Jackie Robinson’s 42: More Than a Number

Jackie Robinson’s 42: More Than a Number May 26, 2013

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I took my kids to see the movie 42 today. The movie is based on the real life story of baseball great Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in the major leagues. Robinson wore the number 42 for the Dodgers. As I understand, the number 42 is the only number that has been retired for all major league baseball teams; it was retired in honor of Robinson and the values for which he stood. That doesn’t mean that racism has retired. Ongoing vigilance is key.

A few weeks ago, I was asked after preaching a sermon on justice what I believed the number one justice issue facing the American church and society is. While I cannot say that there is only one all-important justice/injustice issue, I did say that addressing racial concerns is high on the list since racialization (i.e., the impact of race on various domains) impacts so many spheres in American society today—from health care to job placement to where people live. The list goes on and on. And so the work to undo the racist policies of the past and their ongoing influence goes on and on.

After the church service that day, a young, well-intentioned man came up to talk to me. He indicated that he was surprised that I had made such a claim about race. He had been of the opinion that we are now living in a post-racist society. He asked me if I was making race a problem by drawing attention to race. While one can certainly cause further racial problems by attending to race in a problematic, non-redemptive manner, I shared with him that if we stop attending to race and racialization we will actually reinforce our natural, cliquish  inclinations to be with our own kind of people—a kind of separate but equal policy based on personal preference. And by the way, separate but equal is itself a myth since the predominantly white power structures in our country do not serve minority communities as well as the majority. Moreover, separate but equal fails to see that those who want it lose out on being enriched by those of different ethnicities. No cultural heritage is complete. We all need one another. Where would we be if Jackie Robinson had never played major league baseball? We are all better for it, not simply baseball.

The only way to move toward a post-racist society is by never ceasing to address racial tensions and personal comforts and inclinations that favor our own kind of people to the detriment of others, whoever they may be. It is an uphill race. If we try and coast, we will end up going in reverse. Standing still is not an option.

Once a year, on Jackie Robinson Day, every player on every major league team wears the number 42. I love the symbolism and intentionality. Whether or not the rest of us in America play or even like professional baseball (often hailed as the great American pastime), we need to wear the number 42 on our hearts. It’s more than a number, just like addressing race is about more than (not less than) quotas, and is itself about more than race. The number 42 is about celebrating the value of the inherent dignity and equality of all people for which we must all stand and push forward—never standing still.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and The Christian Post.

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