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Is Michael Sam the next Jackie Robinson?

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).

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