On my mind this week has been notions of what does it look like to be a Christian in the world that would crucify Jesus of Nazareth, even today in our so-called progressive world. What came to my mind was the movie “42”, a biographical movie about the life of Jackie Robinson. I was fortunate a few weeks ago to see the movie with my best friend, another baseball fan and a true historian of the game.
What I appreciated most about the movie was that it was not so much about the great athleticism of Jackie, but about the Christian courage and strength that he, and African-American, and Branch Rickey, a privileged white man, had in an openly racist society.
Part of Jackie Robinson’s story not told in the movie, but is in his biography, is that Jackie was a redeemed person. He was saved from the streets by the Rev. Karl Downs, pastor of Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena, Calif. Robinson was a star athlete at UCLA, then during WWII, he served in the U.S. Army until the completion of the war. After his service, he was signed to play with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. As a player, Jackie openly scorned his team mates who were whiskey drinkers and openly promiscuous. He himself abstained from alcohol and told his astonished team mates he was not going to have sex until he was married.
When Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, chose Robinson to become the first Black baseball player in the Major Leagues they had a meeting in which Branch Rickey, a Methodist himself, read to Robinson from a book titled “Life of Christ.” Then he had Robinson read a section about “nonresistance.” At the center of it was the words of Jesus, “if slapped on one cheek, turn and offer the other cheek.” Jackie understood immediately what this meant, that he had two cheeks, and needed them.
No other player in the history of the game of baseball took more verbal and physical abuse than Jackie Robinson. No other player in the history of sport had as much pressure on him to fail than when Jackie took to the field in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform on April 15, 1947. The movie “42” did an impressive job of demonstrating the abuse that Jackie took from his fellow team mates, from the opposing teams, and from the white fans in the stands. At times I cringed at the constant abuse that poured from the lips of some of the actors. It was hateful and full of venom with the purpose of poisoning the game of baseball.
Yet Robinson thrived. He did so because of his faith. He did so because daily he prayed. He did so because another true Christian like Branch Rickey stood beside him. He did so because God’s love is steadfast. By continuing to turn the cheek, Jackie brought shame and scorn down upon those who were the most violent in their abuse. Nearly all of them had very short careers and suffered greatly at the hands of the other players and the fans. And as I wrote, Robinson thrived.
Now when I read Jesus’ words, I have a strong picture of what they look like when we live them out in our lives. It is not a road to an easy life or riches. It is a road, however, with the joy of the presence of our Lord Jesus. It is a life though often filled with suffering, it is life abundant in love and the riches of heaven. And it is eternal.