As anyone who lives in the Detroit Metropolitan area knows, the divisions between city and suburbs along race and class lines are deep and seemingly intractable. These divisions are what make a Catholic high school in Detroit—at one of which I am a teacher—so different from a Catholic high school in the suburbs. Like Rabbit, the protagonist in the recently debuted movie 8 Mile, my students hail from the south—commonly considered the “wrong”—side of 8 Mile Road. With an incessant barrage of profane language and bleak images, 8 Mile mercilessly depicts the living conditions of those who come from the south side of 8 Mile Road. The film’s depiction penetrates so pointedly that even the most callous person cannot help but gain a feel for the apparent hopelessness festering through these circumstances. This hopeless feel includes tasting the lower class existence in a trailer park in Detroit as seasoned by a missing father, a dysfunctional mother, a little sister traumatized by exposure to domestic violence, a low-wage job in a plant for drop-outs and ex-cons, and a neighborhood blighted by the abandoned houses that shelter rapists and drug dealers.
Although virtually all of Rabbit’s life and work throughout the film provide counter-examples of virtuous, or even laudable, activity, 8 Mile can offer something constructive to kids who find themselves in similar circumstances, to kids for whom poverty and a dysfunctional family are all too familiar, to kids who need to be reminded that they have “got to formulate a plot fore they end up in jail or shot” (lyrics rapped by Rabbit in the movie). If we accept the task of helping these kids make the distinction between Rabbit’s genuine virtues and vices, we can make constructive use of 8 Mile’swild popularity1 as a story that can help others caught in Rabbit’s kind of world to “formulate a plot,” a plot where they envision themselves as the successful, justly rewarded stewards of their own talents rather than the powerless victims of a manifestly unequal initial distribution of gifts or resources.
Inner-city kids—surrounded day in and day out by the urban blight that is as relentlessly dreary in real life as it was on the screen—need to see that they can achieve their dreams through hard work. For myriad reasons, some of these kids will be more drawn to Rabbit than to the more wholesome role models we would prefer them to choose. It is obvious to me, as a teacher in Detroit, that such hard core, but hardworking role models can answer a real need so long as such role models’ virtues are clearly discerned and separated from their vices. My students’ lives often do not resemble that of the characters in nice, G-rated family flicks. The city vista alone presents a harsh reality—much harsher than in the suburbs—with its overabundance of abandoned buildings and of liquor stores, its dearth of more wholesome enterprises, its higher crime rates, and its lower functioning schools. Where every day life is harsher, the properly discerned hardcore hero simply makes more sense. However, the hardworking quality is just as crucial as the hardcore. Rabbit refuses to accept failure as an option. Without hard work, failure becomes an option for these inner-city kids, along with ending up in jail or shot. As problematic as generalizations like these may be, it seems safe to say that generally the student work ethic in our city schools lags seriously behind the standard in the suburban schools.
While causes of the phenomenon of these differing work ethic standards may be debated, the phenomenon itself powerfully illustrates the crucial link between virtue and liberty. Every day I am confounded by the incredible gap between my own high school experience (I attended a school in Grosse Pointe, one of the prosperous suburbs of Detroit) and my students’ classroom behavior and expectations. Every day spent in the classroom with students who are used to such a different ratio of work-to-play than the one that prevailed in my high school is an object lesson in the necessary relationship between self-discipline, delayed gratification, and the freedom for a person to develop his or her potential and master his or her environment through something other than brute force or unrestrained emotion. Students who lack virtue—who lack the fortitude, courage, and industriousness that would allow them to resist the temptation to opt for whatever is simply easier, more comfortable, and more fun—lack personal freedom in the most painfully obvious sense.
Because it neglects to emphasize the relationship between virtue and the blessings of prosperity, the standard way in which the Christian faith and ethics are taught in schools like mine fails my students. The propensity to integrate Christianity with economics in no other way but through the prism of personal charity or social justice leaves an entire lesson untaught. Charity and justice are essential, but Detroit (or any other city for that matter) needs citizens who understand that their faith should motivate them to be productive: “‘Lord, you gave me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five more.’ ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.’” (Matt. 25:20). Many of my students write journal reflections about how they want to be wealthy and successful someday so they can help the people in their own communities—the poor, the homeless, and other kids without hope—whom they encounter every day. Theyhave a spirit of charity and justice. What they lack is a good work ethic, a spirit of entrepreneurship toward academic competition and personal responsibility for developing their talents.
As a religious educator in an inner-city Catholic school, I notice a convergence between my students’ needs and the Acton Institute’s efforts to rectify the negative attitude toward capitalism that has prevailed in much of the Christian (especially Catholic) world. For whatever reason, the publishing houses produce textbooks for religious education in Catholic schools that leave a gap between their faith, one of their greatest strengths, and the economic dreams and anxieties that are among their most pressing concerns. Religion textbooks that fail to make this connection between faith in Christ and the blessings of prosperity, including all the virtues that help to make this connection real in the real world, fail my students.
In the name of our Savior, who identified himself with the least, we need to face this failure and state as emphatically (but not as profanely) as Rabbit: Success is our only option, failure’s not. If the Acton Institute can teach the future religious leaders of our nation the virtues of the free enterprise system and its relationship with Christianity, someone can come into our nation’s inner-city Catholic schools and teach the same to the children whose parents see our schools as a beacon of hope in a world of academic malaise and urban blight. The Acton Institute’s “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society” seminars provide one model that could be used as a resource for developing such a curriculum for inner-city Catholic high schools and colleges. African American Christian Rites of Passage programs with their culturally sensitive emphasis on the development of character and virtue provide another resource. The essential demand and supply factors for such a curriculum are in place, and funding for a well-conceived plan would be forthcoming. Still needed are the entrepreneurial vision, commitment, and skill to bring all the pieces together and the firm Christian conviction that the Lord himself, the Lord who came to proclaim good news to everyone, including those who live on the south side of 8 Mile Road, would back such a venture.
Several years ago, as a student of Adam Smith, I became intrigued by a passage in the book of Isaiah. It was a prophecy delivered to the post-exilic Jerusalem community beset by widespread poverty and economic exploitation by a wealthy, hard-hearted few. The community’s hopes of restoration were being crushed as the injustice, indifference, and impiety of the powerful combined with the impotence of the weak to create a debilitating socio-economic malaise. Into this situation, the prophet delivered a beautiful oracle from the Lord, a prophecy of hope and deliverance for the city, represented in female personification as a mother: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her …. For thus says the Lord: Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing torrent, and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees” (Isa. 66:10a,12). The striking evocation of Adam Smith’s magnum opus drew me into further investigation of the passage. The full text of Isaiah 66 is extremely rich, but the richest vein opened up for me when I learned that the Hebrew word behind the English word “prosperity” is shalom. Shalom is a word with many facets of meaning: prosperity, peace, greetings, safety, security, health, and God’s presence, to name a few. Its fundamental meaning is wholeness, well-being in all aspects, physical, spiritual, economic, individual, and communal. Today the word shalom is commonly associated with the Jewish community, but what makes the word especially significant for Christians is its association with the “suffering servant” of Isaiah and with the Risen Christ of the gospels.
In Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant—whom Christians identify with Jesus of Nazareth—the work of atonement is linked with the gift of shalom: “He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, on him lies the punishment that brings us shalom, and by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Shalom in this passage is usually translated as “peace” or “wholeness,” but prosperity is also part of shalom’s proper meaning. For many Christians—perhaps in the Catholic tradition more so than in certain Protestant streams of Christianity—the idea that the cross of Christ has anything to do with prosperity may seem foreign at best and anathema at worst. Such a limited understanding of the transcendence of the cross of Christ is debilitating, as a tour along 8 Mile Road in Detroit readily suggests. Certainly, working on the “wrong” side of 8 Mile Road has reinforced my belief that the gift of shalom Christ died for, the shalom God desires to spread over his city, is a multifaceted reality of regeneration that includes not only personal salvation, but also the blessings of prosperity. Catholics acknowledge this reality implicitly every time we pray: Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.
I find it impossible to drive every day from the Grosse Pointes into Detroit without believing that the cross of Jesus Christ, and the cross I take up after him, has something very real to do with the hope of prosperity for the city that’s been called “America’s closest approximation of hell.”2 My daily drive to and from work is a powerful visual accompaniment to the statistics: In the Pointes, median household income ranges from $80,000 to $114,000,3 while the median values of homes ranges from $223,000 to $600,000; in Detroit, the median household income is $29,000,4 while vacant housing units have increased from 36,000 in 1990 to 429,000 in 2000. The City of Detroit cannot afford to demolish abandoned homes fast enough to keep our children safe from the drug dealers and rapists who lurk in them. Priority had to be granted to the demolition of houses that are within 400 feet of schools. Surely the Lord who came to preach good news to all desires to spread shalom over a blighted city that cannot properly care for its own children.
Another reason for acknowledging the specifically Christian character of shalom is found on the lips of the Risen Lord. When the Risen Lord appeared to his disciples in the upper room after his resurrection and greeted them with shalom, he was greeting a group of friends who had abandoned him. Most of them had not remained faithful during Christ’s crucifixion, when the going got really, really tough. So he came with his power to forgive, and he commanded them to share that power: “‘Peace be with you. As my Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven, whoever’s sins you hold bound they are held bound.’” (John 20:21-23).
Just as Judeo-Christianity is linked to the blessings of prosperity in a free and virtuous society, so too human sin is linked to all that has made Detroit a city that evokes associations with hell. Different people may point to different sins based on their personal and political leanings, but the Lord knows them all, and he died and sent his Spirit to convict, to cover, to forgive, to heal, and to make righteous all who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. While much could be said about the various sins that have contributed to the degradation of Detroit, I feel compelled by our city’s signature monument, The Spirit of Detroit, to address one area in particular. The Spirit of Detroit is a sculpture created by Marshall M. Fredericks for the city of Detroit. Fredericks designed an image that represents the relationship between God and humanity and honors the human family. The large central figure symbolizes the universal human spirit, made in the image of God and a reflection of his glory. The golden orb in the figure’s left hand represents God, the eternal source of light and life. In the right hand is a representation of the human family—a man, woman, and child—described as “the most noble of human relationships” on a plaque that accompanies the sculpture. The image adorns our city vehicles, keeping it permanently present in our consciousness. Unfortunately, nothing serves as a constant reminder of the inscription that inspired the artist: “Now the Lord is that Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 2:13).
The sculpture and its inscription seem so apt for Detroit, precisely because of what is missing in so many of our students’ lives. The majority of the students in my school do not have a family like the one in The Spirit of Detroit. The missing figure at home is the father. The radiant orb that shines on the family in The Spirit of Detroit—symbolic of God’s own radiance— does not appear to shine very brightly in some of our students’ lives. At our school, we try to make up as best we can for what is lacking. Our Dean of Discipline is a father figure for many of our students, especially the young men; as a Catholic school we are committed to fostering our students’ spiritual growth. But a school is a school. It cannot substitute for God’s own creation, that “most noble of human relationships,” the family. But a stable family, one that can foster virtue and a true spirit of liberty in a child, must be built on a firm foundation. It requires a man and woman who are themselves schooled in virtue and ready to take on the moral and financial responsibilities of parenthood. As Lakita Garth, the 1993 Miss Black California said in her testimony before Congress on sexual abstinence: Abstinence means mastering the art of self-control, self-discipline, and delayed gratification, virtues that are the foundation of achievement in any endeavor, from raising a family to running a business.5
A curriculum that would really help our students will not have the irrelevant lessons our current textbook offers on sexual morality, in which a teenage couple is portrayed as engaging in a mature, dispassionate discussion on the pros and cons of engaging in premarital sex. These texts should feature the hard-hitting stories of lives ruined, hopes dashed, and opportunities squandered that my students tell in class. Rabbit’s mother’s dysfunctional relationship with a man who lacks commitment and leaves is mirrored in her son’s short-lived liaison with a young woman who has no apologies when Rabbit finds her with another man. One of my students who wants to get married and have six children, naming his role model to be “any man who works hard to take care of his family,” feels no qualms about admitting that he plans to have one wife and as many “baby mommas” as necessary to produce six children. To defend this infidelity, he argues that “you can’t find one woman who will have six children, but you can find plenty of women who will have one or two children.” When questioned, he reveals that this is precisely the kind of situation that he experienced in his own upbringing. These texts should, at the very least, acknowledge the gritty reality of these circumstances and show the connection between vice and misery, between virtue and prosperity.
Several years ago, in a meeting with the faculty from the various John Paul II Institutes throughout the world, the holy father challenged Catholic scholars and educators to integrate Catholic social teaching with the Church’s teaching on marriage and family. In most high school and college curricula, as in American society at large, these two areas of concern tend to be separate. They are taught separately, and it is usually different sectors of the Catholic population who take up the different causes associated with social and sexual ethics. At the time, I thought the holy father’s call for integration was prophetic, a word from the Spirit of the Lord. After working in an inner city Catholic high school in Detroit for a semester, I am convinced of this more than ever.
Let us thankGod that we who live in this country, and we who teach in Catholic institutions, have the liberty to undertake this work encouraged by the Pope and implement it in our curriculum. May the Lord’s Spirit, who sustains the tremendous liberties we enjoy in this great nation, inspire us to find more effective ways to preach good news and shalom to those living in inner-cities and proclaim liberty to captives in our inner-city Catholic schools. And, God willing, may the Spirit of Detroit lead the way, as a light that shines in the darkness of “America’s closest approximation to hell”—this side of 8 Mile Road.