42 or How to Trick a Racist out of Racism
42 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.