The Presbyterian Church (USA) headquarters building in Louisville, Kentucky is draped today with a banner paying homage to a man who intentionally rejected the Christian faith and embraced the religion of Islam.
The banner says that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is “celebrating the life and blessing of Muhammad Ali.”
The hanging of the banner is noted on the Facebook page of the denomination’s Presbyterian Women’s organization. The post there reads, “Muhammad Ali’s funeral is today in Louisville. The PC(USA) and PW pay tribute to his life and legacy. Though a fighter, he was a peacemaker who used his celebrity to witness to nonviolence.” (See the PW Facebook post embedded at the end of the article.)
Two theological considerations:
- the paying of tribute or homage, and
- the source of blessing.
To pay tribute is to pay homage. Homage, in the American culture means simple respect. But in other cultures it continues to mean the worship, reverence and obeisance due to a feudal lord. It is to bow down which is, in a word, idolatry. Tribute and homage, from this perspective is something reserved exclusively for Jesus and not Muhammad. To pay homage to a man who was the self-proclaimed “greatest” is to deny — consciously or unconsciously — the reality of the One who really is the greatest.
I do not suspect that the PCUSA intended the Muslim feudal meaning when it printed and hung the banner. But the meaning of a word in the watching world matters and the world is watching Louisville today.
Now, to the second issue: bestowing the quality of blessing upon Muhammad Ali.
For Muslims and Christians alike, blessing is a very common practice. Both will say “God bless you” when you sneeze and both wish you “God’s blessing” when you part company. But the god to whom Muslims and Christians are making that appeal are very different. For Muslims, blessings are always made as a direct invocation to Allah. Is that what the banner on the PCUSA headquarters is communicating to the world? If not, then what are they saying?
You may accuse me of picking at nits but can you see how the banner might be confusing to those passing by on the street?
One person asked if I thought the banner was blatant mockery. “Are they celebrating his life and blessing because they know that salvation only comes from Christ so Ali is now eternally lost?” I doubt that but you can see how from his perspective the banner is a mockery of someone’s choice to deny Christ and gives glory to all that can be glorified, their life now past.
Words matter. Images matter. Worldview matters. What we are communicating, how we are communicating it and how the audiences around the world that might see or hear it must all be considered before we hang a banner over us that isn’t Christ.