by Meg Slaymaker
Jehovah's witnesses and their likely ban in Russia; where should we stand on this issue? How should we feel as ex members about this? At first glance, you might think it's a great idea! Stopping a cult that holds such harmful policies and practices seems like a definite win. Upon further reflection though, would that actually be the case?
Let's explore this further. Imagine with me, if you will, that you are still a believing Jehovah's Witness. What was that like for you? I for one, was a sincere believer. I felt certain that I had been so lucky as to have parents who found the 'truth' and converted when I was just two years old. I learned from a very young age that myself and my fellow Jehovah's Witnesses would be persecuted for our stand for the "truth". In fact, I remember at the tender age of 5, my mother telling me that if it came down to it, she would let me die at the hands of governmental authorities rather than resign as a Jehovah's Witness. I will never forget hearing those words, as it crushed my little heart. The one person I trusted most in the world, and whom I thought loved me more than anything, has just said she would let me die rather than give up her religion. Did this make me hate the beliefs I was raised with? Not at all, this reaffirmed the truth of them. If my own mother would allow me to die for this, it must be true.
Going to school as a Jehovah's Witness youth was very difficult. I was bold about my beliefs, and there was never a time that I ever caved into 'peer pressure' to do anything I felt was wrong. I never joined in any holiday celebrations. I never sang happy birthday. I never joined in the Lord's Prayer. I never stood for or sang the national anthem. I never even ate hot dogs on "hot dog day" because of possible "by-products" (blood) in the meat. I never took sexual education. I never participated in extra curricular activities. And I never resigned my faith. As you can imagine, every day this drew unnecessary attention toward me.
I was constantly bullied in school, especially in the younger grades. In grade 4, I even had a teacher who was intolerant of my beliefs, and would physically lay her hands on me to try and force me to stand for the national anthem. I would retaliate by using all my strength and weight to plump my butt on the ground in protest. There was no way she was going to force me to show any reverence for my country or the flag! Her unnecessary hurtful treatment of me, and encouragement towards the class to behave the same way, only acted as proof in my mind that I had the truth.
If I was still a Jehovah's Witness today, and my government was planning a possible ban for my beliefs, this would only serve as more evidence for me. And I can't imagine how much worse my school life would have been had my beliefs been under ban! I feel terribly sad for the poor children in Russia who have no other choice but to believe what their parents tell them. Would you believe any differently? As a child, didn't you trust your parents explicitly? What would be worse for you to do as a child: rebel against your parents and risk the disappointment of letting them down? Or stand up for their, and consequently your beliefs, at risk of extreme bullying, all the while knowing that your parents would be so proud of you for your stand?
Let's examine some of the harmful policies and practices within the organization of Jehovah's witnesses, and place ourselves back in our witness shoes when it comes to this ban.
1. Shunning. Witnesses practice shunning of former believers and people whom they deem 'bad association', whether they're formally disassociated or disfellowshipped, or just inactive. This is probably the more permeating of their harmful practices, as anyone who has been involved with the witnesses at some point in their life might personally feel the effect of being shunned. If the ban goes through, will current witnesses stop shunning former members? Will parents suddenly call their children whom they've been shunning for years and seek to rekindle the bond with them as they'd no longer be under the authority of the watchtower? Well, the obvious answer to that question is no! If anything, I believe the ban will make the shunning even more problematic then it was before. How so? Well, again, let's think about this as if we were a witness. This time, let's pretend we're a jw parent, and our child is inactive and not living in accord with their upbringing. Our child hasn't been disfellowshipped or disassociated, so we decide that we want to maintain contact with him, as there's no written rule that forbids us from doing so. We start to hear rumors that our religion might be banned. We tell our child, who is inactive, that "it's so close now, they're even about to ban us, it's exactly as the governing body said!" Our inactive child might not act with any urgency to "return to Jehovah", and this causes us to be paranoid of them, and want to put some distance between us and them. Once the ban has gone through, we see no reason to maintain any contact, and as they're not in support of our beliefs anymore, maintaining any contact only puts us and fellow jw's at risk of being discovered as practicing a banned religion.
2. Shielding pedophiles from the authorities. The witnesses have a two-witness rule, which effectively shuts down any accusations of child abuse that comes to the attention of the elders. This means if a child has been abused by a fellow member in the congregation, and summons the courage to go to the elders for help (as they're encouraged to do in all matters) the elders will not seriously consider the accusation unless the abuser confesses, or there was a second witness to his abuse besides the victim. Will there ever be a spectator of a child being abused or raped? That's very unlikely. So it's very rare that the pedophile ever receives justice, even on a congregational level. If he never admits to the abuse, and the parents or child never seek the proper authorities, then he is free to keep preying on children in the congregation or otherwise. Will the Russian ban stop this from happening? I would say, definitely not! In fact, in this instance also I believe it would exacerbate the problem. Imagine you're a child being sexually molested by a member of the congregation. You want to tell your parents, but you feel so ashamed. You feel dirty. Your abuser keeps telling you how bad you were for giving into their advances. They keep telling you that you're going to die at Armageddon now for participating in the abuse. Of course, they don't call it abuse, they allege that you're a willing participant. Inside, you want to scream out and ask for help. You don't want to keep doing this, but you don't know how to stop it. And then, your religion is banned. Your parents are reminding you to remain faithful under persecution. They're constantly worried about where the next meeting will be and how they will get there undetected. You don't want to burden them with this news of your immorality. Your abuser keeps telling you it's even more important to keep this a secret, you don't want to get your parents thrown in jail, do you? You don't want to go to jail, do you? Imagine you're an elder, and a child manages to come to you and tell you they were abused. At first, there's not much you can do, but not long after a second child accuses the same person of sexually abusing them also. The elders now have two witnesses (or victims) of his abuse, and they disfellowship him. But you feel like there wasn't enough done to stop him from further abusing more unsuspecting children. You want to go to the police, but, you know if you do you'll expose yourself and many others as being a part of a banned religion. So you don't go the police, and this pedophile remains free to abuse many others outside the congregation.
3. The blood doctrine. Jehovah's witnesses believe it is a sin to accept a blood transfusion. They base this on a scripture from the book of acts in the bible. They are blatantly taking the scripture out of context, but regardless of this fact, if a jw accepts a life saving blood transfusion, they will be ousted from the congregation. In such a situation, jw's believe it is better to die for their beliefs, than to risk missing out on everlasting life in the new world if they save their life now. Parents have, under the manipulation of elders and their own mind control, let their own children die for their leaders interpretation of scripture. Will this change under a ban? Well, this is again a situation that can only get worse when banned. How? Let me explain. Imagine you're a Jehovah's Witness whose recently discovered you have leukemia, or some other rare disease that requires you have blood transfusions to survive. Then, your religion is banned. You know that refusing the medical treatment will out you as a jw, and therefore you decide it's safer for you to just die slowly and painfully at home than it is to risk being forced to have a transfusion and outing yourself and your loved ones as being Jehovah's witnesses. There's many other scenarios where the blood doctrine can cause a whole lot of problems for witnesses in a country that's under ban. At least jw's in countries that aren't under ban do accept most medical treatment. (There are many cults that disallow all medical intervention and that have caused many unnecessary deaths in the process.) However, banning jw's as a religion can lead to some very flawed reasoning on the part of the brainwashed members, and cause them to forgo medical treatment all together to remain out of the public eye and not risk being exposed. I for one cannot see this as a productive move, but can only feel sorry for the mind controlled victims and even more so the children in this terrible situation.
There are many other things we can delve into about some of the problems associated with being a Jehovah's Witness. Things like the abuse of wives, mentally and in some cases physically. In most cases, if not all, women are not helped by fellow members out of their abusive households, but encouraged to be "more submissive, more supportive, more 'quiet and mild tempered.'" Women don't even understand that they're in abusive relationships, and they subject themselves to more unnecessary abuse of them and their children by their husband under the headship principal found in the Bible.
What about the people who commit suicide? Most of us as former members know someone or know of someone who committed suicide as a Jehovah's Witness. Many of these people were repressed in almost every way, in some cases from birth, and come to a point where they can no longer put up with it anymore. They are constantly beating themselves up for not being a good enough witness. They hear their authentic self inside screaming as loud as possible to let them out, and yet they are terribly afraid of being who they are because it is a sin for them to be. It is easier to take their own life than to live in a world where they're going to sin and be destroyed, or have to suppress everything about who they are to maintain contact with their loved ones.
As I've said, there are many things that can be touched on. I think that it's important to remember a few things when looking at all of this.
1. The Jehovah's Witnesses are not the only cult/religion out there that causes this kind of harm. I encourage anyone to look into other cults and religions, and you will quickly see a pattern. They all have harmful practices and policies and cause unnecessary strife and death to their mind controlled masses. Many Christian religious cults practice shunning. The jw's may have a written policy in place, but they are not the only ones, and they are not the most insular of cults. However, under ban I believe they would become even more insular, and even more cult like in their worship. They're not the only ones who harbor pedophiles. Even the largest Christian religion, Catholicism, has covered up much child abuse. Christians apart of the 'quiverfull movement' will also treat child abuse as a sin, and not a crime, and will try to handle things without involving the proper authorities, but relying on their Bibles. Jw's are not the only ones who refuse medical treatment. Christian Science believers refuse ALL medical treatment and encourage members not to see a medical doctor, but to trust their "physicians", who do nothing but pray over the sick people. They have caused countless children to die for lack of routine medical treatment. Certain branches of Amish/Hutterites believe when a member gets sick, it's gods will, and if they're dying it is a sin to prevent it. And many "faith healers" of Pentecostal denominations have convinced people to throw away their medications, which may be the only thing regulating their disease, to their detriment or even their death. Jw's are not the only ones who have men that are prone to be abusive and that use the bible as their reason for doing so. Many fundamentalist Christians take the patriarchal view of the bible to an extreme extent, and are nothing more than just wife and child beaters. Jw's are not the only ones to have committed suicide. I don't think I need to explain to you how many other religions/cults out there look down on homosexuals and how many countless people have committed suicide rather than accept who they are.
2. Banning the Jehovah's Witnesses will not fix any of the aforementioned problems within their group or the many other groups that are practicing similar things in the name of their god.
So what can help? What can a government do, not just in communist Russia, but in more democratic countries like the U.S., Canada, U.K., or Australia? One major thing that all of these countries need to do is to educate its members. Use the media to expose the terrible policies and practices within these high control groups. This is already being done but can be done on a much larger scale. Cults tend to have a lot of money and control over the media and certain sources, and this needs to be seen and recognized by our governments. Do not cut these groups any monetary breaks. They should be forced to pay exactly as any other business would pay for their properties/etc. They should be constantly under scrutiny to make sure that they are not abusing their authority as a religion in the name of religious freedom. If any of their policies or practices cause harm, they should be exposed for it so openly in the media that anyone who comes in contact with the group is fully aware of the dangers of joining. Any individuals directly covering up any forms of abuse, or coercing someone to refuse medical treatment, should be fined and/or jailed for their participation in anothers' suffering. There is only so many things someone should get away with in the name of "religious freedom." Governments can show balance in this regard, by not throwing people in prison for their strange or unorthodox beliefs, but making sure anyone committing or covering up a crime receives justice for it, whether or not they're adhering to their leaders. It's also important to differentiate between the members of a cult and the cult leaders. The cult leaders and anyone using coercion or undue influence should be held equally responsible for the harm caused as a result of their doctrines. This may still make the members or leaders of these cults cry persecution, but it would significantly reduce their reach upon anyone outside of their respective groups. If people are still allowed to believe as they wish, so long as those beliefs are not hurting any other humans, eventually they might see the many harmful aspects of their religion/political group/meditation course/etc that wasn't fully disclosed to them upon joining. It's much easier to open peoples eyes with love, logic and reason than with harsh persecution.
But what about preaching? Jehovah's Witnesses are active in preaching and are converting many new people every year, you might say. They certainly do take their recruiting very seriously, but does that mean they're successful? If you look in the yearbooks, they are significantly decreasing in the membership. In Russia, they have lost over 2000 members alone since last year. I would say that their preaching work is becoming very unsuccessful in the Information Age, and banning them wouldn't halt their failing attempts to convert new members. They will still try, and fail, regardless of a ban. In fact, they might even be more successful under ban than they were before, preaching more covertly, using informal witnessing instead of door to door or standing at carts. Unfortunately, too, its important to remember that children are the main reason for the growth we are currently seeing amidst the jw's. Will they stop baptizing children during a ban? I believe we all know the answer to this. They will still baptize children, doing so in bathtubs in private homes if need be. Virtually nothing will change for the better as a result of this ban. In fact, the ban might come as such a scare to faded members who have not yet had a chance to learn "the truth about the truth," that many might run right back to the cult to maintain contact with family members and to avoid imminent destruction at Armageddon.
So, if you've read all this, are you still convinced that a ban is the best route to take? If so, then I don't believe you care about the victims under mind control in the jw's or in any cult. I have gone through many injustices as a former Jehovah's Witness that I wouldn't wish on anyone (though I'm sure many have experienced similar things) but that doesn't make me want hundreds of thousands of innocent people to be held accountable for the abuses I suffered as a result of the leadership. I would much rather see the leadership in the United States come under scrutiny. I would much rather for the United States to not be so lenient towards religions and allowing them to spread so much of their blatant lies and harmful propaganda. Religions shouldn't be allowed to publish 'science' books that are filled with lies designed to indoctrinate children into believing things that can't be substantiated with facts or evidence. Schools shouldn't promote religious belief, but be a force for education. They should tolerate religion, but not teach it as facts. Fundamentalist religious parents shouldn't be allowed to take their children out of school solely for the purpose of shielding them from learning the facts about our planet. Homeschooling in general should be better monitored to ensure children are receiving proper education at home. There are also many organizations/activists out there who are doing their part to inform government officials and law makers about the harmful abuses that are taking place at the hands of cults and as a result of religious indoctrination. If you are on the side of helping all victims of any form of cult or religious abuse, I suggest you look for more beneficial routes of helping people other than trying to tear down activists who don't agree with you.