By Father Casey
Time magazine considers it the most iconic photograph ever taken. Two black athletes stand on the Olympic podium, each with a gloved fist in the air, as the national anthem plays. Tommie Smith had just won the gold medal in the 200 meter dash in world record time, and John Carlos had taken the bronze. It was October of 1968, and just a few months before, Dr. King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was building, but the Civil Rights Movement was losing steam. It was a fraught time, with tension and protest around the country, and many worried that all the progress of previous years toward a more just society was teetering on the brink.
Smith and Carlos had decided together that if either won, they would use the moment on the podium to take a stand. Barefoot in solidarity with the poor, fists raised and gloved in support of equal rights for black Americans, badges affixed to their jackets for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
They had it all planned out, except for one thing. The other guy on the podium.
His name was Peter Norman, and he had just won run the second fastest 200 meters in history. Norman was white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws and was experiencing its own time of tension about racial justice. So, as the three sprinters waited for the medal presentation, Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and Norman said he believed strongly in God. So they shared with him what they were about to do.
In response, Norman asked if he could wear one of the badges, too.
“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” Carlos later remembered. “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
You may know, or can guess, what happened next. Smith and Carlos were immediately suspended from the American Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. Upon return home, they were hated everywhere and received numerous death threats. It took several long, painful decades before their action was seen as a courageous expression of conscience.
What you probably don’t know is what happened to Peter Norman. He, too, was hated at home, treated like an outsider, and blackballed from the sport. He qualified for the 1972 Olympics and held the Australian record, but was not invited onto the team. As John Carlos said, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” Decades later, in advance of the 2000 Sydney Games, Norman was offered a pardon, so he could participate. All he had to do was condemn Smith and Carlos, and say that he thought they were wrong. He refused.
Just a few years before his death, Peter Norman gave an interview in which he said, “I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man. There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary, I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.”
Peter Norman died in obscurity in 2006, never having received an apology from his country. His pallbearers? Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
This weekend we’ll hear Jesus remind us that “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
At times, many of us jokingly refer to relatively minor inconveniences as our “crosses.” I know I’m guilty of this. A frustrating boss, a difficult neighbor, a minor health struggle becomes a “the cross I have to carry.” But there are moments in history when the real nature of cross-carrying becomes clear, and we can glimpse not only its true cost, but also its profound and holy power. Carrying crosses is not about enduring pain and suffering for no reason, and it’s certainly not about minor irritations that ultimately have little significance. It’s about transforming the world with sacrificial love. It’s about the price we are willing to pay to help it actually become more on earth as it is in heaven.
We usually don’t get to choose these moments. Peter Norman could never have imagined what he would be asked to do after his extraordinary run. Yet, he was a person of deep, personal faith, and so, when the cross was presented to him as an act of costly solidarity, he accepted it. He denied himself and gave up his life for the sake of Christ. It’s like what John Carlos said, “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”
Friends, I hope you will pray for that same strength of faith and the courage of your own convictions. For there are circumstances all around us in which we may be asked to pay a price for the sake of love. There are crosses waiting for faithful followers to carry. The question is, are we ready to save our lives by losing them?