When I saw the movie 42, a biopic about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in major league baseball, I cried. There were many parts of the movie that reminds us of the vicious, pernicious harm that white supremacy does to all of humanity—-black and white. I also cheered because in the end, God and grace prevail.
This week, there has been another first in professional sports. Jason Collins, an NBA center, announced to the world that he is gay. The circumstances are quite different, but there are interesting similarities.
Many of us already know the story of Jackie Robinson. Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decides he wants to integrate his team with African-American players from the Negro Leagues. He knows he had to be careful about the player he chhoise to be the first because the man will have to be a stellar player and be able to withstand the taunts and threats that will come his way.
Rickey chooses Jackie Robinson. In the movie, Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, says that one reason he choose Robinson is because Robinson is a Methodist, Rickey is a Methodist and God is a Methodist. Let us pause here for a moment and consider Methodism. The term “Methodist” started as an insult. According to the Drew University Methodist Library “Frequently Asked Questions” in 1729 John and Charles Wesley started a Holy Club at Oxford University. They were serious about spiritual disciplines and their work toward social responsibility, visiting the poor and prisoners. They were methodical, so their classmates called them Methodists. They decided to adopt what was supposed to be an insult.
In the movie we see Rickey telling Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, that he would need the courage to follow the teaching of Jesus to turn the other cheek. He could not answer the taunts he would get. He would need the spiritual discipline not to fight back. He would have to methodically exercise discipline. Some commentators who have seen this movie say that there is not enough about Jackie Robinson’s religious commitment in the film. I disagree.
We see him bow his head in prayer before he takes the field. And every time we see him show consideration even for the racists who believe he is less human than they, we see an example of his religious commitment. We see him taking a picture with the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies with both men holding the bat because Robinson knows that the man would not want to be seen touching him. He waits for the other players to finish taking a shower to take his until one of his teammates invites him to shower with the other players. When we see these acts of grace, we see his religion on display.
And so with Jason Collins. In his piece for Sports Illustrated announcing his sexual orientation, Collins writes about his religious background. His parents taught Sunday School and he attended. He says: “I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding.” His family visited The Mormon Temple in Utah and the King Memorial in Atlanta. His family taught him about grace.
Grace is the face of a benevolent God seen in human affairs. Grace is the power that gives us patience, endurance and perseverance. Grace is divine love loving in and through us. Grace is God’s unmerited favor not only that will take us to transcendence, to life after death, but it helps us to transcend the everyday insults and hardships that we all sometimes face.
Jackie Robinson displayed tremendous grace under extreme pressure. He was able to do this because of divine love. In the movie, we see a young boy in the stands praying for him. We see the presence of God’s grace and love in the love between him and his wife Rachel. His family was at once a foundation and a shelter for him. No matter the situation on the field, not matter the nasty name-calling and countless acts of disrespect, he knew that at the end of the day he could come home to the unconditional love of his family. Rachel Robinson to this day works lovingly to keep his legacy alive. This is holy.
Again we see the importance of the unconditional love of family and friends in Jason Collins’ story. They loved and accepted him before he came out of the closet, and they love and accept him now.
However, lest we forget, there was also a practical reason why Branch Rickey wanted to successfully integrate baseball. He understood that the color of money is green. Not black, not white. He knew that African-Americans would come to the ball park to see black players. He knew that with the very best of the best, including African-American players, his team would win. He lived the scriptural command to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and the rest would be added. (Matthew 6:33) He was right, and baseball, the United States and the world are better for it.
Unlike Robinson, Collins is very likely past his prime as a player. He is a free agent, and it is yet to be seen whether or not he will have a substantial role in the NBA next season. Some people will object to the comparison I have made because they will say that there was no way for Robinson to hide his race as one can hide one’s sexual orientation. But I believe that we all are more free when each of us is more free to be true to ourselves. This is grace and another little piece of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”