History remembers the winners. – Avery
Race is the story of Jesse Owens, the “fastest man in the world,” an African-American who dared to run in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was a time of racial tensions and snobbery throughout the world and the simple fact of his excellence was a clear and (humbly, respectfully) defiant challenge to both the Nazi regime and racism in the US. His life made a profound difference in the world at the time, but has something for us today, as well.
One of the things the movie really highlights is the fierce moral dilemma America nationally, and Jesse Owens personally, faced about participating in the Berlin Olympics. To go could be seen as a sign of support for the Nazi regime. How could they in good conscience go to something hosted by the Nazis, on their turf, that would bring support at the least and maybe even honor and glory to a nation that was doing such terrible crimes against humanity? On the other hand, how could athletes be denied the chance to compete? The games were a place where people just competed and lines of race, nationality, education, money… all of it disappeared. As Jesse put it: “Out there, there ain’t none of all this… for those 10 seconds, you are completely free.” The games themselves actually promoted equality.
That was the American Olympic Committee’s dilemma. Jesse’s was even more personal. The NAACP came to him and said he could not race because it would be giving a stamp of approval to Hitler. His people were counting on him not to race, to take a stand, Jesse was told. Jesse was in a difficult position. If he ran he was letting his race down. If he didn’t run, he was letting his coach and team members and fellow runners down. Not to mention, he loved to run and would be letting himself down if he didn’t go. The Olympics didn’t come every year. This was a once in a life-time chance.
To add to the struggle, Jesse felt pressure that if he went, he had to win, or else it was almost like proving that Hitler was right and the Aryan race was superior. Winning seemed to be the only way to go without giving a nod of support to Hitler. But he couldn’t control if he won or not.
The thing is, if Jesse hadn’t gone, it wouldn’t have been much of a protest. The Olympics would have gone on as usual, and few would have remembered that Jesse Owens had not competed. Fewer still would have known why he hadn’t competed. They might have assumed he was afraid, or not good enough, or injured, or any number of things, but it would have been hard to make his absence truly felt as a protest. This wasn’t an invitation such that a refusal would be a clear snub that stung and made a point. This was an opportunity he simply would have missed.
Fortunately, Jesse went. He chose to show up for the world, to give it the very BEST version of himself. He ran and he jumped gloriously and he won. He won everything he did. He won so much and so beautifully and with such grace that even the Germans were cheering for him, loving him, celebrating the gifts God gave him. Even racist Americans were cheering him on, forgetting his color and remembering what country he came from instead…remembering he was one of their own.
His glory made a far more powerful statement that his absence ever could have. Rather than protesting the others for their crimes, he just became so excellent it silenced them. The truth of his excellence shed such light on the lies of racism and supremacy that there was no need to say anything. Amazing.
No one would have remembered much about the great Jesse Owens if he hadn’t gone to the Olympics. But, did you know this was the first recorded (filmed) Olympics in history? Not only was Jesse remembered, but he was recorded. As Avery, a member of the American Olympic Committee said, “History remembers the winners.” It’s true, but to win, Jesse had to show up.
John Eldredge’s book, Waking the Dead speaks passionately to the idea that it’s not just Olympic-level athletes who need to show up in life and be excellent. He suggests that ALL of our lives were created by God with a glory (His glory in us) to reveal.
We are in the process of being unveiled. We were created to reflect God’s glory, born to bear his image, and he ransomed us to reflect that glory again. Every heart was given a mythic glory, and that glory is being restored. Remember the mission of Christ: “I have come to give you back your heart and set you free.” For as Saint Iraneaus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Certainly, you don’t think the opposite is true. How do we bring God glory when we are sulking around in the cellar, weighed down by shame and guilt, hiding our light under a bushel? Our destiny is to come fully alive. To live with ever-increasing glory. This is the Third Eternal Truth every good myth has been trying to get across to us: your heart bears a glory, and your glory is needed… now. – John Eldredge, Waking the Dead.
Sometimes we don’t know if we really have any glory in our lives. Other times, we are afraid that our glory won’t be enough (like Jesse felt). Still others, we are encouraged, for various reasons, to hide our glory, to withdraw and abstain. We think that sounds good and wise. We don’t want to be hurt, or disappointed, or to disappoint others…we want to make a statement, to be a conscientious objector, to hurt someone else… whatever the case may be. But we were not made to hide our lights under a bush. History remembers the winners. It remembers the excellent. It remembers those who show up for their lives and give it all of who they are. It’s vulnerable. It’s risky. It’s also glorious. It’s the stuff of movies.
Please understand, none of this is about pride. It’s about becoming all that GOD created you to be. It’s about stewarding all of your gifts and talents in such a way that God is pleased that He gave them to you. It’s about glorifying God, your Creator, by making the most of His creation…for HIS glory, not yours. But as you do, both of you are glorified. Scripture is full of men and women who were glorious without taking that glory away from God. They actually glorified God BY becoming the glorious, excellent creation God intended. As Eldredge said, “We were created to reflect God’s glory, born to bear his image.” How can we possibly bear His glorious image without becoming a bit glorious ourselves? It wouldn’t be His image if it was anything less.
So go. Show up for the world. Be willing to give it ALL that you are. Don’t hold back. Run your race with everything that is in you. The world needs you to be amazing as you were intended to be.
Questions for Discussion:
- Why was it a tough decision for Jesse, to participate or not in the Olympics? Have you ever faced a similar decision?
- Would he have been wrong to abstain from going to the Olympics?
- Why did it matter that he was the absolute best he could be a those Olympics in particular?
- Do you believe you have excellence/glory in you?
- Are you ever tempted to hide that glory under a bush? Why or why not?
- What would it look like for you to actually show up for your life with all that was in you?