Lebron James and Northeast Ohio: Reflections on Forgiveness and the Gospel

June 29, 2016  |  Craig St. John

By Riccardo Stewart

First, I have to start with a huge disclaimer: Lebron James (though called “King James”) is not Jesus. So it should go without saying, but I will nevertheless emphasize, that Lebron is not like Jesus—he is not a savior, God in flesh, etc.

It has been years since I have found myself glued to the TV while watching the NBA Finals. As a Lakers fan, there has not been too much excitement recently, only disappointment. However, this year’s Finals was special because two of my favorite players were competing against each other: Lebron “King” James and Steph “Chef” Curry. I was pulling for the Warriors, but one could not help but see how Lebron James stole the show and (along with the help of Kyrie Irving and others) stole the Championship Title. While watching the team celebrate following Game 7, I was moved by what transpired in Lebron—his overwhelming emotion and tears. As a Lakers fan, I have been accustomed to watching guys like Magic, Shaq, or Kobe celebrate, but not like Lebron did by weeping on the floor of the court. These tears seemed to be more than just celebrating a championship (remember, he already won two before). It’s as if the tears expressed the sheer feeling of having the weight of the world—or more accurately, the weight of the City of Cleveland (and northeast Ohio)—lifted from his shoulders. The fans of Cleveland finally achieved an end to their championship—less drought and primarily through the means of Lebron James. It has been interesting to reflect on and observe the responses of the City of Cleveland: the parade, parties, and … shirtless JR Smith. As a sports fan, I am excited for the Cavaliers and my friends that have an opportunity to rejoice in the team’s accomplishments. In some ways, it appears that the City of Cleveland has welcomed home their prodigal son and is now joyously celebrating, which is an appropriate response. Northeast Ohio has forgiven the transgression of their “King” James, but has their “King” truly forgiven them? Or only excused them?

Forgiveness is something that is at the heart of gospel: God, through Christ, has forgiven us of our sins. We have read the prayers of the people of God in Scripture who have prayed that God would forgive them of their presumptuous sin and even of their hidden or unknown faults (Ps. 19:12-13). As Christians, we remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as we partake in public worship. This includes some form of liturgical practice of confession of sin and assurance of the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ. Though our doctrine of forgiveness is true and right, functionally we might have mistaken forgiveness for excusing.

Forgiving or Excusing?

When a person is sinned against, he or she has been belittled, dehumanized, or devalued. The one who has sinned ought to seek forgiveness. However, the person who is sinned against often thinks that he or she is forgiving when in reality, she is merely excusing the offense. For example, consider this hypothetical: Veronica has lied to her best friend Kesha. Veronica proceeds to tell Kesha about her faults and how she has sinned against her. Kesha’s response is, “Girl, thanks for telling me, but it’s ok.” The pair then continues on with their friendship as if nothing has happened and everything is fine… but is it? Veronica has not been forgiven; she has only been let off the hook. Namely, she has only been excused. The fact that Veronica and Kesha are able to move on with their relationship doesn’t indicate that sin and dehumanization have been addressed. Forgiveness is much more difficult than excusing.

Forgiveness is quite problematic for the person who has been sinned against. This person is confronted with the fact that he or she was grossly offended, hurt, oppressed, etc., and then s/he must be willing to absorb the pain that was caused by the other person. Excusing communicates “it’s OK,” when truthfully, it is never alright to wrong, dehumanize, or sin against another, even when a person thinks s/he has justifiable reason. Forgiveness communicates that “it’s never OK.”  Though pain-ridden, the forgiving person is willing to love the other and not treat him or her as his or her actions deserve. Therefore, forgiveness is quite painful and extremely costly for the one who was sinned against. In our relationships, are we forgiving people when they sin against us, or are we excusing them? If we are only excusing, then we are neither acting in hope of genuine repentance and change nor giving the other an opportunity to deal with his or her issues properly. If we are truly forgiving, we are putting ourselves in the vulnerable position of acknowledging hurt and possible shame while inching closer toward the heart of the Gospel. We are allowing the other person the same opportunity to know the consequences of sin and to experience loving forgiveness… Now, back to Lebron.

Context matters. Lebron grew up in northeast Ohio, he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and many hoped that he would be the star athlete that would bring a Championship back to the city. It had been decades since any major Cleveland sports team had won a championship.  On July 8th, 2008, after winning conference titles, league MVP, claiming multiple All-Star game appearances, and going to the NBA Finals with the Cavaliers—but not winning—Lebron decided to take his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat. He broke the hearts of the people of Cleveland.  They were hurt and betrayed, and they expressed their anger in multiple ways, including burning Lebron James replica jerseys. Even the owner of the Cavaliers expressed his disappointment and feelings toward Lebron. Lebron had held up to his end of his contract; he played his guts out for Cleveland and accomplished every goal he set out to achieve, except winning the NBA Finals. So, like many NBA stars, when the opportunity presented itself for Lebron to put himself in the best possible position to win the NBA Finals, he capitalized on the opportunity. I understand his decision, but I also would have been aggravated as a fan because … well, that’s how fans act. We usually look at the performance of the player, not the person, and we hold star athletes to non-human-like standards. Then, when they disappoint us, we often begin to dehumanize them through gossip, slander, hate rants on Twitter and Facebook, or other horrible actions, and somehow, we feel justified in doing so. Honestly, I can’t think of how it must have felt for Lebron, his family, and his kids to watch the same people who once praised him burn his likeness or jersey on national television while expressing their anger toward a remarkably understandable decision that he made.

Lebron won his championships in Miami, but it was time to come back home. On July 11, 2011, Lebron wrote a heart-warming letter explaining his desire to come back and play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He wanted to come back home and play for his people—the people who he grew up with and the people grew up like. He wanted to compete again for the very same fans who once loved him and later turned their backs on him. Maybe, just maybe, Lebron always had the people of northwest Ohio in his heart—even while playing in Miami. Upon winning his first title in Miami, Lebron was asked about what outside critics were saying and he responded, “I am Lebron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner-city. I’m not even supposed to be here … that’s enough.” When I heard him say that, I cried, partly because I had been an outside critic and partly because I resonated with his upbringing and gratitude for where he came from compared to his current situation. Isn’t it amazing what happens when we humanize people? When Lebron decided to go back to play for the Cavs, I believe he just may have humanized the fans, team, and franchise owners in turn. Maybe he empathized with them and understood their situation?  Maybe it was the desire to be at home with the people he loved who caused him to be able to absorb the back-stabbing pain he had felt, all the hurt that he and his family experienced?

Remember my disclaimer: Lebron is not Jesus, not even a little bit. However, as I reflect over his athletic career, including his relationship and love for the people of Cleveland and all of northeast Ohio, I can’t help but think about his ability to forgive and to absorb the pain. He didn’t treat Cleveland and its people as their sins deserved. Would I go back to a town that said and did the sort of things that were said and done to Lebron? After winning the most recent NBA finals, Lebron was asked why this title was different. He responded, “I’m home.” Maybe Lebron forgave and didn’t excuse. Maybe he was able to forgive other’s actions and absorb the pain because it was worth it to him to be “home” with the people he loves. In this way, I see a parallel with the ultimate expression of love as seen through the life, death, and resurrection of the true King, Jesus Christ. He came to his own people, and since he wasn’t exactly what they thought they wanted, they rejected him. Christ was betrayed and brutally killed by his own. While dying on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Isn’t that what we want from our heroes—moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and friends? Forgiveness is extremely painful, and we know this because the most forgiving person in the world died on the cross to forgive his enemies so that one day he would be home with them. God never communicates that our sin is “OK;” rather, he addresses it with the life of his Son. Jesus paid the penalty for our sin—that’s really good news!

When it comes to the people who have wronged you or hurt you, the reality is that it is not always safe or appropriate to resume the relationship as it had been before the offense. That is not always possible. The question I am posing, however, is: do you find that you are a forgiver or an excuser? Do you absorb the pain or exact payment for the actions done by another? I don’t know Lebron James personally, nor do I believe that he is innocent and the people of northeast Ohio are villains. Nonetheless, I do know that Lebron is human and capable of both good and evil. It appears to me that it was a good and right thing for him to come home and be with the people that he loves, bringing cause for celebration.

Jesus, the truly innocent one, was both fully man [he can sympathize with us (Heb. 4:15)] and fully God [he is our savior and redeemer (Tit. 2:13)]. It was good news for the world that he didn’t turn his back on us when we turned our back on him. He thought it was worth it to die a sinner’s death in order to achieve the forgiveness of our sins and new life for us in his resurrection. He is also returning to this world again to renew and restore all that was lost and broken because of sin, Satan, and death. The Bible teaches us that with Jesus’ return, God will be home with us, and we will be home with him (Rev. 21:3). It is through the work of Jesus that God has given us (even now) ample reason to celebrate. Therefore, as Christ has forgiven us, let us forgive others. Furthermore, as fun as a championship could be after a 50-year-or-so drought, the Gospel offers plenty more reason to flood the streets and rejoice.