It was the mid-1940’s. Baseball was still a “white man’s game.” Oh, the old Negro leagues existed, but the Major Leagues did not have any black players. Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers searched for a player who could break that color barrier. When he interviewed Jackie Robinson, he asked Mr. Robinson if he could face the racial attacks without taking the bait and retaliating. Robinson asked “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded that he wanted someone strong enough not to fight back. When Rickey asked if he could do it, Robinson responded by noting that he had two cheeks.
The urge to fight back when we are wronged is strong. When someone does us wrong, we want to show them how wrong they are. We want them to know that we are so strong that we don’t have to take that kind of treatment. Psychologists talk about a “fight or flight” syndrome and the natural inclination in dealing with people who mistreat us is to want to fight. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson realized that this instinct would lead to failure in their work to integrate the Major Leagues. What they turned to instead, was the teaching of Jesus. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)
The law limited retaliation to punishment that was similar or the same in instances where people were wronged. When someone injured you, you couldn’t retaliate by killing them. This was a major advancement in the law. Jesus blew that limited retaliation concept out of the water by saying, don’t retaliate. If they slap you on one cheek, give them the other cheek to slap as well. The logical question might be, “suppose they slap that other cheek, then what?” The teaching of non-retaliation still applied. If you are reading this and thinking that Jesus wouldn’t have made a good American, you’re right. We want to fight for our rights at the drop of a hat. When someone treats us wrong, we will defend ourselves. If necessary, we’ll dig up some lawyers and battle it out in the courtroom. I have my rights and I will not be denied! Think, though, how many legal battles, even victories, result in other people drawing closer to God. Ultimately, my goal is to lead others to know Jesus Christ. If that’s my goal, I would rather suffer personal disgrace and proclaim the gospel than to win victories that keep people away from God.
It all comes down to that relationship with God. One of the startling revelations the gospel makes to people in America is that it’s not “all about me.” Our society is individualistic to a degree that people in other nations don’t understand. The message to be willing to endure disgrace for the sake of the gospel reminds us that we have obligations to others. We may fight for their rights as human beings. We are not called to protect our own reputations in the face of oppressors. Everything that people did and said that smacked of racial oppression to Jackie Robinson was wrong. By turning the other cheek and not responding to them, he cleared the way for other African-Americans to advance in baseball and in society as a whole. May I learn that lesson from Jesus as exemplified by Mr. Robinson as I share the good news of Jesus Christ with a lost and dying world.
Oh Lord, so many people don’t know or understand the gospel. Let the focus of my life be on sharing Your mercy and grace and not on winning each battle that comes my way.