I didn’t have any idea who broke the color barrier in the NFL, NBA, or NHL or in what year it occurred before this week. Kenny Washington, Bill Willis, Marion Motley, Wodoy Strode, Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, Earl Lloyd, and Willie O’Ree…I’ll let you look them up. Each were equally important in their respective sports, but Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball was an event that became an enduring symbol in our country. Do we really have a concept today about how important baseball was to the American consciousness? I would argue that we don’t.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his major league debut before a crowd of over 26,000, more than half of whom were black. 42 tells the story of that first game, including highlighting some conflicting reports of Robinson’s first at bat. What the film doesn’t dive into is Robinson’s faith, which was apparently was considerable. For some reason the filmmakers chose to highlight Branch Rickey’s faith, but not Robinson’s. Removing Robinson’s faith from the audience’s consciousness is a major omission.
At this point, should we be surprised by all that we forget and intentionally omit? Probably not. But we should constantly examine how what we forget from history tends to accentuate the differences we feel.
We’re not alone in this historically or Biblically. Read the book of Galatians in the New Testament. Paul’s letter shows the tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentiles who were trying to join the Christian community. Even in the early church people struggled with those who were different. In their case, the Jewish Christians were confused about whether or not it was possible for Gentiles to become followers of Christ without being circumcised or following the Mosaic Law. In Robinson’s case, it was just more obvious and visible.
How do we get sideways on equality in the Gospel so often? Why are there so many stories of one denomination saying that another denomination is going to hell? We cannot be so foolish as to believe that we’re not capable of such division and atrocity. We are. We are human. We are just as capable of spitting venom as the manager of the Phillies standing outside the dugout in the movie. Maybe that’s the greatest reminder that 42 gives us. Yes, the story of Rickey and Robinson overcoming obstacles is a huge part of the story. But maybe the better part of the story is our individual call to suppress those urges to divide and find a way to unite.