Justice Like Jesse Owens

Nazi soldiers lined the streets. There were enough of them to send chills down the spines of those they deemed unfit to be called human. But not enough to prevent the gathering of athletes from a myriad of countries to take part in the largest global athletic competition, the Olympics.

The year was 1936. Despite rigid segregation in the United States, a black American stood on German soil as our country’s best representative to aim for three gold medals.

By Hitler’s definition, he wasn’t human. And maybe Hitler was right. Because what he’d accomplished a year earlier in Ann Arbor—breaking four world records in a 70-minute span—had been superhuman, at the least. In fact, no man has even come close to doing the same again. 

Born the grandson of slaves and a son of a sharecropper, he was named James Cleveland after his father. James’ name got changed to Jesse when he told a teacher he was “J.C.” and the teacher misunderstood. J.C.’s new name – Jesse, interestingly enough, is derived from the Hebrew Yishai, meaning “God’s gift.”

Jesse was no doubt a “gift” to those he represented in America, as well as to his family, in the mid-1930s. Grabbing golds in the longjump and both the 100 and 200-meter sprints, he mastered his race in front of the man who had claimed there was only one master race in existence.

A few days in to the Olympics and due to political maneuvering by the host country, pressure had been put on the Americans to sit out their two Jewish competitors for the final relay. So not long after Jesse had earned what he’d thought was his final gold of the games, he was penciled in to run the first leg of the 4 x 100 men’s relay.

Neither Jesse nor his counterpart, Ralph Metcalfe, had practiced passing the baton at Hitler’s Olympics. The relay wasn’t a common race for either. Yet with little time for preparation, they took to the track determined to do the best they could with what they had.

Not only did Jesse manage to stay in his lane and run faster than his competitors, but he passed the baton seamlessly on his way to earning his fourth gold of the games—as well as another world record.

Jesse had competed personally and corporately in a foreign realm that was antagonistic to him, yet he’d come out on top. Despite harsh opposition from within and without—due to segregation’s grip on the culture of that day—it was Jesse who stood on the highest podium more times than any of the others. It was Jesse whose unwavering confidence in who he was created to be and what he had been created to do gave his family and the entire nation a reason to be proud. Jesse faced racial opposition both from his own team (his own country) and from the country in which he raced. He was in a hostile environment and yet he did not allow that environment to dictate his actions or lessen him as a man.

As a result, he came out on top and even the opposition eventually honored his prowess by naming a street after him. There is now a street named Jesse Owens in the same nation where he once left its false ideologies in his dust.

You may never run in the Olympics like Jesse Owens. You may never own gold medals, either. But like Jesse, you – as a believer – have a destiny that involves representing God and His plan for your life in the context of a hostile environment. You have been called to run your race in enemy land. You have been chosen to aim for the gold, having been given everything that you need to go get it.

The leader of the enemy coalition, Satan, stands by watching, having declared your defeat before your race even began. His minions line the streets and the stadium of your heart and mind, daring you to prove their leader wrong. They don’t think you can.

What’s more, as God’s chosen now grafted into His body, you have been asked to substitute in the relay. You have been called on to run – not just for yourself, or for your country – but for all who come after you in this race.

To pass the kingdom baton.

When Jesse jumped at the 1936 Olympics, he jumped for himself and for his country. When he ran the two sprints, he did the same. Yet when Jesse darted down the first leg of the 4×100 men’s relay, he also ran for those who came after him that day. Because the key to winning any relay is in how well you pass the baton. It is in how well you connect with the next runner. Victory is in how well you position him to run.

Living out your destiny involves your personal races in life. It involves your family, and your church. But after you do all of those things well, it also involves passing the baton. Passing on to the next generation the ability to live out their destinies as well in the kingdom of God. The greatest justice of all comes in fully manifesting your destiny and then empowering the next generation to do the same.

Your destiny is about much more than just you. It is a part of a grander puzzle for others to live out their destinies, too. Had Jesse not run in the relay that day, the other three runners may not have grabbed their gold. Living up to your destiny is a God-given responsibility that includes your talents, skills, passion, experiences and so much more. God links all of these together as His gift to you in order to enable you to live your life as a gift to Him and to all.

Friend – the opportunities for all people in our land are not always entirely equal. The economics aren’t always equal either. There is oftentimes disparity between races and classes, despite what we stand for as a nation. I know this firsthand so I’m not merely talking in esoteric ideologies. When opposition and unequal opportunities exist before you, you have to cultivate a mindset to excel – just like Jesse Owens did. You need to maximize the opportunities in spite of the challenges rather than yielding to the challenges because they seem so difficult.

You have a God-sized destiny. I realize that sometimes the culture and those around you may make it difficult for you to believe in yourself or to accomplish what God has designed you to do. I also realize that Satan seeks to distort your thinking, distract your focus and shift you off-course. But like Jesse Owens, you can stand on top of the podium of your destiny by applying your skills, prowess, diligence and more every day in every race that’s yours to run.

Go grab the gold, and then also mentor those who come after you to grab theirs as well.