Week of May 8, 2013

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

42 is the powerful new film that tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in breaking the “color line” in baseball in 1947. Most observers realize now that this epic event was important in American life for reasons that go far beyond the game of baseball, which makes Jackie Robinson’s story one that belongs to us all. The movie is beautifully made, and tells a powerful emotional tale. But in the words of Eric Metaxas, the author of the recent biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, Hollywood decided “to pitch around” the issue of why Branch Rickey chose to do this in 1947, and also why Rickey chose Jackie Robinson for this role above so many other worthy “negro baseball players” of the era.

In his 1997 biography of Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad does not “pitch around” the issue of faith. Rampersad is Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature at Princeton University, and his biography of Robinson argues compellingly for why Jackie’s life and story were so important to tell, and why the relationship forged between Rickey and Robinson proved to be such a transformational moment in American life. The movie does allow that Rickey was aware that Robinson and he were both Methodists. What the movie does not share is the Christian motivation that led Branch Rickey to act to integrate baseball, knowing it would lead to more perfect justice in the rest of our society. According to Rampersad, Rickey was a “Bible banging Methodist” who was looking for the right person to take on this painful and costly burden. He made Robinson promise not to retaliate or to lose his temper publically for one year before he would sign Robinson to his historic major league contract. It was a lonely road that Rickey was asking Robinson to walk, but it was one that both men knew their Savior had walked before them. Rickey chose Jackie Robinson because he knew of his deep faith in Jesus Christ, and he asked Robinson to promise to “turn the other cheek” toward his tormentors because he knew that they both shared a faith conviction that this was the will and word of Jesus.

Rampersad tells of how influential Jackie’s mother, Mallie Robinson, was to his life and character. “Family was vital to Mallie, but God was supreme. For her, as she tried to make her children see, God was a living, breathing presence all about her, and she seeded her language with worshipful allusions to the Divine. ‘God watches what you do,’ she would insist; ‘you must reap what you sow, so sow well!’ Faith in God meant not only prayers on one’s knees each night, and Scott Methodist Church on Sunday, but never ending sensitivity to God’s power, an urge to carry out the divine will as set out in the Bible, and a constant appeal to heaven for aid, comfort and guidance.” She also introduced Jack as a teenager to the Reverend Karl Everette Downs who came to serve as a pastor at their church. Rampersad writes, “As a young man, vibrant, educated, articulate, and brave, Downs became a conduit through which Mallie’s message of religion and hope finally flowed into Jack’s consciousness and fully accepted there…. Faith in God began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world.”

In many ways, the story of Jackie Robinson is a story of the quest for justice, and the fight to end racial discrimination in our land, a struggle that continues to this day. I applaud the makers of this film for the unflinching manner in which they tell this imporant story. But I also found myself wishing they had been willing to tell the whole story, because any truthful biography of Rickey or Robinson will reveal that their stories were also deeply and profoundly stories of the power of Christian faith. Both Robinson and Rickey were disciples of Jesus Christ, and this was where they each found the courage and power to make the decisions they did to transform our land.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’ But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….” Jackie Robinson made a promise to a fellow Christian to follow this life transforming word of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, he found the power to live by it during the 1947 baseball season. He did this because he was asked to by another Christian he trusted. Both men believed these words of Jesus are universally true and can change the world. This is why we still rightly celebrate the courage and character of Jackie Robinson. Jesus’ Word is still the deepest truth and the most life giving force in all the world. Let’s give thanks for a story that lifts up the power of the Gospel to create a better world.

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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