Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.
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April 17,2016 - Essay: Jackie Robinson and the Turned Cheek
March 24, 2016 - Essays: Easter Message 2016
February 24, 2016 - Essays: Loud Amen, Not a Last Hurrah
Jackie Robinson and Turning the Other Cheek
Jackie Robinson and Turning the Other Cheek
If you haven't already done so, be sure to see
Ken Burns's documentary on Jackie Robinson. It places my favorite
Brooklyn Dodger in an historical context of civil rights absent in
the commercial film "42." It has also provided the talking heads and
typing fingers of the opinion world with another opportunity to misunderstand
Jesus' discipline of the turned cheek. More about that down the page.
On the wall of my study in which this essay is
written, hangs an enlargement of a book cover. Eight of the
world championship 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers stand by the batting cage: Reese, Furillo,
Robinson, Erskine, Hodges, Newcombe, Snider, and Campanella. My how I suffered for a decade of
Octobers when the Yankees repeatedly stifled my heroes in the World Series. Talk
about "the curse of the Bambino," I struggled with the curse of Mickey Owen.
Which ended when Johnny Podres developed a change-up and "Wait'll Next Year" became
"This Is Our Year," 1955.
We moved to Brooklyn (and my first full-time
appointment as a pastor) in February 1956, and went to a bunch of games in Flatbush
in the "last good season." I thought I was close to heaven, a fantasy
cruelly demolished when my team moved to the tar pits of Los Angeles. It would be
another five years before my jilted loyalties would fasten on a new nine of
hardball losers. But my admiration for Jackie, who retired rather than
play for the Giants, remained steadfast, throughout his political meanderings.
He had moved to my hometown and my mother did his laundry; a fact which I
announced to Jackie in person one night at a dinner at the Hotel Granada
honoring a colleague in Brooklyn ministry. Jackie was in his early fifties
then, a full head of white hair, but still walking, if gingerly, pigeon-toed.
He was the guest speaker at George Lawrence's fete; I prayed and sat next to
Mayor John Lindsay. When the festivities concluded, I asked Jackie if he
wanted a ride home. He probably thought I was nuts, said "No thank you,"
and moved on to the next greeter.
In my mind's eye, though probably not in
reality, I was at Ebbets Field on August 20, 1947 when Enos Slaughter spiked
Dodger rookie first baseman Robinson on a routine grounder. Which
Slaughter denied was intentional and which Robinson suffered without
retaliating. He withheld the fury of an angry black man, which in him was
considerable. He had promised Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey he
would keep his cool no matter the provocations on or off the field. In
legend, and probably in fact, Rickey, a devout and pietistic Methodist, invoked
Jesus' turned cheek. Jackie practised it valiantly and successfully that first
year; and in the doing presided over the peaceful beginning of bi-racial
Ken Burns's documentary captures the toll it
took on Jackie, an ordeal I, and I daresay most of us, never fully appreciated.
Reading the media commentary on the Burns
opus, I found once again just how muddled, confused, misinformed, and downright
stupid reporters can be about religious matters. I mean, in particular,
the turned cheek. Matthew 5:39: But I say to you, Do
not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the
other also. In Roman Catholic parlance it is named a "counsel of
perfection." I have another name for it to be divulged below, but for now I
would note the press seems to have fallen for that description like a convert
yearning to please his mentor, that the turned cheek is a beatific trademark,
proof of your angelic future. To which I scream, "Nonsense! Few things
Jesus said were grittier."
For one year shy of fifty I have taught
thirteen year olds their confirmation lessons. Each year a session was devoted
to the Sermon on the Mount and the counsel visited on Mr. Robinson by Mr.
Rickey. What I have told my young charges, among several things, is that
the turned cheek isn't for them, until they grow up and know what they are
doing. I preached what I practiced. In third grade at Hart School
Chester Falsetti took a distinct dislike to the teacher's pet, Bobby. At
three in the afternoon when class ended, Chester would try to find me, the
better to give me a beating like his father regularly gave him. But I could run
faster than Chester. And I did. And I never had to turn the other
cheek. Which explains my pastoral advice to children when faced with a
bully: if you can't beat him, run like hell (well, you're right, I probably
never said "hell" to the confirmands).
Or consider, in the context of ancient Rome
and its cheap value of life: turning the other cheek to an angry centurion
might be the only possibility of surviving and avoiding the lance you would get for
your failure to knuckle under. That is, in the face of wanton evil like an SS
trooper in Nazi Germany or Pot Pol's henchmen in Cambodia, the turned cheek is
simple prudence. That Jesus might have considered this possibility would
be to invest him with an ironic sensibility most Christian fundamentalists find unacceptable. Jesus
to them must be straightforward and simplistic. But not to the aforesaid Bobby who
became a pastor. I have cherished the Galilean's more puzzling sayings
like "Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves"; or, "the children of this age
are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of
light." The turned cheek may not be in this category, but it comes close.
Which brings us to the summer of 1947 and
Jackie's stoic performance on the field and off as he spearheaded the
integration of major league baseball. His turned cheek was not to imitate
any counsel of perfection. What he followed, in the words of my
daughter's colleague, was a strategy of subversion. As Gandhi did to the
British Empire. As Nobel poet laureate Joseph Brodsky, my niece's hero,
did to his captor's in the Soviet gulag. As Martin Luther King, Jr. did to Bull
Connors and others. As Mandela did to the apartheid faction before and
after he assumed political leadership in South Africa. A refrigerator door in
the home of a parishioner in Valley Stream sported this legend, "Love your
enemies. It'll drive them crazy." Which is what it did to Ben Chapman the
manager of the Phillies who spewed racial vitriol from the dugout in 1947 when
Jackie was at bat: Ben had to eat his words and not long after leave the majors.
Jackie Robinson deserves our admiration not
just because he turned the other cheek. He deserves our admiration because
he turned the other cheek against his own strong sense of what is right and
wrong; because he did it in the expectation it would lead to a better place for
everyone and especially his race; and because he willed it with a courage and forbearance of which most
of us are incapable. I've never been subjected to the hatred Jackie faced;
but in those moments when I have suffered humiliation by an opponent, usually in
a public meeting or on a field of competition, I have felt the impulse to defend
myself and give as good and maybe better than I got, just how powerful it is.
Then to stifle it has for me been nigh impossible. That the Dodger first
baseman in 1947, under the gaze of the whole sporting world, did just that, control
the impulse to lash out with righteous fury, elevates him above every other sports hero.
And justifies the day in April each year when every
player in Major League Baseball wears "42" on his jersey.