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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 baseball.

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.









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