The Olympics, Human Rights, and Holy Mischief

“God Is Love,” inscribed on the tracksuit of the athlete who would become the second-fastest man alive, is what first caught the attention of Australian Olympic official Ray Weinberg in the early ’60s. But it wouldn’t be until Peter Norman participated in an act of holy mischief for human rights (which became known as the “Black Power Salute” of the ’68 Mexico games) that this Australian would so publicly put 1 John 4:8 into practice with his African-American brothers.

Life magazine said it was one of the most influential images of the 20th century. Two African Americans and one white Australian took to the winner’s dais and, motivated by their shared faith, all wore Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons while the black Americans raised their fists.

Gold medal-winner Tommie Smith and bronze medal-winner John Carlos approached Peter Norman after the race. They asked if the Australian believed in God, if he believed in human rights, and if he would join their witness. Norman explained to Carlos and Smith that he had been raised in the Salvation Army, where service to Christ was never separated from service to the poor and the hurting, that he understood the importance of their cause, and that he would be honored to join them.

Tommie Smith, in his book Silent Gesture, explains the symbols of their prophetic actions that call back to the faithful creativity and holy mischief of Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, and Jesus himself in confronting the unredeemed “Powers”:

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  • Olympic Project for Human Rights button. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated earlier that year. With that sentiment in mind, all three men wore Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons connecting the struggle of African Americans to those everywhere suffering for human rights.
  • No shoes. What is often missed is that both American athletes took to the podium with no shoes as a prophetic sign of the poverty and suffering of black people.
  • Black gloves. The gloves were not simply about people power (though certainly not less than that), but also about the cry for freedom to the God who hears and acts on the cries of the oppressed. Be it in Egypt many centuries ago or in China today.
  • Bowed heads. Smith writes that the bowed heads was a sign of prayer. The kind of dangerous prayer that longs for God’s reign of justice, peace, and joy “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The actions of all three men cost them dearly. As documented in Matt Norman’s brilliant film, Salute, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the athletes’ village, suspended and banned from the Olympics. For the Australian Peter Norman, participating in the organised action cost him his athletic career and he was not chosen for the next Olympics despite being one of the fastest men in the world.

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life earlier in 1968, so these three men lived out the costly truth of the cross. As Dr. King put it,

There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation.

As the Olympic Games in London officially begin let us remember the witness of these courageous athletes, what it cost them, and how important it is that we cheer on our athletes. Not simply cheer them on in their sporting events, but also in taking what often are unpopular Christ-like actions that prophetically call for the end of injustice. In doing so they witness to another world being possible. A world that reflects the verse that Peter Norman would wear on his tracksuits, that “God is Love” and that in Jesus this love has started to “flood the earth like the waters cover the seas.”

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Jarrod McKenna is the National Advisor for Youth, Faith and Activism for World Vision Australia. He is a peace award winning founder of EPYC and co-founder of the Peace Tree Intentional Community in Perth. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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About the Author

Jarrod McKenna

Jarrod McKennaJarrod McKenna is amazed by grace. A peace award winning nonviolence trainer and activist, Jarrod is now World Vision Australia’s National Advisor on Youth, Faith & Activism. Jarrod with his amazing wife and son Teresa and Tyson, are three of 17 people living at First Home Project; an innovative community welcoming, housing and empowering refugees. Follow him on twitter here.View all posts by Jarrod McKenna →

  • tarl_hutch

    A poignant reminder that there is a cost for standing for the rights of others, and that we must act regardless of the personal consequences. When standing against oppression, the words of Jesus remind us that the world hated him and will hate us too, when we stand against systemic evil. Even when it appears that we are accomplishing nothing, the seeds of justice are being planted. Let us stand humbly barefoot for the good of the oppressed, remembering how easy it is to become the oppressor, and striving to live the kingdom of God.

    Thank you for the reminder and the inspiration.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com Ric

    Thank you for this reminder. It is such an encouragement for all the “Peter Normans” of our day. It is exhausting to be just be reviled much less ostracized. I cannot imagine how difficult life was for Peter Norman after this pivotal moment.

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