Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

7 responses to “Russian Watchtower

  1. Robert Crompton

    I do not support the Russian ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, I must say that they are not to be characterised as simply nice, peace-loving people with wacky beliefs. They are an authoritarian religion who exercise enormous control over the lives of their members – their young people are under pressure to forgo further education beyond the minimum legally required; they suppress open discussion of alternative points of view; they ostracise those leave the movement; they put enormous coercive pressure upon members to refuse blood transfusion even to the point of dying rather than accept blood.

    (I write this as someone who has done post-graduate research (Durham Univ, UK) into the origins of the Watchtower movement, published books and articles about them, and recently reconnected with a few family members who were forced to shun me for their whole lives from earliest childhood. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in taking the topic further.)

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    • Thanks so much for the comment! I am always interested to learn more about NRMs. I’ve read a couple academic studies on the Witnesses, but am glad to learn more. Any recommendations for further reading would be gratefully received!

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  2. Robert Crompton

    Steve, M. j. Penton’s “Apocalypse Delayed,” is probably the best general description of the WT movement. My own, “Counting the Days to Armageddon” is a history of their prophetic speculations, from their roots in the Protestant mainstream to the 1990s. Sociological studies are often flawed (certainly the earlier pioneering studies) because they too readily take the WT at its word and dismiss too easily ciriticism by ex-members. This misses the extent to which the WT manipulates its public image. Best sociologist study I came across was James Beckford’s “The Trumpet of Prophecy,” but it has blind spots which the outsider is in no position to notice. George Chryssides’ most recent stuff is worth a look. And doctrinal studies all come from a particular doctrinal viewpoint – I don’t know of any good ones. But then I’m a far-over liberal. Happy hunting among the bookshelves!

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  3. My Dad’s youngest brother, Uncle Ed, had his life pretty much ruined by his Jehovah’s Witness mother. She literally beat him when, as a youngster, he refused to stand on the street corner in Pittsburgh and pass out Watch Towed magazines. She once caught him putting them all down a storm drain and he paid a dear price for his transgression. As an adult he referred to her as “that effing bitch.” She used her religious belief as a cudgel.

    My limited experience with them has been their showing up at the house and sometimes getting downright nasty at my disinterest in what they were saying. The last straw was when they asked why I wasn’t concerned with my kids’ eternal souls. Though I always tried to be polite, that day I told them not to come back anymore. The husband of the husband/wife team said my boys would be sorry when the Battle of Armageddon came and they realized their father had betrayed them. I told him to get off the porch before I threw him off. He and his wife left in a huff.

    I’m reminded of the old saying that if a man carrying a Bible comes your door for the good of your soul, run for your life out the back.

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    • Thanks for sharing this, Norm. I’ve done some reading on the movement and, unfortunately, what you write isn’t surprising. There’s a real balancing act with religious freedom, I suspect. Since “religion” isn’t easily defined, abusive systems can be classified that way with relative ease. I’d love to hear more about this, and I’ve got a few more books to read about the Witnesses as well. Thanks for sharing this!

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