Is Michael Sam the next Jackie Robinson?

May 29, 2014

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in southern Georgia. His grandfather had been born into slavery and his parents worked on a plantation in the postbellum South for $12 a month until his father abandoned them when Jackie was 16 months old. After Jackie’s father left, the plantation owner ordered the family to leave. Mallie, Jackie’s 30-year-old Christian mother, boarded a Jim Crow train and took her five children to Pasadena, Calif., for a new start with family who lived there.

Robinson biographer, Arnold Rampersad, writes about Mallie in his book Jackie Robinson: “She worked hard to instill in them the key values she herself had learned growing up in Georgia, about the importance of family, education, optimism, self-discipline, and, above all, God.” He adds, “Family was vital to Mallie, but God was supreme . . . [she had] a never-ending sensitivity to God’s power, an urge to carry out the divine will as set out in the Bible.” Jackie Robinson writes in I Never had it Made, “My mother had made it a point to see that we got to church and Sunday school.”

The Reverend Karl Downs was the second most formative influence on Jackie’s early life and he described him as, “both stubborn and courageous,” traits that would be ascribed to him as well. His faith in Christ deepened through the influence of Karl Downs and Jackie became a Sunday school teacher at the church. Robinson’s athletic prowess was legendary. At UCLA, he lettered in basketball, baseball, football and track. Had the color of his skin been white, teams in several sports would have been fighting over his services. After a stint serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Jackie accepted an offer to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

A heroic cause

In 1945, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier in major league baseball by signing Robinson. Rickey was a Christian who became like a father to Jackie. Billy Graham said Rickey, “…was a man of deep piety and integrity—that rare combination of a 'man's man' and a Christian man, at the same time.” Rickey believed that a great player, who was also the right person, full of moral character and courage, willing to commit to non-retaliation for three years—except with his play on the field—could end what he called the “odious injustice” of racism in the game he loved. During their initial encounter Rickey told Robinson he would have to wear an “armor of humility” and read to him from Giovanni Papini's, “Life of Christ” and the biblical account of the Sermon on the Mount.

In 1947, when Robinson courageously ran on to Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was defying the reigning powers. As Rickey had already made clear to Robinson, there was virtually no one in authority on their side: press, players, team owners, umpires, as well as most politicians and civil authorities would oppose them. Robinson’s major league debut was 16 years before Martin Luther King's “I have a Dream” speech, 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 18 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rickey laid out and Robinson lived out an incipient strategy of the bold and courageous nonviolence that would be later utilized by Martin Luther King Jr. in the larger Civil Rights movement.

Robinson's willingness to endure humiliation, shame and persecution for the greater good of pursuing racial equality is a story of Christian conviction and awe-inspiring moral courage. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson believed that it was God's will for them to give themselves to this heroic cause. In 1962, Robinson was the first black player ever voted into the baseball Hall of Fame. The odious injustice that Robinson suffered throughout his life was based on one simple and unavoidable reality: the color of his skin.

The differences between Jackie and Michael

Michael Sam has been referred to as the new Jackie Robinson. He was an excellent college football defensive end at the University of Missouri. He was drafted on May 10, 2014, as the 249th overall selection in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. As a late round draft pick who had a poor performance at the NFL's scouting combine, his first challenge will be making the St. Louis Rams 53-man roster. Sam may turn out to be a great NFL football player, but it appears he has an uphill battle. The reason Sam’s selection in the NFL draft has received so much attention is that on February 9, 2014, he announced publicly that he was gay.

Jackie Robinson and Michael Sam share the same skin color and are both athletes whose entrance in professional sports caused a stir in the media. And that is where the similarities end.

Robinson was an unquestionable talent who was named rookie of the year in his first major league baseball season. The only thing that had kept him out of the major leagues was his skin color and institutional racism. Sam’s future in the NFL will be decided by whether he is talented enough and not an off-field distraction. Robinson endured hatred and persecution because of his skin color whereas Sam’s homosexuality is a self-identification.

Robinson initially sought to avoid media attention that was not directly related to his baseball performance. He was not simply trying to overcome unjust laws and practices. He was trying to change the mind and hearts of ordinary Americans who foolishly thought blacks did not possess the mental toughness and personal character to compete with whites in professional sports and other walks of life.

Sam’s public statement caused the media attention and made his identity as a homosexual a major issue. The on-camera kiss with his boyfriend when he was selected and the talk of a reality television show have fueled the focus on his sexual identity. Sam faces no pervasive American sentiment that homosexuals are inherently inferior and incapable of competing effectively in the NFL.

The environment in which Sam made his announcement bears little resemblance to what Robinson faced when signed by Branch Rickey. The media has almost uniformly celebrated Sam’s announcement and immediately began hailing him a hero of Robinson proportions. Robinson encountered death threats, threats of violence on the field, teammates who refused to play with him, opposing teams that threatened not to take the field against him. He could not stay in the same hotels as his white teammates or eat at the same restaurants. Sam became the first openly gay NFL player drafted and he did so in a context where 17 states have already redefined marriage by legalizing same-sex marriage. Much of the institutional and structural authority in America is committed to aiding the cultural momentum to normalize homosexuality in all aspects of American culture.

Martin Luther King Jr. said Robinson was, “A pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” King was influenced by Robinson and stated that he helped pave the way for his dream of racial equality. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech King said, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” King’s dream appealed to the authority of Bible and the Christian gospel in combatting the sinful idolatry of racism.

A different dream

Many are using Sam to advocate a dream that is at odds with the core message of the civil rights struggle. It is a call not to judge one by the color of their skin or the content of their character. Homosexuality is a sin and we must have enough gospel courage and love for people to tell the truth about sin and to point sinners to the gospel of Christ. I am committing to pray for Michael Sam. I hope he makes the Rams 53-man roster. I am praying he follows in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson’s faith in Christ and that his Christian teammates befriend, love and serve him in Jesus name.

The Spirit of Christ met the challenge of Jim Crow with a call to faith and repentance, and we must meet the challenge of the sexual liberationist movement with that same call. Satan is pleased with the narrative that Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson because it is his same old temptation to look at the world without the cross of Christ (Matt. 4:1-11). But the evil one would be equally pleased for Christians to look at the world without the cross of Christ from the opposing direction by declaring war on Sam as a two-dimensional enemy in an abstract culture war as if his failure would be our victory.

Jackie Robinson’s faith led him to courageously oppose the evil of white supremacy but also to oppose with equal fervency the black supremacy of Malcolm X. He knew that his opponent was not his enemy but rather his mission. The church would do well to follow his example in responding to the gay sexual revolution. After all, victory for us is not the defeat of our cultural opponents but their rescue. We all are, as Paul references, the “and such were some of you” people; racists, fornicators, homosexuals, thieves, idolaters, drunkards, and swindlers, who are washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24