Patterns of cruelty – Witnesses of God*

(* I am of course talking about JWs but don’t want this article to pop up on searches by the supporters of said group. Just as I don’t enjoy having my door knocked on, neither would I enjoy an online attack.)

My blog posts have, up till this point, been confined to examining the behaviour of Christian bodies. I don’t intend to deviate from this, but I feel it appropriate to bring to attention published material that sets out how Witnesses deal with uncooperative and dissident members of their group. I make no claim to have ever involved myself with the Witnesses so what I write is based solely on what they have written themselves. This material opens us up to a world-view and a mentality which may or may not help us to understand the mindset of other extremist cultic groups. I shall leave that for others to judge. What is true is that ‘religion’, as exemplified by the Witnesses leadership, can think and act in what seems to be a completely cruel and heartless manner towards some of their own membership.

Apart the practice of refusing blood transfusions, the practice of ‘disfellowshipping’ is the one that most disturbs the general public when encountering Witnesses. Two quotations of chilling brutality sets out the context of ostracism, as practised by the group. ‘The one who deliberately does not abide by the congregation’s decision, puts himself in line to be disfellowshipped’. One can only speculate what the words ‘abide by the congregation’s decision’ actually means. One imagines that it basically believing without question what one is told. A second quote: ‘any attachments to the disfellowshipped person, whether these be ties of personal friendship, blood relation or otherwise, must take second place to the theocratic disciplinary action that has been taken.’

I pause to consider what might be the meaning of the innocent sounding word ‘theocratic’. It literally means the rule of God, as opposed to other systems like democracy or even non-democratic systems like Marxism or Fascism. To the untutored ear it sounds like a good idea, in that brings divine values into society, rather than relying on the untidy methods of democratic debate for political decisions to emerge. In practice, there are always specially chosen groups of men, who have a ‘hot’ line to God and know exactly what his will is. History, even that of our own time, tells us exactly what theocracy actually looks like. Whether it is expressed in a Christian or Islamic form, it normally involves a fierce autocracy that suppresses any idea of cultural or social advance. It is conservative in its passionate embrace of the idea that nothing of any value can be discerned outside the group, or the society, it is trying to create. Education is about mastering the tools of literacy and numeracy but little more. Theocracy comes down hard on creative ideas or innovation, whether these are expressed among the Witnesses or in the so-called Caliphate in Iraq. To put it bluntly, you are more likely to survive in this ‘theocratic’ society if you have never eaten the apple of thinking for yourself.

Further instructions about the treatment of the ‘disfellowshipped’ follow. “Those in the congregation will not extend the hand of fellowship to this one, nor will they so much as say “Hello” or “Good-bye” to him. … Therefore the members of the congregation will not associate with the disfellowshipped one, either in the K. Hall or elsewhere. They will not converse with such one or show him recognition in any way”. Further instructions specify: ” we also avoid social fellowship with an expelled person, This will rule out joining him in a picnic, party, ball game, or trip to the mall or theatre or sitting down to a meal with him either in the home or in a restaurant.” While it is true that there have been adjustments to this system over the decades, the ‘system’ still comes down heavily on anyone who even questions, even inside themselves, the teachings of the movement. What we witness in these instructions is that people are encouraged to cut themselves off from others and silence them, not on grounds of dislike but because the Movement decides that this is right. There is a justification for this behaviour offered when instructions state: ” If you shun a person enough leaving her down and without friends, she will have no other alternative but to reintegrate the Movement and submit again to its control.” This sounds like a generous slave owner trying to recapture runaways! One’s heart goes out to such survivors who are the subject of such barbaric treatment.

I need hardly say that the line of ostracism and shunning loved ones in the Witnesses movement has caused massive unhappiness worldwide. That a body of religious leaders, at the instruction of those set over them, should decide to fracture so thoroughly human relationships of people they know well, is incomprehensible. Such a system, according to these dreadful injunctions, invites no sympathetic understanding from the outside world. Indeed it is hard to imagine how an individual could get close enough to study their beliefs and listen to them without finding their sanity and sense of identity under attack. I am not encouraged, after reading this material, even to extend the hand of friendship to those who come knocking at the door. I am even less inclined to embark on any discussion with them, knowing that our perspectives on the Bible and God are so far apart.

Witnesses are clearly outside the mainstream of Christian life in this country, but it is clear that they operate in ways that are practised by a variety of extreme religious groups and cults. What is interesting and unique about the JWs is that they have actually printed instructions for local leaders which we can read and study without having to get close to the group. We can begin to understand a deviant world of belief and practice and recognise that however much we may be enthusiastic for God, their so-called ‘ theocratic’ pattern of church life, is one that holds absolutely no attractions.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Patterns of cruelty – Witnesses of God*

  1. Yeah. They’re taught that doctors for example, who are not witnesses are not to be trusted. That having operations with no transfusions is much better, but it is more expensive, so doctors save it for themselves and their families. They inhabit a terrifying world where it is not safe to step outside the community. Disfellowshipping is like being sent to Coventry. If you have previously been cut off from everyone else, and told the outside world is not a safe place, there is nowhere to go. Moonies do the same. Arranged marriages the same, too.

  2. Thanks Stephen. I suppose one could argue that Theocracy, literally The Rule of God, ought to be close to The Kingdom of God, as Jesus taught it in the Gospels. While there was plenty of challenge for his hearers regarding membership of this kingdom, it was left up to them as to whether they chose to join in or not. The arrangement was voluntary rather than compulsory, which seems right to me. It’s the trying to force others into something, removing their free will, that goes against the creation account, which says that humans are made in the image of God and therefore have free will.

  3. To the average Churchgoer in small village communities, this blog must seem a million miles away from their experience. It is however; precisely in that sort of community that abusive fundamentalism thrives.

    The fear of ‘Eating the apple of thinking for yourself’ is one of the most powerful descriptions of ‘island Christianity’.

    The only thing that I would add to Stephen’s blog is that, sooner or later, some one must talk to these people. They are victims of the most terrible mental abuse.

    I took the apple of thinking for myself after reading Stephen’s book, (Ungodly- fear) and J B Phillips, ‘The ring of truth’. Of course, I must add that it was after I became literate. I say this because so many victims are poorly educated and touch on illiteracy.

    The operators of the Machiavellian trip wires that caught me are still there today; of course unlike Leopards they do change their spots.

    We must reach out to these people, if we don’t, they will end up like me full to the brim of self hate, waking up forty years later trying to eject the brain police from my thoughts.

  4. David, I too would like the theocratic to have a benign meaning. But sadly history shows us that the word has been highjacked by a variety of religious loonies, including ISIS in Iraq today. I do not talk about extremist Muslims much, but they exemplify the way Christians operated in times past, with religious wars, killing heretics in God’s name and imposing God’s will on everyone in sight. I doubt if Jesus would mean any of that craziness when he spoke about the Kingdom of God. A discussion on what he did mean is for another time.

    Chris I am still puzzling what you mean when you talk about people in small rural communities being fundamentalist. They may pay lip service to it but many of them keep their counsel about these things. The people who are victims of abuse are surely more urban people who for whatever reason want a guru to do their thinking for them because of personal dysfunction or a sense of not belonging anywhere. The people in the deep country may not be intellectual but they normally belong in some way to the locality. Their attitude to Vicars is that if we wait long enough, there will be another coming along soon. Fundamentalist ministers try to ‘own’ their people, while country people own the minister. They see him in and they see him out! Precious little changes in the meantime!

  5. During the 1970’s Trevor Dearing ( Rev) conducted revival meetings in many villages all over Suffolk. Many congregations did not have any defense against a scripture quoting expert (Including my parents). There were fundamentalist meetings in neighbouring villages. I heard of one American group taking over an entire parish council.

  6. What I was trying to say above, (I was hurried, had to go out) was that even people in what appear to be traditional english communities, can fall foul of the trip wires when dealing with organizations like the JW’s.

    When the bible is presented to you in a certain way and, if you have never done any in depth scripture study, you are a sitting duck. I must insist that even in those rural communities this really does happen. PEACE, Chris

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