42 or How to Trick a Racist out of Racism

 In Film & TV, Influence, Pop Culture, The Bible

42 Poster42 is the new biopic of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball. It’s a typical sports film in that it’s inspirational and feel-good. It’s also a typical race film in that it’s fairly heavy-handed. Even though 42 doesn’t look too hard to find a weakness in Robinson, neither does it shy away from portraying how brutally he suffered.

42 centers on the relationship between Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and Robinson. Rickey recruits Robinson as the key player in his plan to desegregate baseball. Rickey proves to be as shrewd a businessperson as he is a strong Christian.

Rickey’s faith drives how he conducts the business of baseball.

He’s Methodist. I’m Methodist. God‘s Methodist. There’s no problem.
— Rickey, talking about Robinson.

Robinson and Rickey tearing down the race wall

Robinson and Rickey tearing down the race wall

As we confirm by the end of the film, Rickey’s desire for desegregation springs not only from his own connection to black athletes and his strong Christian conviction. But he’s also shrewd enough to realize that convincing racist white persons that black persons are equally human is an abstract, unwinnable battle.

Rather than protesting or picketing, Rickey uses what even racists respect: Money.

When Rickey first announces his plan to his inner circle, he claims he wants a black player on the Dodgers because black New Yorkers love baseball and will buy tickets. He frames desegregation as a smart business move. In his words,

Dollars aren’t black and white. Dollars are green. Every single one is green.
— Rickey

To his players, coaches and managers, Rickey frames playing with Robinson as job security. They can be racist if they want, in private, at home. But if they want a spot on the Dodgers, they’ll treat Robinson just as they would any other teammate.

Rickey’s shrewd use of business realities to accomplish decidedly Christian ends embodies one of Jesus’ strangest parables.

Robinson Signs with the Dodgers

Robinson Signs with the Dodgers

In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story that’s come to be known as the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In the story, a rich man finds out one of his managers is wasting money. When the manager gets word he’s getting fired, he goes around cancelling debts owed to his boss, essentially building up goodwill he could use once he was unemployed. When the boss finds out what’s going on, he’s impressed. He commends the manager for how cleverly he used his position and resources.

And then? End of story. So, what’s the lesson? According to Jesus:

It is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light. Here’s the lesson: Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, they will welcome you to an eternal home. — Luke 16:8-9 (NLT)

Money is the instrument that tears down the race wall.

Money is the instrument that tears down the race wall in baseball.

Jesus says that Christians should be at least as good as everyone else at using resources to accomplish our ends. But too often, we’re not. We’re either afraid of money, or we uncritically embrace it (I’m looking at you, Prosperity Gospel).

But according to Jesus, some Christians have a lot of resources. And if they do, they ought to be shrewd enough to marshal those resources to accomplish good. That’s always been a difficult parable to get my mind around.

But Rickey’s example brings Jesus’ teaching to fresh life.

Jakcie Robinson signing with the Dodgers

Jakcie Robinson signing with the Dodgers

Rickey used his power and position – as a rich white man who owned a baseball team – to accomplish the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. He provided Robinson a platform whereby he could demonstrate his moral and athletic excellence. He used his financial resources and influence to force an intransigent industry to give black athletes an opportunity to compete, and ultimately to demonstrate their full, equal humanity.

Unquestionably, this is what God wanted. Not because God loves baseball, but because God loves us. All of us.

Bottom Line: Among other themes, 42 illustrates powerfully how Christians ought to wield our influence.

YOUR TURN: What did you think of 42? What other examples of shrewd Christian tactics can you think of? What influence do you wield?

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  • Nice review. Some bits are cheesy and overly-dramatic, but it’s still an enjoyable movie.

  • Thanks. I totally agree about the film, but it IS a sports movie after all. Most of them are cheesy and dramatic. I also thought the racism stuff was a bit heavy-handed. But then it’s hard to do subtle racism. Especially when historically it wasn’t subtle 😀

    Thanks for the comment!

  • “But according to Jesus, some Christians have a lot of resources. And if they do, they ought to be shrewd enough to marshal those resources to accomplish good.” I tend to think I have no resources because I’m not rich or in an influential position. But you make me think: I have time, kindness, energy, transportation, a fairly good mind… I am meant to use what gifts I do have.

  • YES YES YES! It doesn’t matter if you have 1 talent or 3 or 5 (to steal from one of Jesus’ parables). We all have something. And we can all use it for the kingdom.

    Nice work, Michelle!

  • Thank you. Thankyouverymuch. 😉

    I definitely think you guys should feature it on Storymen (after Matt sees it, of course). Lot of discussion angles there, for sure. For me, I’d be interested in your comparison of Django Unchained and 42 in terms of how they handled the issue of racism. I haven’t seen either one, so maybe there’s nothing there, but I was under the impression that Django went right for it in a way that made many people uncomfortable. I’d be interested in your thoughts about that. For example you said in 42 it felt heavy-handed, even though I’m thinking it wasn’t as bad as Django. And if I’m remembering right, you felt it was shown appropriately in that movie. Lots of angles just to that question, huh? Anyway, just a thought.

  • Actually I’d say both Django and 42 suffered from the same problem (as did Lincoln): It’s really hard to make a racist sympathetic. Hence the heavy-handedness.

    Not that we should root for racists, but at least being able to understand/sympathize with them makes for a more powerful story.

  • That’s interesting, not something I considered. It makes sense. Every time I see Star Trek I feel sorry for the bad guy as he’s blowing up. Even though I want him stopped. But every single time I actually think about it and appreciate that they gave me that emotion. (His acting ability has something to do with that too, I’m sure.) But you’re right, I’m not sure how they would make something like racism sympathetic, particularly slavery. So that’s what I’ll be thinking about as I run errands today, I bet! 🙂

  • That’s what separates a good story from a great one. If I can understand the villain (even if I don’t agree with him), then I can imagine myself in the story. But if I can’t, then the story just continues to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys”. And the world’s just not that simple.

    The story becomes escapism instead of a good reflection of reality.


  • You’re good at analysis. This was fun! I like you, J.R. Now I’m off to the gym. The Storymen podcast is my reward – I’m going to listen while I’m on the treadmill. It’s pretty much my only motivation to go this morning, so I wouldn’t let myself listen yesterday, haha. Have a great day!

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