Yesterday, as often happens, sport became the backdrop for something larger. It also happened to be something horrific as Boston blew. But sport and life were celebrated yesterday too, because April 15th is Jackie Robinson day in Major League Baseball every year. We do well to ponder, celebrate, and learn, especially this year, when fear is crouching at the door, inviting violence. His story can teach us a few things about the only good way forward. Here’s why:
April 15th, 1947, in a Jewish home in Brooklyn. The Seder meal is prepared and, in keeping with the traditions celebrating deliverance, the youngest child at the table asks the traditional question, “Why is this night different from all the other nights” and then, instead of waiting for his father’s answer, interjects his own astonishing response: “…because Jackie Robinson is now playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, that’s why!”
Deliverance, it appears, comes in many colors and stories. Dig around though, and you’ll find that the story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color barrier, wonderfully portrayed in the present film, is a fabric woven together by gospel threads, giving us a glimpse into the meaning of what it means to follow Jesus.
A God of Justice and Empowerment – Robinson came to the Brooklyn Dodgers because of the visionary leadership of one lone man, Branch Rickey. Raised in the Methodist faith, he had a bent for justice and once experienced blatant racism when a college team he was coaching refused lodging to his lone black player. His anger over the event never left him, so that later in life, when given the opportunity, he cast a vision to Dodger board of directors to break the unwritten racist rule, in place since 1880, and look for the right player to break the color barrier. It was a business decision. It was a faith decision. It was the right decision. And no other people of power in baseball stood by him.
I saw the movie about Rickey and Robinson Friday night, and then taught from the book of James on Sunday. Both events reminded me that my faith is only as good as my willingness to stand in solidarity with those who aren’t able to stand on their own. Yes, this means being aware of the work of International Justice Mission, and their ongoing efforts to address human trafficking. But I wonder if there isn’t more to our pursuit of justice than writing a check? I ponder what it means to cross social divides; to love people without condition; to empower; to serve; to suffer with; to put my reputation on the line on behalf of people who don’t have the rights and privileges I enjoy. The movie shook, coupled with my studies in James, shook me that way. I hope you get shaken too, because my suspicion is that there are lots of us with entrenched assumptions and judgments that are preventing us from representing Christ more clearly in our daily lives.
A God of non-violence– Baseball led the way in breaking some of the color barriers that had held a death grip on American culture since its inception. And of course, Jackie Robinson led baseball in that movement. If there’s one thing we learn from his path, it’s that pioneers pay dearly. Hate mail. Death threats for both he and his family. Humiliating taunts from opposing dugouts, and fans, and in the earliest days, from his own teammates. It was clear from the very first conversation with Branch Rickey that this would be the price. Both men knew it. It was clear, too, that the only way this would work, both for Robinson and all who’d come after him, would be to turn the other cheek. It was to be the path of the cross, the path of non-violence, of absorbing all the vitriol until the hate exhausted itself and died. Jackie bore it. All of it. He kept playing. He kept winning. He won the hearts of an entire country by overcoming hate with excellence, respect, and non-violence.
It’s a word we’d all do well to remember this week because when bombs explode at Marathons, and the politicians debate gun control, I promise you that weapons and ammo will be flying off the shelves as people arm for ‘god only knows what!’ Such fear, and such solutions are surely natural in this sad world of ours – but they shouldn’t be for Christ followers. Our way of winning has been shown us countless by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before, including one great baseball player who knew the cross intimately.
A God of vision – Rickey and Robinson both knew that they were involved in something bigger than themselves, that they were attempting to change the course of history, to add another chapter of deliverance to the many stories of deliverance that have been told down through the ages. An artist friend of mine hesitates to engage much with Christianity because the church, in her words, “carries a long chain of misdeeds, oppression, and violence” Yes. But there’s more. There’s St. Francis, and Dorothy Day, and Julian of Norwich. And then there’s Jackie, who made April 15th 1947 a passover that would be remembered by African Americans, and all of baseball, as a night unlike all the rest. In every case they were captivated by God’s vision of hope and committed to making it visible.
Thank you Jackie, and Branch; for having the guts to do it right. May we learn from your example… in every way.