This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

The CO Mennonites once found objectionable

Nearly 50 years ago, the self-proclaimed greatest boxer of all time became the greatest religious conscientious objector to war of all time. Because of his Muslim faith, Muhammad Ali, the talented and controversial heavyweight champion who was just entering his pugilistic prime, sacrificed fame and fortune by refusing induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

Muhammad Ali signs autographs while promoting his autobiography on March 8, 1976, in Volendam, the Netherlands. — Nationaal Archief
Muhammad Ali signs autographs while promoting his autobiography on March 8, 1976, in Volendam, the Netherlands. — Nationaal Archief

No American that prominent had ever done anything like that before (or since). Ali, who died in June at age 74, was arrested, stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from boxing for four years while his case worked its way through the judicial system — all while being pummeled in the court of public opinion.

Surely he would find support and encouragement among Mennonites, Ali’s fellow conscientious objectors with their own history of persecution. Surely they would consider the champ’s stance an affirmation of their dearly held peace beliefs. That was highlighted by Curtis Burrell, the African-American pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, in The Mennonite, the magazine of the General Conference Mennonite Church.

“A popular personality like Muhammad Ali, taking an unpopular position, has popularized resistance for the sake of conscience. Thus, conscientious objection to war became a popular thing,” Burrell wrote before Ali went to trial in July 1967.

Burrell’s article, however, generated a backlash that demonstrated that Mennonites were, frighteningly, not that much different from the rest of American society. One reader responded with a letter to the editor that refused to use the name the champion took when he converted to Islam several years earlier.

She wrote, “God help us if Cassius Clay is the symbol by which our young men will decide what is right in regard to the draft. . . . Cassius Clay and others like him are doing much harm to the peace witness of the Mennonite church.”

Another letter belittled both Ali’s and Mennonite pacifism: “The strength and courage in a boxing ring do not compare with the bravery, strength and courage of the men in Vietnam.”

The Mennonite was the only major U.S. Mennonite periodical to address the obviously relevant issues surrounding Ali’s draft resistance. The Mennonite Church periodical Gospel Herald had one derogatory reference, by the author of a 1967 article who recast 1 Cor. 13:1 as “If I speak like a Billy Graham from a cold heart, my talk is like the empty chatter of a Cassius Clay.”

Neither Mennonite Weekly Review nor the Mennonite Brethren Christian Leader mentioned him at all, either when he was arrested and tried in 1967 or when his conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.

That white, humble, quiet-in-the-land Mennonites of the 1960s would find Ali troubling is understandable. He was brash, self-aggrandizing and outspoken. Adherents of nonviolence had difficulties reconciling slugging people in a boxing ring with opposition to warfare. And Ali’s conversion to the militant Nation of Islam (he later became a more moderate Sunni Muslim) was considered not just a rejection of Christianity but a repudiation of the United States.

But racism was an undeniable and inextricable element that permeated the criticisms. Burrell called Ali the personification of black power — thus white denunciations, while ostensibly of Ali’s swaggering persona, were actually denunciations of his, and other African-Americans’, refusal to conform to dominant standards. Too many Mennonites couldn’t recognize their commonality with Ali in their nonconformity with the military because they blinded themselves by their preoccupation with his nonconformity to prevailing white culture.

That was demonstrated by the Christian Leader in 1971. It didn’t explicitly mention Ali, but about the same time the U.S. Supreme Court was ruling that he should have been granted CO status four years earlier, an editorial called for the Mennonite Brethren to seek racial justice while just as forcefully calling its members to account for their racist attitudes.

“Evangelicals live in their sheltered communities and do not want to be disturbed by the facts,” wrote editor Orlando Harms. “This reminded your editor of the time someone castigated him because ‘Every time we open the Christian Leader we have to look at some n——.’ ” (The word was spelled out in the original editorial.)

Subsequent letters to the editor proved Harms’ point. “They [blacks] have been given too much already and they will always ask for more regardless of the circumstances,” said one. Another presaged today’s tensions by asserting, “There have been many instances of racial killing from both sides; however, your comment on this fact in the manner you did indicates a touch of racism on your part.”

The Mennonite cloud over the Muhammad Ali situation did have a few silver linings. Some church members did have eyes to see and ears to hear, and the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Peace and Social Concerns office sent Ali a letter offering draft counseling materials and assistance.

But overall, too many church members delivered body blows to Mennonite tenets of peace, love and reconciliation.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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