Thursday, July 15, 2010

Billionaire Dan Gilbert: Theologian of the Cross?

Well, we have at least part of an answer to the question I posed last week: Lebron James cannot come out of his free agency unscathed if he decides to play for the Miami Heat. After announcing that decision on his prime-time special "The Decision" two weeks ago, James became persona non grata in Cleveland. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, in a letter to fans on the Cavs' website, never mentions James by name, only referring to his nicknames in quotes and lambasting his former superstar for the way he announced his decision.

"This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment. "Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us," Gilbert said in the letter. "The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you."

Gilbert, who has owned the Cavs for five years, said James' decision was a "cowardly betrayal" and called James the "self-titled former 'King'" and promised the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft would be "taking the [Cleveland] 'curse' with him down south." Despite James' departure, Gilbert guaranteed future success for his franchise. "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE," Gilbert declared. "You can take it to the bank."

Buried in this letter otherwise filled with invective, Gilbert wrote, "Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. Sorry, but that's simply not how it works." This is an amazing statement, temporally and theologically. Temporally, he seems to be equating living in Cleveland with death, which is interesting to find coming from a man who lives in Cleveland and who is writing almost exclusively to other Cleveland residents. James, he seems to be saying, has to suffer the death of living in Cleveland before he can achieve the heaven of an NBA championship. Obviously, on an earthly level, this is not true. No other NBA team or player has had to live and play in Cleveland as a prerequisite for winning a championship. Indeed, no Cleveland team has won a championship in any sport since 1964, when the Browns won the pre-Superbowl NFL Championship.

However, in theological terms, Gilbert is certainly on to something. Martin Luther would have called Gilbert a "theologian of the cross." The recognition that heaven only comes after death is a profound one. We humans often try to get to heaven without having to die. We call it "self-help" or "coaching." This is what we want from God. "Tell us what to do and we'll do it!" we say. The last thing we want to hear is what is seems like Jesus is actually saying. "Take up your cross" (Mark 8:34). "Die and be resurrected. That's the only way." We see death as the end of our lives, perhaps understandably, and have incredible trouble seeing it as the beginning. This is, of course, why the word of the Law must precede the word of the Gospel. We must be cut down before we can be raised up (and we're not going to do it on our own!). We must die before we can get to Heaven. That's the way it works. Dan Gilbert on LeBron James: Great theology from an unlikely source.

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