About six months back I attended a cultural performance at the Jetson Center for Youth, a Juvenile correctional facility outside of Baton Rouge,Louisiana. From my previous visits and observations this facility does a good job at both disciplining and motivating the youth, and I could notice a positive difference in the individual I was visiting. Furthermore, this cultural program gave the teenagers an opportunity to perform for friends and family showcasing their art, music, speech, and acting. Yet in the midst of this experience I noticed something very alarming.
At the beginning of the cultural program a local and young preacher opened the ceremony in prayer followed by a sermon. The sermon entailed his own struggles to transcend a troubled youth and rely on the grace of God. The gripping ‘truth’ that he emphasized was that he once struggled with drugs, behavior, and academically, but once he was saved all of these problems ceased and allowed him to achieve success. He proposed that because he was saved he begin receiving all A’s in college. He showed the audience his expensive watch, jewelry, and clothes. He proposed that once you are saved you no longer have problems and all your worldly concerns will magically vanish. His message embodied a gospel of success mentality that would be reinforced several times throughout this cultural program.
The drama program greatly disappointed me. Within the spirit of fundamental evangelical Protestantism the theatrical production was nothing more than “are you saved?” skits. Literally, in multiple skits, one boy or group of boys was approached by another group of boys and questioned about their assurance of eternal salvation in which the unsaved group climatically converted in the end asking Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior.
The public speaking segment was the most revealing. The sequence involved several young men giving speeches about their aspirations and dreams. I heard ambitions about being famous athletes, boxers, music entertainers, successful businessmen, etc. The most consistent aspiration was to become financially wealthy and able to afford many material luxuries. What I did not hear were desires to be a good man, a contributing member of society, a good husband, and/or father. All the dreams appeared selfish and materially oriented.
These teenagers have developed a very material notion of success supported by a certain understanding of Christianity. The dichotomy becomes painfully obvious. The Christian life has been reduced to the acquisition of earthy pleasure and divorced from the acceptance of suffering that does not aid in this material quest. In other words, although personal suffering occurs, it will always translate into some material award. Even then I could not help thinking that I would rather this state funded facility emphasis Greek virtue over this flawed Christian perspective. At least then they would have a context to properly reevaluate certain values and live a more authentic notion of the Christian life.
The discipline and motivation provided did seem to inspire these teenagers to action but to what end. They learn the means to become selfish and achieve worldly wealth and success? What happens when the circumstances are stacked against them? Do they have the tools to cope and seek happiness with whatever circumstances of life they are given? The problem is the ideal of happiness being communicated is very material. The American dream has become a material dream. They are automatically placed in competition with their peers and community in which they live. To be successful they must elevate themselves above others. But not everyone can get to the top within this paradigm. Even those who get to the top will be greatly disappointed when they find that material goods only lead to the illusion of happiness. I can’t help believing that this type of education is setting young people up for personal failure in their spiritual lives and depression. They are told that certain things will make them happy but what happens when the illusion fades and they are still stuck with their unhappy selves.
The personal good of an individual is tied within the good of the community. Where is the context of virtue ethics that will associate personal achievement with communal living? Happiness is not in material possessions but in relationships- to God and neighbor. I believe it is too often thought, “I must become rich in order to be a philanthropist and help my neighbor”. On the contrary the opposite is true. “I must help and love my neighbor in order to truly become rich.”