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One of the classic case studies in anthropology is the story of the introduction of steel axes to the aborigines of Australia. It seems that there was a certain tribe of aborigines that was constantly living on the brink of starvation. Their problem appeared to be a lack of tools. In most villages, there was only one stone ax. Before a young man could cut firewood for himself or his family, he had to go to the elder of the village and borrow the ax. This, it appeared, wasted a lot of time.
So, some well-meaning outsider brought in a truckload of good sharp steel axes and distributed one to each able-bodied man in the tribe. The expected result was greater prosperity for the tribe. The actual result was a complete breakdown of order. Within a few years, the tribe had virtually disintegrated. Lawlessness, disrespect, and violence (especially against women) became common — in what had previously been a pretty peaceful tribe.
A study of this case revealed that the commonly held village ax had been more than a tool for cutting wood. It had also been a means of social control. The stone ax was always in the keeping of one of the village elders. A young man wishing to use it would have to request it. This gave the elder a chance to speak to the young man.
If the one requesting the ax had been observed behaving well, if he treated his parents with respect and was giving proper care to his wife, he would be complimented for this, and the ax would be handed over readily. But if the one requesting the ax was known to have been lazy, disrespectful, or unkind to his wife, the elder might give him a lecture rather than handing over the ax. In passing out axes to everyone, the well-meaning outsiders removed the tribe’s best means of mentoring the young men. The result was the tragic and catastrophic disintegration of a society.
RECENT EVENTS IN EUROPE
In recent months something similar may have been taking place in Europe, but the problem has been variously diagnosed. Refugees from Syria and conflict zones have poured into Europe. At first, they were welcomed. But now a dramatic spike in sexual assaults, much of the increase coming from these refugees, has changed public opinion.
Some have suggested that Muslim extremists are taking advantage of the refugee crisis to infiltrate and destabilize Europe. That could be part of the problem. Certainly, a government’s first responsibility is to protect its citizens from wrongdoers (Romans 13:3 – 4). So it is appropriate for governments to make certain that this kind of infiltration does not take place. But I doubt very much that this is the heart of the assault problem in Europe.
FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW
Let us try to see the situation through the eyes of a young Syrian who has reached Europe.
Back home in Syria, before the war turned everything upside down, a young man's life was carefully controlled. He was not expected to exercise much self-control with regard to the opposite sex, or with regard to liquor. Liquor was simply unavailable, totally forbidden, and the whole social structure was designed to punish any young man caught drinking. Women were expected to keep themselves out of sight as much as possible and to cover themselves almost completely when they must go about in public. Within his home village, the average Syrian young man would have been carefully counseled and quickly punished by his elders if he violated any of the social norms.
Now, over the course of just a few months, young men from a situation of such careful control have been dropped down in a society that is almost the reverse of everything they have known.
Most of the elders are dead or left behind. Even the few elders who may have managed to make the trip have no authority in this strange new land where youth are encouraged to do as they please, and their elders are told that they must never lift a hand to discipline the youth.
Young women go about on the streets wearing clothing that only a prostitute would have worn in Syria (if even a prostitute would have dared to reveal so much). Liquor is readily available across Europe, and society seems to encourage rather than discourage its use.
I am not excusing the terrible things some of these young men have done. Those guilty of assault should certainly be punished. But it should be borne in mind that being locked up in a warm, comfortable room and fed three meals a day may not seem like punishment to young men who have often been without food or shelter.
SO WHAT IS THE POINT?
The point is that the means of social control has been broken down for these young men. It is going to be very difficult to repair this situation. They must be punished, but the punishment needs to come from those who have understood what went wrong.
And we need to have a new look at our own permissiveness. Is it fair to expect our youth to exercise so much self-control? Do our societal elders have a responsibility to give more direction to the youth?
Confiscating the steel axes, once they had done their harm, would probably not have reintegrated the aboriginal tribe. Allowing Muslim law for the refugees in Europe is neither possible nor desirable. One might hope, and pray, that Western leaders, and even church leaders, would take a serious look at the results of the breakdown of our traditional social controls. Are we bringing up our youth in the nurture of the Lord, or leaving them too much to their own devices?
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