A reader in Sweden writes:
I have been reading your blog since the post “No Sympathy For The Devil”. It found its way to a Swedish Christian-democratic blog, and then to me. I read the whole piece aloud for my wife and her friend when visiting Germany, and we were captivated. (Our friend is an Indian-American young woman who grew up in Christian small-town Midwest, and experienced quite a crushing amount of racism. She said she would leave the U.S. if Trump became president. He did, and she did.) Since you seem to appreciate letters, I will take the opportunity to put ink to some thoughts. I have been thinking a lot about the insanely daunting task of raising children in Christ, in this place.
I know I have encountered “The Benedict Option” before. I discussed and thought about how Swedish Christianity needs this concept, and the clarity to see how it could be played out in the Swedish context. The principles are the same, of course, but the playing field is different, and especially constrained when it comes to having children of school age.
Here’s a brief description of my schooling concerns: The educational system is overwhelmingly secular (and in chaos), and the few Christian schools are heavily besieged by media and politics. The governing Social Democrats want to shut them down. (As a political compromise, the already established ones are allowed continued existence for now, under strict conditions.) No homeschooling is allowed since 2011, especially not for religious reasons! Disobedient Christian and Orthodox Jewish families have been punished alike with sell-your-house sized fines. At least 40 families have moved to Swedish-speaking parts of Finland, where they have set up a home-schooling organization. These include friends of my family. Others have moved to the U.S.
Now, I thought I might share a recent piece of news with you, and explain why it touched my heart. It was published this weekend as an in-depth interview with a family, by Svenska Dagbladet (a major Swedish newspaper, moderately conservative — here’s the link, though it’s behind a paywall). It’s about how the adult world has abdicated to let gang-like teenage terror rule on upper-elementary schools. I will retell the recent history of well-off parents Michael and Maria, with academic careers at Uppsala University, and their 13-year old son, Filip. (The names have been changed.)
Filip’s parents were invited for a baptism to Stockholm over the Saturday, but Filip chose to remain home to meet friends. However, while Filip is still alone, an univited “friend” (Stefan) and a girl from his school shows up seemingly somewhat drugged. They semi-force their way into their house, and steal liquor from Filip’s parents. Filip rounds up his friends to help out, and together they make Stefan leave. By that time he is heavily intoxicated. Filip’s parents come home in the early evening, but Filip is too ashamed to tell anything. He gets a call related to Stefan, and goes out to find him, out of feelings of guilt.
Now, word has gone that Filip has drugged Stefan. He has put something in his drink, and Stefan’s sorry state is Filip’s fault. A mob of teenagers beats him up, they threaten him, steal his sweater and put it up for sale on the web. On the way home another mob, which he does not recognize, attacks him, because “they know what he’s done”.
Filip turns inward and hides almost everything, but after a few days of gloomy and worrisome family vacation, they go to the children’s psychiatric care (CPC), where Filip opens up and tell the story, and his parents forgive him. What to do next? The CPC is closely tied to the Social Services Department. Perhaps they can help with a mediation, where Michael and Maria can meet parents of the bullies.
It’s not possible. The Social Services knows about these kids. One mother is gravely ill. Others have protected identities, we can’t give you any details. They have problems. It won’t help. Even pressing charges against the perpetrators is strongly discouraged. “You will unleash chaos and Hell if you go to the police. For the sake of your child, just back away from this, slowly.”
But the family thought that going for justice still would be the right thing to do. If not they, who would? They file a complaint. The word spreads. And things get worse. Filip loses friends. He is a squealer. He will be punished, as will anyone hanging out with him.
Michael and Maria talks to other parents. They hear about several who previously have retracted charges, because of threats and pressure. Sam, a large 14 year old guy from another school, shows up with a death threat. He’s looking for Filip and beats up other kids on his path. Michael and Maria files all major incidents to the police, but they get almost no response.
Filip’s best friend gets beaten up and threatened. The situation has become so nasty that Maria almost stops working. She is driving Filip and picking him up wherever he goes. On a birthday picnic in a park, Sam and his mob scatter Filip and his friends and takes all their stuff and bicycles. The friends call the police, from hiding places in the bushes. After 45 minutes the police shows up. They tell the rascals to stop messing about, then they leave. Filip barely escapes.
The family goes on vacation again. The threats come on the phone, directly and through friends, so that the parents can overhear. “We will shoot you in the head. We will drag you out into the forest with your friend and kill you both. We will crack your skull open with rocks.” The family is now breaking down. The father calls the police, weeping: “We cannot do this anymore. I’m on the brink of turning to violence to protect my family. We will move out of town.” Police: “Yes, moving seems to be the best solution.”
As the interview is published, the family is breaking up from Uppsala, packing their things. They changed their minds again about the charges; they are still in the system, but it’s dubious that it will lead to anything. When the perpetrators are under 15, the age of liability, the case will be handed over to the Social Services, who will seek a meeting with the parents, and perhaps involve the Child Psychiatry. This is likely nothing new under the sun for the families involved.
The story has resonated with a lot of people the last few days. Everyone can recognize the
characters, the attitudes; the elements of this unfolding fate have been in place for some time, throughout Sweden. The story has been commented on by the leading politicians. More resources to schools, more money to the police. The chairman of the justice department calls for better proactive measures for youth and families in the risk zone of developing criminal behavior. But a weathered journalist observed the situation, currently: “The schools are like prisons – under gang rule.”
Personally, I think this is what has happened in Sweden: Children have been overprotected from their would-be authorities, which have stepped back, leaving them with no protection whatsoever from each other.
The very same newspaper I was holding provided a case in point. Just three pages on, it was reported that a case would be taken all the way up to the Supreme Court of Sweden. The case: A student placed himself in a sofa, blocking the way into the classroom. He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t reason. A teacher, with a wrestling background, took a solid grip, and lifted him aside. For the court to decide: Did the teacher physically violate the integrity of the student?
The teacher’s way of solving the problem gave him years of legal conflict and quite possibly liability to damages. What will he do next time? How about nothing? In this enlightened country, the only socially accepted, legal, and safe way to handle an unruly minor as a parent, teacher, adult, even police, is by talking. Reasoning. It should always work, if you do it right. Except it won’t. What more can you do? Nothing.
Here’s a story from my close family, that my mother told me about when I was little. Its manifest unfairness infuriated me. My (as it turned out) brother-in-law was bullied in school. He was quite weak, with a congenital disability, and a little tyrant terrorized him. He was selling Christmas magazines for pocket money, I think. One afternoon after school the tyrant took his magazines, tore them, and threw them in the mud. My father-in-law was on his way to meet his son, and saw this happening from a distance. Furious, he caught the kid, held him against the wall, and wanted to give him a hard slap on the cheek. He semi-stopped himself, and delivered a light slap, together with a warning never to bother his son again.
The whimpering boy ran home and told his mother, who filed a
complaint, and voilà, the thing was in court. My father-in-law, a just and truthful man, confessed to a light slap on the cheek, and was declared guilty of child abuse, with fines and damages accordingly.
The bullying continued unabated, and the bully could now add the absolute triumph of his victory in court. Your father is a criminal and he’s my bitch.
Sweden was the first country in the world to ban all corporal punishment of children, both
implicitly, first, later explicitly. My father, who has been politically active all his life, opposed the explicit ban, he recently told me, long before I was born. The law says: “Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.”
The change was carried through in conjunction with a large government-supported campaign to make the people rethink in accordance with the new law, as spanking was actually seen as quite a natural thing among the general populace at the time. There was even propaganda on milk cartons, I hear. Today the only people who spank their children would be first generation immigrants and alcoholics, as some of them might confess, if you swear to carry the secret to the grave.
I also had a rough time in school as a kid. I was quite small, too smart for the taste of some, rule- abiding, and on top of it all, confessed the Christian faith. It was no good place for a 10-year old. Our teacher asked the class once, “How many of you believe in God?”. It was only me, as we already knew. Then he asked about baptism. Everyone but me raised their hands, though one guy was not sure. They looked confusedly at me. At least I could answer with some amount of pride that my parents would let me decide for themselves.
But in general, I really didn’t want to stand out. I craved acceptance from my peers. My parents did not understand the amount of pressure (and sinfulness) I absorbed during those years. It’s a miracle that I was later baptized. And is in the faith.
And now I’m pondering the prospect of raising children by my own. My wife and I are praying for those to come, in spite of it all. How could I raise faithful children in this country? I can see two daunting scenarios; in a bizarre way they are mirror images of each other.
One is that we would have to leave because of a school-system that fails to provide a safe (non-chaotic) day-to-day environment, or that imbues an aggressive secularization. The other is if the authorities would decide that I’m an abusive father, or that we are indoctrinators of fundamentalist Christianity.
I have no plans on becoming an unreasonable and harsh father. (If nothing else, my wife would make sure about that.) But I do believe in the truth of Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son”, and I do believe that the Swedish utter lack of discipline is a catastrophe and a curse that needs to be intently broken, to find the balance of justice and mercy that pleases God.
I’m reading Chesterton. He’s claiming that virtues on the loose can do more damage than the vices. It’s like we have a distant cultural memory of Christ blessing the children. Virtue: To treat our children as treasure. Children are adorably cute and innocent creatures. All context is gone. Specifically any insight about human fallen nature. The only reason children are mean is to be found in outside circumstances and hardships. We should fix the circumstances and be nice to them, and they will be nice back. The theory can never be disproven, because the circumstances can always be judged deficient. Anyway, I’m not in it.
Filip’s father also had a deep remembrance about how his distant forefathers fought against threats, without systems of justice and law. As he told the police: “We cannot continue this, because it will lead to desperate consequences. I realize the situation is going to a place where I have to use violence against children to protect my own.”
Here the one-man-mob is surfacing. But as an exceptionally decent, educated and law-abiding citizen, following the line of these impulses was not an option, and he decided to move the family. Perhaps he also considered that as things work, he would be the one to face the full apparatus of law, while the reign of terror continued. Isn’t that a half-blind civilization?
[End of letter.]