LeBron James and the Book of Job

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Published:
February 26, 2018

The man named Job in the Old Testament is one of the most compelling characters in the Bible, if not in the entirety of literary history. He is most famous for the severe suffering he underwent and the resulting struggle between himself, his friends, and God as to the meaning of that suffering. But there are other aspects to Job’s story that are fascinating, too. Indeed it is one of those other pieces to his story that got me thinking this past week about LeBron James, an NBA superstar who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That connection may seem a bit far-fetched, but hear me out.

First, some context: James and other prominent athletes have come under fire during the past few years for their public activism on social and political causes. Critics have refuted their right to complain about injustices because 1) they make millions of dollars, 2) they are just athletes who throw/kick/catch a ball for a living, and/or 3) sports should not be politicized. Just a few days ago, political commentator Laura Ingraham said this about James’s recent criticisms of the Trump administration:

I'm numb to this commentary, like! Must they run their mouths like that? Unfortunately, a lot of kids and some adults take these ignorant comments seriously. Look, there might be a cautionary lesson in LeBron for kids. This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA. And it's always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid a hundred million dollars a year to bounce a ball. Oh and LeBron and Kevin? You're great players but no one voted for you. Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said, "shut up and dribble".1

Ingraham sought to delegitimize LeBron James’ political activism due to the fact that he makes a large sum of money “to bounce a ball.”2 This criticism fits within a broader context of criticism against athletes-as-advocates. Colin Kaepernick was excoriated by many when he began taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial injustices in this country; like Ingraham’s criticism of James, many chose to seize on Kaepernick’s wealth and the nature of his career as a sports player to delegitimize his right to speak out on issues of justice.

Now, the connection to Job: recently, while rereading the Book of Job, I came across a passage that I had not paid much attention to before. In it, Job is essentially giving his résumé of righteousness; he’s stating the type of life he had lived and why he did not deserve the suffering he was experiencing (contrary to his friends’ assertions that he must have done something to deserve it). Job was an incredibly wealthy and influential individual,3 and he writes about how he used that wealth and influence:

11 “All who heard me praised me.
    All who saw me spoke well of me.
12 For I assisted the poor in their need
    and the orphans who required help.
13 I helped those without hope, and they blessed me.
    And I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy.
14 Everything I did was honest.
    Righteousness covered me like a robe,
    and I wore justice like a turban.
15 I served as eyes for the blind
    and feet for the lame.
16 I was a father to the poor
    and assisted strangers who needed help.
17 I broke the jaws of godless oppressors
    and plucked their victims from their teeth.”4

In addition to making Job sound like a superhero (see verse 17!), the above passage is a fascinating manifesto of what a life of wealth, influence, and justice looks like. It is a passage that many affluent Christians would do well to meditate on and apply.

Like Job, LeBron James is a wealthy individual with influence and authority.5 And, like Job, he has chosen to use his wealth and influence to bring justice to his society. He has spoken out on the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile.6 He started the I PROMISE program in 2011 to help at-risk students stay in school and graduate, a program that includes plans to open a new school and fund college scholarships.7,8 He has participated in a presidential campaign against a historically divisive candidate.9 In addition, he has lived a life of integrity and has taken the responsibility of his influence over kids seriously; by all accounts, he is a dedicated husband and a great father to his three children.10 So we have a man of integrity, wealth, and influence who has used his position to bring justice to those on the margins of society. Sounds a lot like Job to me.

Perhaps, rather than criticize athletes (or actors, musicians, etc.) when they speak out about causes that matter, we should admire them for realizing that their lives are about more than merely dribbling a ball. Perhaps, we should admire them for choosing to do meaningful things with their influence and power. Perhaps, we should see echoes of Job, a man who made God proud due to how he lived his life—“Have you noted my servant Job?”—in the activism of LeBron James or Colin Kaepernick or other athletes and celebrities. I believe the world is a better place because LeBron James does not take Ingraham’s advice to just “shut up and dribble.” Whether he realizes it or not, James is doing a pretty good job at embodying the Old Testament principles of righteousness on behalf of the vulnerable. Thus, I see connections to Job in one of the greatest basketball players to ever dribble a ball.

Though I think it is important to recognize the way in which the Jobs and LeBrons of the world can use their wealth and influence to further causes of justice, there are also ways to apply their examples in lives that may not have the same level of financial or political resources. A person of modest means (like myself) can live out the practical side of justice as recounted in Job 29; the difference between my personal ability to do so and Job’s (or LeBron’s) is a difference in scale, not in kind. We are all called by God to assist the poor among us, the strangers who need help, the orphans and widows and other vulnerable members of our communities, and to combat oppression.11 Society is a collection of individuals, and when each individual embraces these imperatives to advance justice in the world, we can make a meaningful impact.12 So for us “regular” people, we can respect and appreciate those with wealth and influence who have chosen to use their blessings to advance justice while also applying the principles of Job 29 in our own lives and communities.

 

Notes & References:
1. http://fox61.com/2018/02/16/fox-news-laura-ingraham-calls-out-lebron-james-following-trump-comments/
2. James makes about $31 million per year, not “a hundred million.” https://www.forbes.com/profile/lebron-james/
3. According to Job 1:3, “He was, in fact, the richest person in that entire area.” (NLT)
4. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=job+29&version=NLT
5. James was listed on Time’s 100 Most Influential People List in 2017: http://time.com/collection/2017-time-100/4742755/lebron-james/
6. https://www.si.com/nba/lebron-james-cleveland-cavaliers-social-political-activism
7. http://lebronjamesfamilyfoundation.org/
8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybarca/2017/04/15/lebron-james-creates-i-promise-school/#1ad519784c02
9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/11/06/lebron-james-introduces-president-hillary-clinton-at-cleveland-rally/?utm_term=.cc4c09695c7f
10. http://www.cleveland.com/cavs/index.ssf/2016/06/why_lebron_james_decided_to_br.html
11. For reference: the entirety of the Old and New Testaments.
12. In fact, history has many examples of moments when masses of ordinary people stopped injustices or were complicit in them. The rise of Nazism is an example of crimes against humanity made possible by the complicity of ordinary people, and the Civil Rights Movement is an example of ordinary people putting enough pressure on the government to stop some of the more blatant injustices in the U.S.

 

James Mayne teaches high school history, government, and religion at Paradise Adventist Academy in Northern California. He and his wife Sara, who works as a clinical therapist, live in Paradise with their two dogs, Bosley and Apollo.

Images from Wikimedia Commons: LeBron James / Job and his three friends.

 

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