It was billed as the fight of the century. Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in Zaire…a fight referred to in its publicity as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Not only would it be one of the biggest fights of all time, but it also had the added element of being held in an African country-a move still unmatched to this day in terms of its creative audacity. The heavyweight champ, a pre-grill George Foreman, was the initial favorite and as such he expected to be loved and cheered by the people, but things would end up being quite different.
Ali quickly became the country (if not the entire continent’s) favored boxer in the match. People cheered Ali and booed Foreman wherever they went. The chant that followed Ali was “Ali boma ye!” which meant “Ali, kill him.” Foreman, it is said, was crushed, saddened and disappointed. He was an African-American as well…so why was he not loved also? The answer likely lay in a profound misunderstanding of symbols of which Foreman was terribly unaware.
George Foreman loved his dog. He had a large German Shepherd which he brought with him as not only his companion, but also because she was prone to separation anxiety. Foreman couldn’t imagine leaving her behind and so brought her with him. It was an act of companionship, care an concern…a rather tender expression. But, Foreman had no idea how it would be viewed from the other side. The dog would be seen not as a companion or happy expression of Foreman’s consideration, but rather as a deep-seeded symbol of slavery, oppression and pain.
German Shepherds, you see, were the dogs the Belgian army had used only 10-20 years earlier to keep the locals of Congo afraid and “in line.” They were not seen then as companions or happy sidekicks, but rather as symbols of oppression and abuse. To see Foreman with one of those dogs cause the people to see him in that same light. It didn’t feel like tenderness or anything of the sort, but instead violence and fear. Foreman, by having his dog with him, quickly and irreversibly became seen as “one of them” and his public perception never recovered. And it was all because he did not understand the symbolism of his furry companion.
Symbols are a strange thing, aren’t they? Their meaning can seem so fixed and clear, and yet you can realize later that though time or other cultures that they meant something quite different, and even the complete opposite. Symbols, you see, demand that we always consider our interpretation of them because they don’t have a fixed meaning which can, as Foreman learned, lead to terrible miscommunications. Symbols demand our careful interpretation and reflection so that we don’t fall into the same error.
But, honestly, I’m afraid we already have, and in a manner far more destructive than even Foreman’s companion. We have a symbol at the core of our faith which most of the time we see as a symbol of hope, power, or niceness…or worse a symbol which we don’t even notice at all when we pass it in our homes, sanctuaries, or on greeting cards. I think we’ve become blind to the symbol and truth of the cross. A symbol which for the early church was described in terms like scandal, foolishness and folly, but a symbol which has become to us unoffensive, or worse, simply invisible.
And so then a question for us: If the cross of Christ is the symbol which lies at the heart of our faith, and we don’t see it as the early church did…could it be that we don’t see our faith and God in the same way they did as well? Could it be then that there is something radical to be recovered if we take some time to see the cross not as we want to, but as Paul did? What would it mean for us to see the cross again as scandalous and even foolishness?
Over the next five Sundays, we are going to move through the season of Lent with an exploration of the cross-a symbol which is both forgotten and everywhere. We’ll take five passages of Scripture which talk about the cross and try and recover some of its lost meaning. And we’ll do this not as a just a practical exercise, but instead as a way to also recover a radical part of our faith and Christ’s identity which may have been forgotten as well. We’ll see you each Sunday and if you’d like to read the passage in advance you can find it here.
Love While we were still sinners Christ died with us.
Rev Brent Ross grew up loving the Twilight Zone and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For better or worse both of these things enter into writing his sermons every week.