The upcoming PBS movie (and later, full-length DVD) called “Knocking” looks as though it will present JWs in a very flattering light. That’s a little bit astounding to me – the director’s mother is a JW, but the son isn’t. Judging by many of his published articles, he’s gay – so it’s a little strange that he would promote the JWs – and that they would work with him as they obviously have. I’m not sure how they could have gotten cooperation for the film without some involvement or approval from Brooklyn, although they say not. There’s nothing wrong with making a documentary of JWs and their lives, of course, but it would a shame if there were no discussion at all of some of their dark aspects. To me, it is a measure of how this country has changed that this kind of film is now being funded – is it just me, or do the far right fundamentalists bear more and more of a resemblence to Jehovah’s Witnesses? If only they shared that prohibition on voting!
They won’t pledge allegiance. They won’t go to war. They won’t accept blood transfusions. Civil Libertarians? Holocaust martyrs? Medical revolutionaries? Chronicling the unpopular stands of three Jehovah’s Witnesses, KNOCKING reveals how this misunderstood and often derided Christian group has contributed to society in ways far greater and more surprising than a knock on the door.
My gut feeling is that it will be something very close to a PR piece/witnessing tool. I read a terrific letter by Alan Feuerbacher to http://www.knocking.org, the website of the PBS film in the making. I’ve taken some nuggets from the Feuerbacher letter, but it is really worth the read:
Children who are baptized as JWs — even as young as 7 or 8 years — are treated exactly the same as adults in terms of shunning. There are many stories of young teenagers doing the normal teenage stupid things, and ending up being shunned for life by their entire families.
In the early 1950s, the long-standing teaching that God lives on the star Alcyone in the Pleiades constellation was formally jettisoned. In the early 1950s, the long-standing claim that vaccinations are a work of the devil was abandoned. This was to facilitate travel by Watchtower officials, who had to have certificates of vaccination for international travel. In 1945, the notion that vaccinations violate “the everlasting covenant between God and Noah” was applied to blood transfusions, and over the next decade this was gradually built into a complete ban on transfusions.
In 1877, Russell predicted the complete end of all nations by 1914. This became a staple of Bible Student teaching. When that failed to occur, Russell’s followers gradually decided that the end had occurred, but invisibly. In 1877, Russell predicted that the long-awaited “resurrection of the saints” would occur in 1878. In 1878, when “the saints” failed to appear, Russell predicted that they’d appear in 1881. When that failed, he claimed that they were indeed resurrected, but invisibly. When “the end” failed to appear in 1914 but WWI began, Russell claimed that Armageddon had begun, and predicted it would end in 1918. In 1918, Joseph Rutherford, second president of the Watchtower Society, began an advertising campaign called “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”. He predicted that Armageddon would occur in 1925. Between 1918 and 1925, many Bible Students prepared for “the end” by selling their property and engaging in preaching for the “Millions” campaign. When 1925 rolled past uneventfully, nearly 3/4 of the Bible Students quit. ..
In 1966, the Society began predicting that “big things” would come not later than 1975. By the next year, this had grown into a nearly definite prediction that the battle of Armageddon would come by 1975. When that failed to happen, the rapid growth of the JWs in the years between 1967 and 1975 reversed. In 1993 to 1995, upon realizing that its teachings about “the generation of 1914” were about to go down the tubes, the Society drastically revised its ideas, and made the idea virtually meaningless. Most JWs barely noticed.
Thank you Alan! You inspired me to write a brief note of my own to the makers of this film:
To whom it may concern-
I grew up a JW – and now that I’m 41, my family and I are only now recovering. They can be very destructive to families. I hope that you have taken the time to find out about some of the negative aspects and basic cruelties of this group. They are extremely apocalyptic in tone, and while the rank and file JW is a decent person, the leadership is extremely controlling and authoritarian. I get heartbreaking emails from people who are dealing with JWs and are desperate for any kind of advice about what to do about situations such as JW grandparents who convince their disfellowshipped daughter to sit outside while they come into her house to visit their grandchild, grandparents not allowed to see their grandchildren because the grandparent is a non-JW and a “worldly influence” on the child, children and teenagers given the silent treatment and shunned from the only people they really know – rather than being offered spiritual healing or guidance – when they make mistakes (they don’t use the word “sin” very often, and they use the word “grace” even less).
The mindset created is that the elders and especially the “governing body” are really God’s chosen and can do no wrong. The God that is portrayed is a cruel taskmaster who can never be pleased with anything less than perfection, which no-one can achieve. They feel surrounded by an evil “worldly system of things” that is going to be destroyed very soon, and they devoutly believe that no-one but JWs will survive. They are paranoid and separatist and thrive on stories of persecution of their members as evidence that they are correct. In America, what counts as persecution can be quite microscopic in scale.
The faith that manages to grow in such an environment is not a healthy one, and in fact there is a high incidence of psychological problems in the group. On the one hand, they teach their members to courageously stand up to “worldly powers of Satan” but on the other hand they demand total submission to their authority, no matter how many times they change their predictions, policies, and rules. They have completely missed any message of Christianity that would advocate for compassion, forgiveness, or charity.
I still agree with a few things that I learned – I still don’t salute the flag for example. But as for lionizing them… the only thing they ever did for America was to fight for certain kinds of religious freedom. I suppose I am grateful for the small mercy that they don’t vote. I don’t find fear and hatred and scapegoating to be particularly Christian values.
All baptised JWs are considered ministers (although they somehow don’t use that title for the women…), but the elders of the congregation must be obeyed totally, immediately and without question. These men have no calling, have gone to no school, have no divinity degrees or psychological training. They read their “public talks” from scripts mailed to them from New York. They lack education, training, or wisdom – and yet they control the lives of everyone in their congregations. There is no forum for discussion or questioning of anything at all. It is a theocratic kingdom, and they meet in Kingdom Halls.
As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I am considered to be a member of what they call the “evil slave class” – basically a slave of Satan.
So while you’re presenting them as a heroic, civic-minded and tolerant group, I do pray that you keep these other niggling details in mind….
The PBS version of the letter began with “I understand that PBS will be showing a film called “Knocking” about Jehovah’s Witnesses. From what I can tell from the site, it would almost have to be made by JWs themselves in order for permissions and access to take place. I ask you to consider the possibility that you are being used as a mouthpiece of the governing organization / publishing empire in Brooklyn.” – and ended with “So while you’re giving them a public space to present as a heroic, civic-minded and tolerant group, I do pray that you keep these other niggling details in mind. Perhaps some commentary will be in order if this film goes forward?”
Engardio, Joel P. “Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Untold Story of Resistance to Nazis.” The Christian Science Monitor, 6 November 1996, 88:240, pp. 1&13.
Update August 31, 2005: A response from PBS!
Thank you for taking the time to write to PBS about our programming. We value and appreciate receiving viewer comments. However, there seems to be some misinformation about this program. It has not yet been submitted to or reviewed by PBS, so we are unable at this time to respond to your specific concerns. Should the program be submitted to PBS for broadcast consideration, it will be reviewed subject to our editorial standards. You can access these standards at http://www.pbs.org/aboutpbs/aboutpbs_standards.html.
This program is being produced in association with the Independent Television Service. The Director of Communications for ITVS is Jim Sommers and ITVS’ Director of Production is Mary Ann Thyken. At this stage in the film’s production, please direct comments and inquiries to Mr. Sommers (who can be reached at 415-356-8383 x242) or Ms. Thyken (who can be reached at 415-356-8383 x249). For your additional information, the ITVS offices are located at 501 York
Street, San Francisco, CA 94110.
Again, thank you for your letter to PBS. We appreciate your concern for our programming. We hope you continue to enjoy and support the wide variety of programs available on your local PBS member station.
PBS Viewer Services
Well, a quick look back at the “Knocking” site confirms that they have taken off any reference to PBS. Interesting.