Some Christians are heroic because they fought back against evil. But today we'll learn about a hero who was great because he didn't fight back.
The words are famous even among those who know little about baseball: "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." They were spoken by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to the man whom he'd chosen to break baseball's color barrier: Jackie Robinson.
We see this famous scene in the new film, "42," a biopic about Robinson. "42" – named for the number Robinson wore on his uniform – is a fine and memorable film starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as the immortal Branch Rickey. But the film all but omits the most significant factor in Jackie Robinson's ability to endure almost unbearable insults and physical attacks on the field: namely his strong Christian faith.
Branch Rickey wasn't the first person to teach Robinson that keeping his temper was more powerful than letting it blow. As I note in my new book, Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, while he was a student at Pasadena Junior College, "Jackie met a Methodist preacher named Karl Downs. Downs knew that Jackie was a Christian and taught him that exploding in anger was not the Christian answer to injustice. But he explained that a life truly dedicated to Christ was not submissive; on the contrary, it was heroic…. Downs eventually led Jackie to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ. He began to see that the path to justice would be done not with fists and fury but with love and restraint."
As "42" opens, we see Jackie Robinson sitting in the office of Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey hearing the incredible news that Rickey wants Jackie to play for the Dodgers. Then Rickey acts out the vicious varieties of bigotry Jackie will face from white hotel managers, restaurant waiters, and fellow ballplayers – insults he will have to face with dignity.
How much more dramatic this scene would have been had "42" told the whole story. Rickey knew that Robinson shared his devout Christian faith, and wanted to reinforce the spiritual dimensions of the battle into which the two men were about to step. So Rickey pulled out a copy of a book by Giovanni Papini, Life of Christ. He flipped to the passage in which Papini discusses the Sermon on the Mount. There he referred to Jesus' call to "turn the other cheek" as "the most stupefying of [Jesus's] revolutionary teachings."
Rickey's faith told him that injustice had to be fought wherever it was found. As for Jackie Robinson, he believed that God had chosen him for this noble purpose. And he knew that if he committed himself to doing this great thing, God would give him the strength he needed to see it through.
Day after day, Jackie Robinson's faith fueled his ability to play great baseball. And night after night, he got down on his knees, asking God for strength in the face of unrelenting hatred.
The reason I include Jackie Robinson in a book about some of the greatest men who ever lived is not because he played great baseball, but because he engaged in a heroic sacrifice. While he didn't have to, Jackie Robinson followed Jesus and sacrificed his right to fight back.
If you've got young baseball fans in your family, or among your friends, take them to see "42," which by the way is rated PG-13 for the evil language shouted at Robinson on the ball field. And then I hope you'll also consider giving them a copy of my book, 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness.
They'll learn why Jackie Robinson changed America for the better. He did it by living out, on and off the baseball field, the revolutionary words of Jesus: Turn the other cheek.