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Becoming Worldly

“{T}hey are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” John 17:14, New World Translation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret this text as a directive to remain politically neutral. Witnesses cannot run for city council or the school board; they do not vote in any elections – local, state, or national.

In fact, in the vernacular of the religion, being a “part of the world,” dressing or behaving in a worldly manner is almost always an invective. Witnesses are conditioned to opt out of world affairs or political participation; they are conditioned to relinquish their authority to shape the decisions that impact their lives. Witnesses are instructed to be as “innocent as doves,” to take no position regarding what laws should be enacted, repealed, or changed. See April 2016 Watchtower, Article 4. Or at least the rank-and-file members of the religion adopt that stance.

Witnesses also accede unqualified authority to a Governing Body of eight men. In the last 100 years, there has been only one non-white male in that leadership position. This Governing Body issues edicts that affect every aspect of the personal lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses and yet, if you ask any Witness how these men are selected and what the qualifications are, you will receive a vague reply about divine appointment by Holy Spirit. The truth was, most Witnesses do not have a clue. Are the white men who lead the religion nominated by cronies? Chosen by a lottery? How these white men, who direct members’ actions from the cradle to the grave, are chosen, was and is, shrouded in secrecy.

How does this self-appointed governing body wield its authority over millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Research reveals troubling inconsistencies between the leadership’s public statements and its actual practice. For example, in literature, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses propounds the audacious evils of the United Nations. The UN mission to facilitate peace and security made it the disgusting thing standing in the place of God’s Kingdom.

"The United Nations is actually a worldly confederacy against Jehovah God and his dedicated Witnesses on earth." Watchtower 1987 Sep 1 p.20

"Human governments have schemed to form the most brazen and defiant conspiracy against divine rule that has ever existed. (Compare Isaiah 8:11-13.) They have done so, not once, but twice, creating first the League of Nations and then the United Nations." Awake! 1990 Dec 8 p.24

Despite the leadership’s public stance, the Watchtower was an Associate NGO (non-governmental organization) with the United Nations between 1992 and 2001.

Did you know that Witnesses have long had dedicated lobbyists in the U.S. capital? Here is some historical context.

Another inconsistency made an impression on me. As a child I read voraciously, and since my parents insisted that the bulk of my reading had to be from their religious literature, I often read vintage copies of the Watchtower and Awake magazines from my family’s library of brown bound volumes. Paradoxically, my uber strict parents never felt the need to censure any Witness literature. So as a sheltered preteen I regularly read graphic descriptions of the persecution that Jehovah’s Witnesses faced in the east African country of Malawi.

In the mid-twentieth century, a Malawian Congress Party and a “president for life” established a one-party state. Malawians were required to show their allegiance by purchasing a political party card. Witness leadership explicitly told these African Witnesses that purchasing the .25 party card violated Christian neutrality and made them unfaithful to God. To remain faithful, most Malawian Witnesses refused to purchase the required party cards. As a result, their homes and farms were burned. Men were beaten and women were systemically gangraped. This was the reading material that gave me nightmares – the thousands of African Witnesses that were persecuted mercilessly.

However, in 1978, Raymond Franz, while a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, grew appalled that Witness leadership had taken an entirely different stance on political neutrality in Mexico. During the same time period, the mid 1970s, Mexican men of draft age were required to undergo military training. Their attendance was recorded on a certificate or a “cartilla.” The cartilla militar was required to apply for a passport or even to gain employment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were not allowed to serve in the military, but many Witnesses in Mexico bribed officials to stamp a cartilla stating that they had. And the Governing Body determined that the decision to secure a fake cartilla was personal and Mexican Witnesses who paid a bribe to attain one would not be censured by the religion. See Crisis of Conscience, pps 150-154.

Why would Witness leadership decide that African lives and African bodily integrity was subordinate to a strict interpretation of Scripture that resulted in brutal suffering while the health and welfare of Witnesses with less melanin and who lived closer to Witness headquarters in the U.S. required a more nuanced interpretation? Ask the Witness leaders; the answer should be interesting.

In my own experience, many scriptural requirements (as interpreted by Witness leadership) demanded strict adherence – proselytizing, the rejection of military service, etc. even if there was a conflict between the Witness interpretation of Scripture and the law of the land. But Witnesses in the United States were not compelled to challenge Jim Crow laws that required strict social separation of the races. For decades, white male leadership did not feel the need to insist that white Witnesses in southern states commingle in spiritual community with Black Witnesses and other Witnesses of color.

Faith deconstruction helped me to reject the Witness white-centric, controlling rules dictated by a body that rarely considered the perspective of Black and Indigenous people of color and Never considered the opinions of women. But recognizing the numerous ways that this belief system had made inroads into my identity formation took even more effort. If I no longer subscribed to a Witnesses’ blithely neutral mindset, what did I stand for?

The studiousness that I once had applied to learning to religious indoctrination was redirected to decoding the branches of government that determined the laws and policies that governed my family and me. I had to decide where I stood on numerous issues and which political party aligned with my values. I had to learn how to register to vote and how to safeguard and exercise my rights as a citizen.

Be warned. My foray into political activism reinforced at least some of what I had been taught. Politics is rife with corruption and injustice. In the U.S., the partisan divide is disheartening and often facilitates dysfunction. Gerrymandering often allows legislators to choose their voters instead of allowing constituents to vote for their representatives.

Since the Supreme Court freed corporations to spend money on “electioneering communications,” in Citizens United v FEC, super PACs are free to inject obscene amounts of money into campaigns. It is not surprising, then, that those elected officials, in turn, often cater to the interests of their larger donors.

Yet, despite all of these flaws, I have found representative democracy to be more empowering than political inaction. This I know to be true; I will never again relinquish control to a nameless group of white men who self-proclaim that they are God’s sole channel for disseminating truth and allow them to interpret right and wrong for me.

As a politically engaged citizen, I research each candidate that I vote for in municipal, state, and national elections. I contact my legislators to demand that they vote for or against specific laws. And each time that I do these things, I honor the memory of courageous role models such as John Lewis, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and Fannie Lou Hamer who made immeasurable sacrifices to secure the right for me to vote and the right to hold my elected representatives accountable.

In the 21st century, Plato's words are proven accurate again and again, “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”

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