Jackie, not Djackie

My wife Susan and I went to see 42 a few days ago. I confess that I am neither a baseball aficionado nor expert on the life of Jackie Robinson, but having been an avid baseball fan as a kid, I very much enjoyed watching the story. And as an African American, I was moved while being let to reflect on a time in history not too much before my time, and certainly during the time of my parents.

The movie focused on Jackie Robinson’s transition from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson is a hero. I’m glad that his story continues to be told and that Major League Baseball will let no one else wear #42, except when all players simultaneously wear the number as a tribute to Jackie.

Several years ago, when I was a church-planting pastor in Brooklyn, NY, a friend was about to interview for a teaching position at The Jackie Robinson Middle School. He called me the night before and asked, “Dennis, who was Jackie Robinson?” Yes, it was years before the Internet, Google, etc, but it was still amazing that someone–especially someone living in Brooklyn–could not know who Jackie Robinson was! Yet, I am not totally naive; I do understand how such ignorance is possible.

But we cannot afford to ignore trailblazers, especially when it comes to truth and justice. The movie 42 illustrated why Jackie Robinson is a hero because of his attitude, along with his talent. Jackie Robinson’s displayed a true Christian attitude while under the heat of vicious racism. It was hard for anyone to miss–especially us pastors–the role that Christian faith played in the lives of Jackie Robinson and also Branch Rickey, the general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed Robinson. According to this online biography, Branch Rickey’s religious faith “would become a distinguishing trait of his later baseball career.” In the movie, Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey quoted Scripture, especially with reference to the ethics of Jesus. Notions such as “turning the other cheek” were tossed about in Rickey’s appeals to Robinson.

I suspect it is possible to have a cynical view and see in Rickey’s use of Scripture a similar dynamic as to what happened in the days of American slavery. In those days overseers selectively quoted Scripture to slaves: “Obey your master.” The goal of slave owners was to create a docility borne out of the perverse notion that God had ordained the roles of master and slave. Slave masters wanted strong bodies but weak minds. However, in the case of Branch Rickey’s use of the teachings of Jesus, the goal was not to create a docile Jackie Robinson. The goal was to help the talented young ballplayer to stay in baseball and lead a revolution. Jackie Robinson was not being taught to approve of any notions of white superiority, or to accept segregation or Jim Crow. Instead, he was being called to be like Jesus, who had the power to fight back on the same terms as his accusers, but chose a different way.

I am concerned that some might miss Jackie Robinson’s heroism, along with that of others who peacefully go against oppressive systems, because we have been conditioned to think that fighting back must happen in the way that the oppressor fights. The line in the movie about Jackie Robinson being “strong enough NOT to fight” might be interpreted to say that he wasn’t a fighter or that fighting oppression is wrong. Not so. It is just that the fight must be fought with different weapons than might be expected; that is the way of Jesus.

I hope that instead of looking down on Jackie Robinson’s self-discipline, we can appreciate his quiet strength. Quiet strength does not mean weakness. “Quiet strength” has been a term used to describe the late Rosa Parks, another icon of the Civil Rights Movement. Some have tried to characterize her quiet strength as weakness, but apparently historian Jeanne Theoharis points out that Parks had a track record of fighting segregation. I’ve not yet read Theoharis’ book, but perhaps we can see that quiet strength and fighting are not oxymoronic. Indeed, the kind of strength displayed by Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks takes fighting to a different level.

Several months ago there was much furor over the movie Django Unchained. The story of an intelligent, confident slave devoted to one woman appealed to many. The idea of a skilled, gun-slinging slave, who could take it to the owners, overseers, as well as the weak-willed, appeals to some Americans’ view of justice. Maybe they would admire Jackie Robinson more if he were “Djackie,” physically taking on those who heaped abuse on him. But Django is fiction, not a documentary.

My father grew up in the Bronx and was 4 years younger than Jackie Robinson. I remember as a young boy I had a few chances to go to baseball games with my father, and we typically went to see the New York Mets, as we were living in Queens then. I remember asking my father if he had grown up a fan of the New York Yankees because he lived in the Bronx. He said “no.” I asked “why not?” He said because the Dodgers had Jackie Robinson.

While the credits were rolling at the end of 42, when most people had left the theater, the soundtrack shifted to Count Basie’s “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” The only people left inside besides my wife and me were a group of African American women, one of whom was elderly. That woman came up to Susan and me, bopping her head to the music, and saying, “that [the story of Jackie Robinson] happened during my time!” She said it with pride.

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