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October 24 — Jackie Robinson

Robinson with Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese

Today’s Bible reading

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also….

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. — Matthew 5:38-9, 43-45 (KJV)

More thoughts for meditation on Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

The movie 42 and celebrations of the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth allowed Americans remember his great achievements on the baseball diamond — including helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series and having his number retired by every Major League Baseball team in 1997. But mostly it helped everyone focus on the impact he had on ending segregation and helping to spur the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.

Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53. His famous quote is etched on his tombstone at his Brooklyn gravesite: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Robinson’s impact on others continues to this day. His .311 lifetime batting average and 1962 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame rank him among the best ballplayers in history. But of even greater impact was his historic integration of the American pastime. His courageous, faith-driven acceptance of this role made him the target of racist taunts from spectators and by many unwilling to accept that an African-American man should play alongside white players.

While growing up in Pasadena, California, Robinson was influenced by a minister named Karl Everitt Downs, of Scott Methodist Church where Robinson’s mother, Mallie, attended. Mallie believed in God, and she instilled in Jackie the importance of faith. She also taught him to be proud of his God-given blackness. When telling the Genesis creation story to her children, Mallie depicted Adam and Eve as black-skinned, explaining that their skin turned pale after they sinned. “Karl was the father that Jack didn’t have,” Rachel Robinson (Jackie’s wife) said. “Jack was so close to him. He kept saying that Karl changed his life.” We know that Robinson’s passionate sense of justice had gotten him into trouble earlier in life. But the patient mentoring of Karl Downs convinced him that Christ’s command to “resist not evil” wasn’t a cowardly way out but a profoundly heroic stance.Those relationships led him to Christ and made him a believer.

Historians and academics have pointed out how pop culture, sports journalism and Hollywood have often left Robinson’s religion out of his life story. For example, the movie 42 spends very little time exploring it. A four-hour Robinson documentary directed by Ken Burns barely mentioned faith. Here’s the main mention in 42:

The Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, was a “Bible-thumping Methodist” who refused to attend games on Sunday. Robinson was also a Methodist. They relied on their respective faith to overcome threats in return for the promise of ending racial segregation.  Rickey sincerely believed it was God’s will that he integrate baseball and saw it as an opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation, as Lincoln had done. A deep-rooted bond formed between the men. Robinson and Rickey were genuine Christians, muscular Christians certainly, but Christians in their concern for their fellow human beings. It was no act when Rickey read the passage from Giovanni Papini’s The Life of Christ to a skeptical Robinson at their historic first meeting in Brooklyn on August 28, 1945 (see today’s Bible reading).

“When I came to believe that God was working with and guiding Mr. Rickey,” Robinson wrote, “I began to also believe that he was guiding me.” And Rickey chose Robinson because of the young man’s faith and moral character. There were numerous other Negro Leagues players to consider, but Rickey knew integrating the racist world of professional sports would take more than athletic ability. The attacks would be ugly, and the press would fuel the fire. If the player chosen were goaded into retaliating, the grand experiment would be set back a decade or more.

Following his retirement, Robinson became more public about his faith. In 1962, during a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Robinson said, “As the first Negro in the majors, I needed the support and backing of my own people. I’ll never forget what ministers like you who lead [the] SCLC did for me.”  There’s little doubt that faith played a significant role in this success.

Want more?

Michael G. Long’s and Chris Lamb’s Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography

Ed Henry’s 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story

The Jackie Robinson Story featuring Jackie Robinson  (and Ruby Dee!) from 1950.

Nice mini biography.

Prophetic interview shortly before he died:

Suggestion for action

Jackie Robinson had a habit of kneeling for nightly prayers. The self-discipline he maintained changed the world in significant ways. Check your own.

Robinson grew up with a personal moral code taught by most white and black Protestants in the early 20th century—no smoking, no drinking, no premarital sex. But he was also shaped by the social witness distinct to the black church, believing that Christians had a responsibility to combat racism in American society, that anti-racism was a mark of true Christianity, and that many white Christians were failing to practice what they preached. How do you relate to those elements of his faith?

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