

So I want to, as chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant come and join us at www.spiritualprogressives.org/join. I want to affirm our commitment to the well-being of all Muslims on this planet as well as the people of all faiths and secular humanists as well. We wish to pay honor to Muslims of the world as they continue today the fast of Ramadan and join with them in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, a great fighter for justice and peace. Peace be upon him, peace be upon the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon all of humanity and peace on all of us. Amen. [prolonged applause and standing ovation]


POINTS I HAD TO LEAVE OUT BECAUSE OF LACK OF TIME

I have a few regrets about this talk, having left out the following points that I had planned to make:

1. The way to get to a world of justice and environmental sanity is to first popularize a New Bottom Line for Western societies based on replacing money and power as the criteria of success, efficiency, productivity or rationality by instead focusing on the degree that our economic system and its corporations, our government policies, our legal system, our educational system and even our personal behavior tends to produce the Caring Society: Caring for Each Other and Caring for the Earth by encouraging more love, generosity and kindness, environmental sensitivity and sustainability, enhancing our capacities to view others as fundamentally valuable (rather than through a utilitarian framework of how much they can "deliver" for us something we want or need from them) and our collective capacity to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement (not in terms of being valuable only if we can turn some of it into commodities that we can sell and make money with or into something that will satisfy human wants). Please read about our campaign for the New Bottom Line--and why you should not dismiss it as "unrealistic" by reading our approach at www.spiritualprogressives.org/covenant.

2. That in listing what we wish the next president to do we should advocate not only for a guaranteed annual income for everyone and free health care for everyone, but also free child care, free elderly care, and free education from pre-kindergarten through college and graduate and professional schools (and with a corresponding commitment from those receiving these benefits to give a few years of their lives after graduating to using the skills and understanding that they've obtained to serve those in this country and around the world who would benefit from their skills or understandings). We should forgive all previously taken college loans for any remaining payments beyond $10,000 per person.

3. The U.S. should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia or other countries that deny their citizens fundamental human rights or oppress their minorities.

4. We should affirm a commitment to nonviolence as central to our replacing the Strategy of Domination, which has been our failed approach to Homeland Security, with a Strategy of Generosity (including a Global Marshall Plan). It is impossible for people around the world to hear our condemnation of terrorists as anything but narrowly self-serving as long as we continue to bomb people whom we call terrorists, in the process acting as a state using terror against civilians (whom we dismiss as "collateral damage") and never having publicly atoned for the genocidal war against Vietnam. If terror (attacks on noncombatant civilians) is wrong, it is universally wrong, no matter how righteous the alleged or real motivation for it. In this same light, we have to critique those on the Left who do not critique the use of terror by some participants in liberation movements. And I want to add that though I fully support the struggle of Palestinians for freedom and a viable Palestinian state, I oppose and critique every use of violence including that of random Palestinians against random Israeli civilians and violence by Hamas intended to hurt Israeli civilians (to be condemned even when their efforts are thwarted by the Israeli army). Understanding the pain in the lives of Palestinians is important for motivating an end to the Occupation, but it is not meant to be a license for or subtle approval of acts of terror.

5. We stand fully committed to the notion that Black Lives Matter, remain outraged at the persistence of racist practices at every level of our society, believe that there should be systematic financial as well as spiritual and psychological reparations for slavery, and that this notion is consistent with, and affirming of, the idea that "All lives matter," and that the pain and suffering of working class people in this country deserves real attention and repair.

And finally
6. We must respond to those who are haters of the traditionally demeaned others of our society and who manifest racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and/or religio-phobia, not only with rational counter-arguments, but with a sincere empathy and desire to learn what are the underlying rational needs in their lives that have been frustrated which then sets them up to be manipulated into support for hate-oriented behaviors and/or worldviews. In short: look for the decency in people, even in people who are acting in hateful ways, and then find ways to help people return to that decency rather than be mired in the false solutions that have been sold to them as ways to alleviate real pain and suffering (a point that is central to understanding the reason so many millions of people in the U.S. and around the world respond to merchants of hate). To fully understand this point, please start getting Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org/subscribe. In our Fall 2016 issue of the magazine we give a full psycho-spiritual analysis of the psychopathology of American politics in the 2016 election -- not focused on the candidates but on why millions of people respond to the most perverse of them.

This is what I wish I had had time to say. And what I have time to say to you, if you managed to stick with me to this point, is: if what I'm saying makes sense to you, please please please join our NSP (interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming, just as we welcome people of every religious or spiritual tradition) Network of Spiritual Progressives and work with us to build the kind of world discussed here -- at www.spiritualprogressivdes.org/join. And if you are on principle someone who never joins anything, make a tax-deductible (in the US at least) contribution to our movement at www.tikkun.org/donate .

P.S. Some people misinterpreted my statement "tell the next President of the United States that she....." as meaning that I was endorsing Hillary Clinton. This talk took place after the California primary at a time when even many of the most passionate supporters of Bernie Sanders recognized that Hillary had won the majority of the popular vote and that given her likely opposition she was very likely to be the next president. I did NOT mean to be endorsing her--as the chair of the nonprofit which sponsors both Tikkun and the NSP, I am forbidden by IRS regulations in supporting any candidate or political party. So all I was suggesting was that she would likely be the next president, not that I personally was endorsing her or anyone else.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org/subscribe, chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue Without Walls in Berkeley, Ca. and author of 11 books, including two national best seller: Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy for Middle East Peace, can be ordered at www.tikkun.org.eip

Rabbi Lerner welcomes opportunities to work with anyone who has joined the NSP and/or subscribed to Tikkun. RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com