In keeping with my new knowledge of the artistry of Chadwick Boseman, Sid and I watched “42” this week, based on the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete to play Major League baseball. What a story. . . As more accurate portrayals of the lives of our black brothers and sisters come to light, through song, art, movies, and sadly the headlines, we can only begin to understand the level of underlying pain that has been endured over centuries.
The story told in “42” was particularly troubling since 1947 was not really all that long ago, at least for us Baby Boomers born just a decade or two after that. Slavery is a horrible part of our American history and studied as such. Even knowing about the Jim Crow laws rationally did not bring home the amount of actual hate for our black brothers and sisters felt by so many people all over the country, not just in the South, during the first half of the last century. Such complete unacceptance of even the concept of a black major league baseball player as well as Robinson’s rejection by his own teammates, are hard to understand with modern eyes. One of the worst offenders was Ben Chapman the coach of the Philadelphia Phillies at the time. How the coach of the team from the city of “brotherly love” could audibly yell what he did over and over and over again, in public, without rebuke, is hard to imagine. Despite great room for improvement, such audaciously horrible behavior would not be tolerated today. Jackie’s response to Chapman’s tirades of bigotry brought a face to the pain, and justifiable anger, and for me an emotional understanding of immoral laws and the effect they have on society.
Laws are written to reflect society’s mores and morals. Yet they don’t always keep up with real time. Jim Crow laws were in effect giving teeth to horrid discrimination and took decades to repeal as the laws ultimately caught up with societal norms. Unfortunately, these laws had their effect on attitudes in areas not even illegal such as playing baseball together. It took the bravery of Branch Rickey in 1946, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to even suggest that Robinson play in the all white MLB. Though not illegal, as was stated by a critic of Rickey’s proposal, “When you break an unwritten law you’re an outcast.
Although Branch was willing to fight for Jackie’s right to play, it took his perseverance and courage to break through and change peoples’ minds. He often quotes Scripture throughout the film as he counsels Robinson to turn the other cheek, endure suffering for a greater good, and shares Yeshua’s teachings with others in the challenge of changing world views. As Robinson had already struggled with anger management before joining the team, his journey into major league baseball was used to refine him regarding this flaw and grow his character, a point made in the movie which through its characters and plot gives more than lip service to the teachings of Yeshua.
Societies evolve, thank G-d! Or possibly “devolve”. Where are we today? We mustn’t be complacent. Hatred and bigotry can sneak in as thieves in the night, in small ways that over time redefine us and our society.
“When you break an unwritten law you’re an outcast.” Perhaps we are called even more urgently during these times to break those unwritten laws that do not advance love in this world. We as Messianic Jews are familiar with this concept – there is no written law in Judaism prohibiting belief in Yeshua, and yet, we are often treated as outcasts by our own people. There is no written law today allowing unequal treatment of others, and yet such actions occur daily. Perhaps it is the unwritten laws, those that try to steal our consciences by stealth, by inattention, by inaction that are the ones to be broken decisively. Perhaps we are to embrace our place as outcasts. Yeshua surely was an outcast during His time.
There is a law written in perpetuity to love others as ourselves, the law that should guide all others, whether written or unwritten, one which if you obey will never make you an outcast in the only place that matters, in your walk with HaShem.