by "The Extreme"
Marvels of Man:
A skyscraper. A transcontinental airliner. A suspension bridge. The space shuttle. Our own bodies...
Each of them a wonder of the physical realm.
And each of them capable of being destroyed by the most minute of weaknesses: A hairline crack in the foundation; a shoddy weld joint; a rust-corroded bolt; a defective wire; a disease-carrying microbe.
One small problem that adds to another, then another, until...
My name is Jason. I faded quite some time ago – before that was even a term, to my knowledge – from the rank and file of the Jehovah's Witnesses Organization. At the time, my seemingly casual confidence in my position as one who had become “inactive” apparently rattled the typically brittle resolve of certain “faithful” relatives and they began to warn each other of my “extreme apostasy”, despite the fact I had never tried to influence anyone's belief or disbelief. Hearing of this, my son was reminded of a certain storm-chasing character in the movie Twister who had been dubbed “The Extreme” for his reckless nature and methods; hence, the appellation at the top of this article (you will find that irony comes free and easy here in my world).
In the years leading up to my departure from full-time indoctrination (I had once served as a regular pioneer*, a ministerial servant*, preached where “the need was greater”* – twice! – performed as a villainous bible character in a convention drama*, participated as a tradesman in several “quick-build” Kingdom Hall projects*, was a close associate to three members of the “anointed class”* – best friend and nearly best man to and for one of them –, and was born into a large JW family that had powerful connections to BETHEL*, as well as to the GOVERNING BODY* itself), I discovered rather quickly that the Body of Elders, the Circuit and District Overseers, the Bethel Family, and pretty much anyone who was determined to never “wake up” from the dangerous fantasy of Kingdom Good News were rabidly fearful of two things:
Logic *Easily looked up JW terms if unfamiliar
...and questions that required straight answers which were, in themselves, logical.
Of this I have many, many, many examples, but for the purpose of this article, I will limit the scope of the discussion to a single topic: Facial Hair (yes, wiseacre, I'm referring to men only).
An innocuous subject, right? Maybe for the rest of the world. But in the JW community, this is a cause for both great confusion and contention, largely due to the fact the rules concerning beards, mustaches, sideburns and any variation of them are deliberately obscure. It is a head (and face) scratching anomaly for an administrative body (its collective whole known by the rather sinister-sounding moniker, the Society) that has otherwise shown a predilection to control its followers with edict-laden codes of conduct, choosing instead – for this one topic in particular – to allow the rules to be inferred rather than beaten into conditioned-to-accept minds through normal channels of indoctrination, namely the “straight from God” yet consistently overturned teachings found in the printed word, and the currently preferred tool of brain bludgeoning, the queasily guilt-inducing video presentation.
Even when the subject is brought up by appointed leaders in the congregations, the Society – with its Writing and Service Departments – seems content to present responses to concerns that could be considered at best hollow and evasive, filling their missives and phone conversations with rhetoric that achieve – to paraphrase Bill Shakespeare – a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, as well as placing the onus for decision-making on the matter squarely on the often unqualified shoulders of local elders; in other words, the ol' “I'm rubber and you're glue” treatment of culpability when the Society is too overwhelmed by the complexities inherent in a certain subject but want to appear like they've got a handle on things, thus retaining their iron-fisted authority in all fields of thought and discussion, regardless of how mundane.
Yes, folks, the Governing Body and its hench-scribes have essentially hedged their bets on this one, counting on all members of their organization to carry on in the way they themselves are willing to, not taking the subject too seriously and just following suit with indigenous customs, never insisting on personal preferences but blindly submitting to the whims and tastes of their Society-assigned middle-management types. Unfortunately, like most things in life, this is something that truly isn't very serious... until it is.
Like when congregation leaders start “straining the gnat” and “gulping the camel” ad nauseam, their limited power left unchecked and unchallenged until oversized egos and idiosyncratic tics dominate all decisions made in behalf of the “flock”, resulting in a young man's spiritual life becoming tossed upon the excommunication chopping block over an extra inch of whiskers about the ear.
It would be silly, if it was silly. But it was not.
This was the case with my nephew, whom we shall refer to as “Oliver.” My examination of this issue – which, by all rights, should have been a non-issue – led to my exposing a fatal flaw in the Society's managerial mindset and control mechanism tactics, a small problem with the potential to lead the Organization to disaster in every way possible by shining glaring illumination upon the hubris found within the self-appointed masters over “God's things”, a haughty attitude of “untouchableness” that will cause them to ignore the storm surge of disquiet that is rushing over their expensively Florsheimed feet.
So here is my study of the short and long-term effects of a facet of worship that, in the spirit of my preamble, could be viewed as a small link in an inevitable chain reaction toward organizational destruction, originally delved into for the purpose of trying to help one of God's allegedly beloved “little sheep” stay in the “fold” of the equally alleged united “worldwide brotherhood”...
Oliver was the oldest of eight. He often spent copious amounts of time with his rambunctious and manipulative third-born brother, Cain (another name change, natch). Getting in trouble within the congregation inevitably ensued with these two, with Oliver splitting his time looking after and being influenced by his younger sibling. A move to a neighboring congregation to “spiritually strike out on their own” did little to alleviate matters; in fact, it made things worse for the boys.
Cain was always his own worst enemy, and still is. Oliver, on the other hand, had a sweet, sensitive nature about him, one that shown through no matter how much he tried to hide it with urban-styled clothing and loud, angry music.
And facial hair,
His elders, of course, focused on only his outside appearance, fearing how his unkempt grooming habits might in some way bring reproach upon God's congregation. Needless to say, summons to the back room were aplenty. Showing an interest with one of the local young sisters also served to complicate Oliver's situation, subjecting him to more counsel and discipline whenever TEAM TATTLE from among his peers thought they saw him alone with his quasi-girlfriend (a big courtship no-no with JW's).
To his credit, Oliver tried to “clean up his act” as it were, donning suits and footwear that were less baggy and casual in the estimation of the congregation shepherds. He also decided upon the radical act of burning his “hate-filled” music, and even got Cain to join him. SIDEBAR: It should be noted that this particular pyrotechnical action had taken place some time before the events of which I am now writing, but is included here to show the lengths my nephew would go to in trying to please the elders, specifically his own father... a man who would go on to denounce the music-burning as a “non-serious display of youthful folly” owed to the fact that Oliver had supposedly made a “mockery” of the “sacrifice to God” when he chose to dance with his brother around the album pyre (more on this delightful individual later).
Oliver got himself a “respectable” haircut. He even shaved.
It would appear he missed a couple spots in the eyes of the elders, and they were keen to notice.
Taking full advantage of the Society's vague guidelines (esp. at that time, circa 2001), the elders sought to expand the definition of “loose conduct” (as mentioned in the Bible, a very UN-Christian trait) to include “inappropriate” dress and grooming; in this case, the issue of sideburns being below the edge of the earlobe instead of above.
At this point, Oliver was too disgusted and beat-down to have the energy or will to comply, honestly arriving at the conclusion that nothing he did mattered; these men were going to find something wrong with him regardless of any efforts on his part to placate them. Of course, he was absolutely correct, and very soon the formation of a judicial committee loomed large – not for any of the real Bible-based “serious sins” they merely suspected him of committing (e.g. fornication), but for the “serious sin” they had invented, relishing their imminent conquest with all the gusto of accountants that had just discovered Al Capone's felonious tax records. Oliver's life in theocratic service to Jehovah hung by a whisker. Literally.
This was where I came in.
I had come to learn of Oliver's predicament during a visit with my family on Long Island, NY. I knew that Oliver and Cain had been exhibiting “rebellious tendencies” of late, but I had assumed their move to another congregation (and away from their father, himself an elder for many years) had been a sign of perhaps a trend toward the positive. I was quite stunned to find out how hard the local elders were working to throw out my kin instead of trying to save them (or maybe they were just using the most punitive methods available to them to save my nephews and felt it necessary to eschew the more loving ones, if I was to give the elders any credit for caring at all, albeit in a twisted way, but of course, that would have been a stretch with these characters).
I was even more shocked to learn that Oliver's father STOOD BY the counsel of his fellow elders next door. I failed to see how they were being anything like “a shadowy crag in a desert” or a life-saving “stream in a waterless region” (wording of these scriptural quotes may vary depending on which Bible translation you use). Far more baffling and disconcerting to me was watching a father who could not be bothered to even make a plea for mercy in behalf of his son, let alone two sons.
“The elders don't come to the point of initiating judicial protocols lightly,” he said. “I'm sure my boy gave them sufficient cause. I trust them. Not him.”
Talk about “no natural affection”! I honestly did not know how to respond to this. All I knew was that if my own son would ever have had to face a similar situation, he would have been able to count on a FIGHT against such rank pedantry from his father!
Then there was the item of the charge that was about to serve as a catalyst to theocratic capital punishment: The length of sideburns. On this, I was able to find my voice: “It would seem the leaders of the congregation are looking for more ways to kick people out than to keep them in!” I railed. “How could it have possibly come down to this: Sideburns! Am I the only one that can see how crazy this is? Back in Pennsylvania the brothers serving there have MUTTONCHOPS for crying out loud! Why such a severe disparity? But you don't even have to travel that far... YOU guys have longer sideburns right here in YOUR congregation. YOU have sideburns at least as long as your son's! How can those elders justify coming up with this as proof of wickedness? Wouldn't that mean all of you other elders and especially the ones back at my home congregation are all serious sinners too?”
“Every elder body has the right to determine what's best for its flock. It all depends on the views of the community.”
“But you're in the same community! You share the same [Kingdom] hall!”
“We have different territories.”
“I seriously doubt the opinions of people over side burn length change that radically depending on which side of William Floyd Parkway they live on.”
“None of that matters. It comes down to modesty. The elders know more about what's going on in their communities than anyone else, and therefore know what would be appropriate dress and grooming for the friends they preside over. We simply have to trust and support their decisions. THAT is our only theocratic imperative here – to obey.”
“But YOU'RE and elder! Would this be how you and the rest of your congregation elders would handle this situation?”
“I can't speak for everybody, nor would I want to.”
“Humor me, Davis.” (Yet another name change)
“Well... Probably not. Still doesn't matter. I'm not going to use my position to influence a judicial committee.”
“Why does it even have to come down to judicial proceedings? You've known these guys for years.
"Can't you reason with them before this goes too far?”
“It's not my place, elder or not.”
“But your Oliver's FATHER!”
“And now he's in his heavenly father's hands.”
I was getting nowhere with my brother-in-law. I didn't fare much better with anyone else I spoke to during my visit, including Oliver: They were all resigned to whatever fate God had laid out, He of inconsistent regulations.
But I wasn't giving up yet. I couldn't; it just wasn't in my nature, as evidenced by the word choices of others used in describing my personality: relentless, tenacious, unreasonable (i.e. "He's the MOST unreasonable man I have ever met in all my years as an elder!” – true quote), and intellectually arrogant. I had to find some clarifying scripture or at least a differing point of view from the Society in an earlier publication to help these brothers see a more loving and merciful route to take in their attempts to 'adjust' my nephew. After all, Oliver and his brother were really just kids – fully grown, yes, but completely illiterate in the ways of the world and therefore grievously unprepared for life outside of the Organization. If no one else would, I had to do something in their behalf, especially for poor Oliver, whose only real “sin” was that he loved his errant sibling so much that he couldn't resist looking after him, which often meant following him right into whatever trouble Cain had cooked up, and in this case, it was flouting the authority of the elders. Oliver's attempts to do an about-face appeared to have come too late. Was I also out of time? When it came to poring over the archives found in my (then) vast theocratic library, one thing was certain: Speed was of the essence.
As soon as I got home, I hit the books, the Bible included.
After hours of flipping pages, scrolling down margin notes, and cross-referencing (computers with their interNETS were considered too much a part of Satan's world back then), I had come up with only two things, both in connection to BEARDS:
First, an article in the August 15 Watchtower of 1975 that included an anecdote involving typically nameless and therefore unresearchable individuals, which focused on a young newcomer to the door-to-door preaching work who met with some cantankerous old crone that perceived him as part of an equally unidentified student revolt. This was apparently due to the hapless fellah's beard, and no amount of reasoning and reassurance could convince her otherwise, resulting in a closed door and, presumably, a life lost forever because of a misunderstanding about cheeks carpeted with curly-cue hairs. The “parable” finished with the man realizing the need to shave his shame, having seen the “practical” need to do so out of godly duty and to avoid further “bloodguilt”.
Second, a single scripture, Leviticus 19:27: “You must not cut your sidelocks short around, and you must not destroy the extremity of your beard.” (NWT) Today, it seems, only the most Orthodox of the Jewish faith adhere to this rule. (It is interesting to note that the very next scripture is the one that forbids tattoos, a topic that the Society has been very vocal on, thus illustrating yet another fissure in the proverbial foundation: The Governing Body's reckless habit of “cherry-picking” which Old Testament examples and Mosaic Law precepts it chooses to consider as valid and relevant under the Law of Christ).
But that was it... That was all I could come up with: An ominously implied rule presented via a fuzzily constructed object lesson, accompanied by a passive-aggressive query to the reader unfortunate enough to have opened that particular issue of the Watchtower: “Would you be willing to do the same [shaving your Satan scruff] or to make similar adjustments if your appearance gave the wrong impression in a certain community?”... and a very clearly specified rule from God's Word to NOT shave your beard, a rule that was undoubtedly enforced at the time of the writing under the pain of death.
I couldn't report back to anyone with just this paltry amount of info; I was really no better off from my research than when I was first arguing the case without any backing whatsoever from theocratic material. Sure, there had been a few other references to beards in the publications, but they mostly dwelt on the why's and wherefore's of beard appropriateness back in Bible times (including a notably bizarre argument in 1954 against Jesus having a beard, pertaining in part to there being no record of Romans plucking mercilessly at the Messiah's cheeks (a form of torture on record during the reign of Caesars) but instead the holy face plates had been merely slapped – ergo, pristine skin; and then a 1968 argument for the complete opposite, detailing the reasons for why Jesus MUST have had a beard, that there was no other way to think on the matter, and let's just pretend that 1954 thing never happened... in any case, New Light! So there. Nyah.)
But the 1975 WT article contained, in my opinion, the strongest suggestion for keeping strict watch on woolliness, at least at the time I was digging into my bound volumes and such. As for the scripture cited – if anything, that just served to contradict any negative stance on growing beards, let alone long side burns, but that couldn't be right... could it?
I realized there and then that the only way I was going to gain full understanding and clarification on the subject of facial hair was to go to the “well-spring” and “fount” of “accurate knowledge” itself:
I had to call BETHEL.
Then it would all make sense to me...
Read the provocative details of my conversation with a member of the Writing Department in the exciting conclusion of, “WAR OF THE WHISKERS”. The transcript – taken from my extensive notes on the incident – will be sure to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And, of course, on your face too!