The sports world is still talking about the second title fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in 1965. In all this, I believe, is a parable of modern American evangelicalism. We are throwing the fight of our generation, choosing power over Christ, and the world can tell.
Neil Leifer famously captured Ali, standing over Sonny Liston, just one minute into the first round. The fight was called; Ali defended his title. But the story is more than the picture. In a world tied up with gambling and underworld connections, rumors swirled that Liston threw the fight. The punch Ali threw to put Liston on the mat? Ali claimed he never felt it connect. It’s known as ‘the phantom punch’. Was Liston acting?
These details cast a different light on the picture. Is Ali victorious, or is he furious? Furious that Liston was playing a different game, by different rules, than agreed to at center ring. One tied up in the mob and money. Who is to say?
And here, perhaps, is the parable for our modern American evangelicalism. We have been like a prizefighter throwing a fight. And it hasn’t at all been convincing to our nonChristian neighbors, or the rising generation in our churches. Rather than embrace the way of Christ, evangelicalism has laid down on the mat because our agreements outside of the ring.
For a people defining ourselves by the evangel, or “gospel” we ought to be clear on the person of Jesus, on the ethics of Christian living, on the call and cost of Christian witness. But our witness is questioned as modern American evangelicalism lays down like a prizefighter throwing a fight. The world asks, who is your handler, who is your god?
The hesitation of our public leaders and institutions to properly confront evil within the Church, from misogyny, racism and the idolatry of nationalism, are a clear sign to those attending the event that other agreements have been signed before stepping into the ring. Those agreements have led the world to witness us downplaying abuse, choosing to make three words “Black Lives Matter” more offensive than the murder of Asian and black bodies. Even now, they can watch us rehearse the battles of GOP politics within our own denominations
And so many, like Ali perhaps, stand over an Evangelicalism throwing the fight, not with a desire to be victorious but rather furious that the people of God have made agreements with the underworld. Furious that these powers called in collection from the church in a moment that actually calls for prophetic boldness.
I’m convinced the way forward cannot simply be giving full vent to our fury. We must confess before God both that we are angry—and in a thousand other ways—also guilty. Miroslav Volf notes that the healing of God by way of forgiveness falters among us because we exclude ourselves from the community of sinners while we condemn our neighbor.
Evangelicalism doesn’t need to be fixed. It already has been ‘fixed’ in a way. Fixed by its agreements with power and privilege that have promised us protection. Instead, Evangelicalism needs to reimagine faithfulness. And faith apart from repentance is impossible.
A faithful Evangelicalism tomorrow requires a repentant reckoning today. A shredding of our agreements that do not serve the Kingdom but our own fiefdoms.
We need a revival of our loyalty to Jesus. To that end, a revived Evangelicalism ushering in a revival in America may prove more disruptive to our society that preservative. And that is precisely the point. Perhaps it is this disruptive revival which we are presently avoiding by throwing the fight, all in support of agreements with the status quo.