This short article by Victoria Cater gives another common example of what the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) does to families. This is typical of the kinds of situations I remember and hear about from people who write to me for advice.
The first claim – that her father was kicked out for not giving up weekends with his family in order to pioneer (go out door to door for a specified number of hours per month) – is unlikely. You can’t really be disfellowshipped for that. Probably she wasn’t told the real reason – so that’s forgivable.
However, the example of her grandmother rings true:
Not only was my family not invited to attend my 97-year-old grandmother’s funeral, but Brothers and Sisters from the Kingdom Hall contacted my family to say we were not welcome and would not be allowed in if we showed up – all because we were not of their faith! After her death, we discovered that for the last year of her life, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were telling her she would not go to the “new world” (equivalent of heaven) if she continued contact with her family.
The “new world” isn’t really heaven, of course, but the promise of everlasting life with other JWs (and no-one else) on a paradise earth after the apocalypse. As for the funeral – Crater’s family must really have been in deep doo-doo to be prohibited from attending. Normally they are more concerned that their “sheep” keep away from sacraments of other churches – no attending services, weddings or funerals!
The more tragic and common theme is simply that the grandmother was prohibited (using methods of appeal to authority) from contact with her son and the rest of the non-JW family. There is a deeper problem with those who have been disfellowshipped than with non-JWs who could conceivably be converted. These separations are one of the top issues for people who contact me.
When I was a JW, family were still allowed to spend at least some time with each other – but it seems that there has been a drift into more serious tinkering with family dynamics since then. Then, it was a matter of conscience – and since we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, we missed out on a lot of occasions that kin networks use to gather themselves together. There was also the sense of taint – that it was just better to minimize contact. The result of this is that I am only beginning to get to know most of my father’s extended family – I have 19 cousins on that side!
To get back to the article, I really did want to mention something else. This is something that outsiders don’t really know about:
From what I have experienced, the “elders” who oversee the individual Kingdom Halls are not trained faith leaders. All other religions I am familiar with have a leader who has extensive training for this position. The Jehovah’s Witness elders have no right to guide individuals or families.
The only “training” that elders and “ministerial servants” and “pioneers” get is the same dreary fare as that of the general congregation: endless repetitious mind-numbingly dull meetings, the “theocratic ministry school” meeting once a week – really more of a public speaking class – and the derivative highly interpreted and predigested materials from Bethel in New York. The hour-long “talks” (they don’t call them “sermons”) are read aloud from a script – their ministers are not even trusted to follow their own calling or relationship with God.
While there is a certain kind of appeal to the idea of spiritual leaders that arise spontaneously from the flock, the fact remains that none of their ministers have, or are allowed to have, any training or education at all outside the group. They have not studied Greek or Hebrew or Latin. They do not have divinity degrees, or educational background in sociology, psychology, religion, literature, acheology, history or philosophy/theology. Most of them have never attended even one college class.
They are elders because 1) they do what they are told to do and, 2) because they are likely the only males in the congregation who have reached a certain age and are sufficiently involved with the group. The other elders decide who gets awarded different kinds of rank. There is some lip-service paid to the idea of “serving” the congregation, but it’s pretty clearly a position of power – and a power often abused. The JW rules and regs are very strict and authoritarian to begin with – add any personal corruption to that and you start to hear even more heartbreaking narratives.
Members of the congregation are told over and over to humble themselves before the elders, to submit to the elders. They believe, since they have no access to the actual interpreters and decision-makers, that God wants them to trust utterly in these flawed, untrained, uneducated and often staggeringly unwise men.
Incidentally, because sexual issues are one of the top reasons that people leave or are kicked out of the JWs, these elders – like the hard right – are obsessed with sexual issues. Of course, they are in no way prepared to deal with these issues in any healthy way and create enormous damage. They also discourage any kind of professional counselling or the intervention of “worldly authorities” in any way. I remember there was a period when married couples were encouraged to report their spouse to the elders if they got adventuresome sexually (or in a few specific ways – oral sex seemed to be the big obsession). The goal at the time seemed to be to target women who might possibly enjoy sex – I don’t remember any discussion of pedophilia or sadism, for example, although there were people in my own congregation who had to deal with those issues. It was simply inconceivable that any of “God’s people” would be involved with those sorts of things.
When there is a matter of personal conscience to confront, most Jehovah’s Witnesses will capitulate to the decision of the elders or the guidance of the organization’s publications. They are fearful of even writing a letter to headquarters to ask a question. Such communications might end up in their file, and many JWs have a fine-tuned paranoia. If they present a difficult situation to their local elders, they draw attention to themselves, and “spiritual guidance” as an idea is so tangled up with reprimand and danger that most questions are simply never asked. A person with questions is automatically regarded as “rebellious youth” or “in danger of straying from the truth” or being too close to “worldly influences.” The best thing to do is remain attentive at meetings, parrot back the expected rote answers, and be seen going out in service as much as possible. Independent thought, any of them will tell you, is against their religion.
How is any of that conducive to spiritual growth?