Monday, April 15, 2013

Jackie Robinson Day

The new movie '42' is a home run!
Yesterday, we went to see the new movie, 42, which tells the true story of how Jackie Robinson got his start in Major League Baseball in the 1940s. I highly recommend the film, whether you're a baseball fan or not, but as with most movies today, I would caution parents about taking small children to see it because of the film's use of profanity - especially racial slurs. That said, I'm glad filmmakers didn't "pitch around" the issues of the day.

I'm also glad they didn't "pitch around" the role that Christian faith played in the story.

Besides Jackie Robinson, himself (played by Chadwick Boseman), the second most important character in the story is Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers who chose Robinson specifically for the purpose of breaking baseball's unwritten color barrier. The mutual faith of these two men is alluded to early in the film by a humorous observation from Mr. Rickey:

"Robinson's a Methodist, I'm a Methodist, God's a Methodist... We can't go wrong!"

It's a line that elicited laughter from the rest of the theater, but - while I really don't think God cares very much about denominations - as a Methodist myself, I couldn't help but cheer just a little!

Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson for a lot of reasons besides the fact that he was a Methodist, though. For one thing, Robinson was chosen because of his skill as a baseball player, because Mr. Rickey knew that if he wanted people to get over their racist attitudes and accept a black ball player, he would have to be good enough at what he does to earn their respect. He had to be able to prove that he deserved to be on that field for his talent - not just because of the color of his skin. Mr. Rickey also needed a player who had enough determination to stick with it in the face of persecution - someone who would not become so discouraged that would he quit or fold under the pressure.

In addition to these things, Rickey also needed a player who wouldn't make matters worse by fighting back when others tried to push his buttons. One of my favorite exchanges in the movie came when Mr. Rickey had his first conversation with Robinson about this.

Robinson: "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"
Rickey: "No, I want a player who's got the guts NOT to fight back."

Rickey goes on there and in other scenes to explain that if Robinson fights back against those who try to cut him down, he will be giving them a reason to twist things against him. People won't remember the wrong things that were said or done to hurt him - they will only remember that he lashed out at them, and they'll use that as a reason to say not just that Robinson doesn't belong, but that black people can't be trusted. By giving in - "returning a curse for a curse" - Jackie Robinson would have only given racists more of a reason for their racism. This is a lesson that was learned and promoted years later in the civil rights movement by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.

This is where the Christian faith of these men becomes so important, because Mr. Rickey explains, he needs a player who can be devoted to working hard, who can be determined to press on in the face of persecution, and who can follow in the footsteps of the Savior by "turning the other cheek" - and I'm thankful that the movie isn't shy about making that connection between the example of Jesus (both in his teachings and in the way he conducted himself during his own persecution and trial) and the kind of person Mr. Rickey knew Jackie Robinson needed to be in order to make progress toward racial equality (see Matthew 5:10, 38-48; 27:11-14; Luke 23:33-34). Robinson's resolve was put the test over and over throughout those years, but especially during a game with the Philadelphia Phillies, when he was taunted mercilessly by a Phillies' coach who yelled racial slurs and obscenities from the sidelines. Though it pushed Robinson to his limits and went against all his natural instincts, he was able to keep his composure on the field, and eventually began to win others' sympathy because of it.

Another example of the role Christianity played in this story comes in this thought-provoking scene when Mr. Rickey gets call from an executive from Philadelphia trying to dissuade the Dodgers from bringing Robinson with them on an upcoming road trip.

Powerful words, and I'm thankful for the examples of these two men who push us to consider the reasons for our actions. Just as we know that God loves all people, so we are called to show love for all people (1 John 4:16-21), and we are called to stand up for the issues of liberty and justice for all (Isaiah 58:6-11).

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?"
- Micah 6:8

Every year on April 15th, Major League Baseball honors the the legacy of these two great men of faith with "Jackie Robinson Day", when every player wears Robinson's number 42 on their jersey. But I pray that we may honor them every day by standing up in the face of injustice whenever we can, but also by following the example of peaceful protest - not giving people a reason to hate us more, but leading them in an example of love.

Here are some related articles you might find interesting: 
* Church TV Show and Jackie Robinson - more on the link between Robinson and Methodism
* The 'ferocious Christian gentleman' behind Jackie Robinson's famous moment - more on Mr. Rickey's faith

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