Thursday, August 19, 2010

Last Member of 1914 Generation Speaks Out

Posted by Joel Gunz.

In opera, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings, but for Eustacious Barbour, this wicked system ain't over 'til he croaks. For many years, Jehovah's Witnesses taught that Jesus' prophecy regarding the "generation" that saw the beginning of distress -- which they claim began in 1914 -- would also live to see the Great Tribulation, which has yet to occur. Since then, as that group of people has died off, the sect has departed from any dictionary definition of the term and concocted its own meaning of the word "generation." But Mr. Barbour, who clearly remembers the outbreak of World War I, still believes that original teaching. And, as the lone holdout of that generation, he's still waiting.

Born July 12, 1882, Mr. Barbour recently celebrated his 128th birthday. Describing that violation of Jehovah's Witness law in his usual colorful language, he says, "Hell when you get to be my age, you can celebrate any damn thing you want. Shit." Though he only reports 15 minutes of time each month, the old codger remains on the Special Pioneer list.

His memory is as strong as ever. "I met [Watchtower Society founder] Pastor Russell in 1914 while standing at the urinals of the Hotel McKittrick in San Francisco. His sense of urgency in there suggested to me that he either had cystitis or, alternatively, that he had to rush back to his preaching, lest he miss the beginning of Armageddon." As it happened, the itinerant preacher was suffering from a urinary infection. "He wasn't getting along too well with his ex-wife at the time, either," the dozenegarian says with a dusty cackle.*

Mr. Barbour loves to regale younger Witnesses with his memories of Pastor Russell, "Judge" Rutherford and other long-dead members of the religion, and his interviews at Circuit Assemblies and District Conventions are always a hit. But what gets him up and dressed each morning isn't his recollections of times long past, but the future. Because for Eustacious Barbour, the end remains nigh.

---------
* This paragraph has some basis in actual history. As WT President Fred Franz once told an audience at "Bethel Family Night," he met Russell while pissing in the men's room of one of the venues in which Russell was speaking. Franz also observed that Russell was in some discomfort while doing so. (Russell did, in fact, suffer from cystitis.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Early Example of the Christian Side Hug

Posted by Joel Gunz

According to an article in Wikipedia, the Christian side hug was first identified in a 2009 song by Christian rap artist Ryan Penn. Says the article, "it is a greeting where one hangs their arm over the shoulder of the person beside them, minimizing the chance of inadvertent sexual contact."

But the above illustration, which appeared in the 1978 Watchtower publication Your Youth -- Getting the Best Out of It 31 (thus 31 years earlier), clearly shows that Jehovah's Witnesses were on the forefront of matters pertaining to chastity and sexual abstinence. While not a hug, technically speaking, the picture does demonstrate side-by-side physical contact through a layer of thick clothing that prevents any chance of "inadvertent sexual contact."

(Special thanks to Facebook friend and Ex-Jehovah's Witness of Toronto, Ontario, Tall Penguin, for alerting my to this page.)


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Watchtower Society Unveils "New Light" Generator.

[This is a parody. With exception of the use of certain names of dead entities and people, this fake news piece is entirely a work of fiction.]

Governing Body member Gerrit Lösch tests the MEPS 3000's frappé button.

Posted by Joel Gunz.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK-- End times forecasting company Watchtower, Bible and Tract Society of New York, Pennsylvania and East Berlin (NYSE WBTS) has unveiled its MEPS 3000 New Light Generator, the first computing system specially designed to determine the "times and seasons" of Bible prophecy.

"As Jesus Christ's personal faithful and discreet slave, we feel we owe our followers, known as sheep, up-to-the-minute information regarding changes in God's own truth," says J. R. Beige, Watchtower spokesman. "As you can no no doubt tell from watching the evening news, this old system of things is a lot more complicated than even our Governing Body can understand. MEPS 3000 does all that heavy lifting for us, allowing us to 'make sure of the more important things,' namely, preaching to worldly people and randomly shunning fellow believers."

According to the Watchtower's press release, MEPS 3000 features a full array of floppy disk read/write equipment, the Watchtower Library on CD-ROM and an online subscription to both the New York Post and Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. It can also simultaneously typeset The Watchtower into 2,117 languages, including Urdu, Semaphore and Dance of the Honeybees.

Representing state-of-the-art technology in the field of Bible prophecy interpretation, the new computing system aims to avoid the miscalculations that can result from human error. "Look, we're not admitting that mistakes were ever made," says Mr. Beige. "But from the meaning of the word 'generation' to the calculus involved in buttressing the argument that we were right about 1914, it's obvious that God's ways are definitely higher than our ways. Seriously, the word generation can mean anything you want it to mean. Look it up."

MEPS 3000 is the culmination of thousands of hours of research and development from a crack team of experts. Says Mr. Beige, "We had to move nine brothers in from the bindery alone, just to write the algorithm for Daniel 12:12." According to Mr. Beige, the team's lack of a college education -- the most educated member the group had earned an Associate's Degree in Dental Hygiene -- was no obstacle to its success. "What's more important is that they had the spiritual qualifications," he said.

The Watchtower Society will explain the computing system next year at its 2011 series of district conventions by means of a pre-recorded, full costume drama based on the story of Moses at Mt. Sinai. According to sources who remain anonymous on the grounds that everything that comes from the Society is anonymous, Moses will be voiced by some Jewish guy from Brooklyn, while former Governing Body member Dan Sydlick will return from his heavenly reward to play the role of Jehovah.

MEPS 3000 will also assist the Writing Department with other routine duties, such as developing strategies to make Jehovah's Witnesses feel guilty for not doing more in the ministry (while at the same time avoiding coming off as an actual guilt trip). The above anonymous source has also revealed that MEPS 3000's Youth 2.0 software can even compose entire articles. Using advanced Mad Lib software, it can compose a 750-word article in under 12 minutes. Its debut feature? "Young People Ask: Are Women in Prison Videos for Me?"

Friday, July 9, 2010

More Thoughts on Sex and Shame


Posted by Joel Gunz

With only slight exaggeration, Jehovah's Witnesses believe that pretty much all sex outside of the missionary position with one's heterosexual marriage mate is morally questionable, if not “gross sin.” With so many do's, dont's and suggestions (which aren't suggestions at all) in the way, the delirious, sloppy, ecstasy of sex is smothered under a wet blanket of shame.

Psychologically speaking, it's a return to the days of the whale-bone corset, minus the Victorian kinkiness.

Of course, Witness shame isn't limited to what happens in the bedroom, on the kitchen table or while driving a tractor. Members are made to feel inadequate and ashamed for not going out in service enough, for missing meetings, or for not studying their literature thoroughly. I knew people who hated giving talks and routinely “fell ill” on the night their assignment was due because resigning from the Theocratic Ministry School was not an option. Then there's the shame of success: among Witnesses it's considered poor taste to celebrate a job promotion or a raise in salary. If someone bucks the Governing Body's suggestions and enrolls in a university liberal arts program, it's best not to bring the matter up in large groups at all. Even the celebration of advancement and extra “privileges” in the congregation are best tempered by self-deprecating expressions of humility. Dismissing Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, congregations are strictly ordered not to clap when a disfellowshipped person's reinstatement is announced. It seems that shame has replaced joy as fruitage of the spirit.

But I digress. Let's get back to talking about sex, mmm?

Shame regarding our sex life can persist long after we've left The Organization. (See last week's post.)I've talked with several people who expressed fears about attending their first Meetup group for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses. They might have shown up at the cafe, but didn't go inside. Sometimes it was because they were gay or lesbian or simply enjoying hetero sex outside of marriage and they feared that they would be rejected or judged by the group. Sexual stigmas can be hard to shake.

If you identify with these feelings, I'd like to put your fears to rest. I've found the the ex-Witness community to be very kind and open to people of all backgrounds and lifestyles. Just about every ex-Jehovah's Witness I've met really lives by the principles of love and compassion. Having had enough of judgmentalism, they are amazingly open-hearted. So if you've hesitated before, you are warmly invited to come on in and see that the water's fine.

On the other hand, people sometimes do need help with sex-related issues. I personally don't believe you can become addicted to sex any more than you can become addicted to food. But problems do arise from time to time. Unhealthy sexual patterns can be exacerbated by overly controlling religious traditions. I've had to do some work in this area myself. By distancing myself from Witness dogma and getting the support I needed, I'm happy to say that I'm light-years away from where I was as a Jehovah's Witness. You don't have to be stuck in a repetitive loop, and there are more resources than ever that can help you enjoy your sexuality free from shame.

Resources for those with sexual struggles.

Psychotherapeutic counseling can be enormously helpful, but finding the right therapist can be a challenge, particularly if you're still trying to figure out how to integrate your sexuality with your spiritual values. If you live in the Portland-Vancouver area, you can do no better than to work with Steven Donaldson, M.A. He is a leading authority on sexual issues, particularly for men. For starters, you might want to check out the insightful series of articles on his website, where you can also contact him.

Donaldson is a partner at Mosaic Counseling, whose therapists work under his and Leasia Becker-Cleary's supervision. There is a variety of men and women counselors to choose from, and they offer a sliding scale based on income.

12-Step groups can be another resource. Although I feel that they ultimately don't lead to a flourishing sex life, they do provide support and community as people deal with their struggles. Plus, there is no charge and, as Tom Peterson says, free is a very good price. There are several programs to choose from:

  • Sexaholics Anonymous teaches that sobriety consists of no masturbation and that one can only have sex with one’s heterosexual mate. To find a meeting near you, visit www.sa.org.
  • Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous maintain that anyone can write his or her own bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety, straight, gay or solo. Visit their websites at www.saa.org and www.sca-recovery.org.
  • As its name implies, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous can help, not only those with a compulsive need for sex, but those who are chronically preoccupied with romance, intrigue, or fantasy. Find them here: www.slaafws.org.

Finally, while they don't necessarily offer recovery services and the family-oriented nature of these groups would probably make it inadvisable to speak frankly at their gatherings, you can still find support by making friends with other ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, such as those found on meetup.com. (To find one in your area, visit the website and do a search for ex-Jehovah's Witnesses in your city or state. If you're in the Portland area, go here.)

While in the congregation we were taught to show love and compassion for ALL people. Almost all of the ex-Witnesses I know have really tried to integrate those principles into their life. If you need someone to talk to, or you just need a friend, get in touch!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Governing Body — Coming to a Bedroom Near You

Posted by Joel Gunz

When I served at Brooklyn Bethel back in the 1980s, Governing Body member George Gangas would frequently bemoan those who would “forfeit their hope of everlasting life for just 10 minutes of sexual pleasure.” He seemed to be mystified that anyone could make such a choice. And, perhaps, for that 90-year-old bachelor, it was a mystery. Still, in view of the fact that each year scores of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped, mostly for sexual “misconduct,” Gangas’ complaints raise an interesting question.


Is there a connection between one's efforts to sincerely adhere to Witness standards, while also struggling with sexual issues or compulsions?
Unless someone is hurt or victimized, I personally don't like to attach moral values to sex. But when members of a church "sign on" to a certain moral code and then violate it -- risking, if only in their minds, their spiritual well-being -- I, like Brother Gangas, have to ask, "Why?"

I've got a few ideas here. They're works in progress and I'd be interested in hearing your feedback.

An estimated 60,000 Jehovah's Witnesses are disfellowshipped each year, most frequently for “sexual immorality.” In addition, many thousands more, (I'd guess, easily another 60,000) are given private or public reproof, usually for the same reason. Finally, there are untold thousands of others whose "immoral" sexual activities are never brought to light.


Like other fundamentalists, Jehovah's Witnesses are a randy bunch of Christians. As Barbara Anderson’s research shows, sometimes it veers into the realm of crime.


Many conservative or controlling Christian religious traditions grapple with their share of sex-related problems. Think of the scandals involving conservative Christian politicians and religious leaders whose sexual compulsivity has jeopardized their careers. 12-Step groups that treat sex addiction are reportedly filled with white conservative Christian males.


Unless Jehovah’s Witnesses really are under some kind of umbrella of protection from Jehovah (and the disfellowshipping statistics don’t indicate it), I’d put non-Watchtower-approved sexual activity roughly on par with that of other conservative churches. And how are they doing?


Given most churches' emphasis on chastity and restraint, one would assume that porn use among Christians of various denominations would be significantly lower than that of non-believers. Curiously, the facts reveal just the opposite. A study published in the
Journal of Economic Perspectives, January, 2009, indicates that online porn subscriptions are actually “slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality.”

The study goes on to say:

[Online porn] subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where surveys indicate conservative positions on religion, gender roles, and sexuality. In states where more people agree that “Even today miracles are performed by the power of God” and “I never doubt the existence of God,” there are more subscriptions to this service. Subscriptions are also more prevalent in states where more people agree that “I have old-fashioned values about family and marriage” and “AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior.”

For most Witnesses, breaking the “faithful slave’s” rules about even “lesser” sins, such as use of pornography, brings on tremendous feelings of guilt — whether they confess it or not — along with the belief that they will lose God’s approval. Yet they do it anyway. Why? While the sex drive is powerful, I think there are other factors inherent in the Witness system that actually promote the kinds of behavior they try to discourage.

Morality

Let’s take a look at the Organization’s zero-tolerance attitude regarding morality. The Governing Body considers almost all sex behavior to be subject to judicial inquiry. Did you know that, for several years, oral sex within marriage was considered “porneia” and thus grounds for disfellowshipping and divorce? Many found that directive hard to swallow. (Rim shot!) Thankfully, in 1983 “new light” reversed their position on that. But still, that’s the degree to which those men feel authorized to scrutinize congregation members’ private lives.

On the face of it, that authority shouldn’t be a problem. The Bible’s guidelines are clear, and they do stress self-control (if that's your thing). What’s lacking from Jehovah’s Witnesses are other Bible-based principles that ought to come into play, such as respect for their fellows’ privacy, dignity and personal spiritual life. It’s an atmosphere in which an 15-year-old kid can get kicked to the curb for hanging out too long in the hot tub with his girlfriend and slipping into “10 minutes of pleasure.” I don’t think the apostle Paul had those kinds of situations in mind when he wrote about ‘removing the wicked man from among yourselves.’ — 1 Corinthians 5:13.

At their meetings, when the elders aren’t pitching Generation 7.0, cajoling the publishers to go out in service more or discouraging them from getting a decent education, they’re telling members not to think about sex. And that makes about as much sense as telling a roomful of third-graders not to think about purple dinosaurs.

Those who try — and ultimately fail — to comply with those rigorous expectations carry an enormous burden of shame.

Shame

Watchtower leadership uses shame as a powerful tool to keep members compliant with their authority. The humiliation of public reproof and disfellowshipping is so intense that people will do almost anything to avoid those eventualities, even if it means lying. Numerous elders can share a story about some young sister who miraculously conceived a child while still a virgin.

But the shame cycle begins long before a brother or sister commits some form of “gross wrongdoing.” One of the goofier rites of passage a young Witness brother must endure is the dreaded Theocratic Ministry School talk condemning masturbation. As the saying goes, any 17-year-old male who says that he doesn’t, er, Pat his Robertson is either dysfunctional or lying. True, it isn’t necessarily a judicial offense (though it can be if someone turns you in for defending the healthy, normal practice as, well, healthy and normal). Still, Watchtower literature describes masturbation as “degraded,” “unclean” and “childish.” Thus, it’s fairly safe to say that every time a young man is called up on stage to “scripturally” condemn this practice, a new hypocrite is made. While he and his friends may laugh about it at the time, giving such a talk to a mixed-gender crowd of all ages is mortifying and is often his first big taste of what it’s like to live in a shame-based religious system.

When it comes to that which the Governing Body deems “works of the flesh,” Witnesses are left with three choices.

You can do it and confess. Of course, that means you’d also be choosing to undergo an inquisition-style grilling from a judicial committee that could lead to disfellowshipping.

Even if you aren't shunned, private reproof has a bitter downside. When a publisher is suddenly not commenting at meetings and a “needs of the congregation” talk is delivered explicitly discussing, let's say, adultery, it isn’t hard for congregation members to put two and two together – and if they can’t, the rumor mill will.

On the other hand, you can choose to have whatever sex you want and not tell anyone. Of course, you’ll have to carry the double guilt of sinning and covering it over with a lie, the outcome of which is the psychologically split, unsustainable position of leading a double life.

Finally, you can remain celibate and have a clean conscience. In that case, you’d be trying to repress one of the most powerful forces in nature. The pain and conflict of such a choice is difficult for most to bear. Men and women who profess celibacy get kind of weird. Yes, Writing Department member Jon Wischuk, I’m talking to you.

In my observation, many non-married – and some married – Witnesses (men, anyway) go ahead and live some sort of double life in which they live an active sexual life, but don’t tell. This means they’re having sex, either straight or gay; they’re seeking out trysts; they’re visiting prostitutes; etc. Most likely, they’re looking at porn — and that may be the best choice. After all, it’s quickly obtained, easily hidden and is less sinful than fornication. Viewed in that light, porn could be saving the lives of thousands of Witness men. I’m only half joking here. After all, where would they turn to if they didn’t have it?

In any case, whether they sin and tell or just keep the sin to themselves, many, many Witnesses have been saddled with an enormous load of guilt and shame.

The shame-anger cycle

Although Witnesses seem good-natured to those on the outside, most of us who have left them can testify to the anger and hostility that permeates the Organization. It usually isn't overtly expressed in raised voices or violence, but every time a Witness graphically describes a yearning for Armageddon's mass genocide, speaks contemptuously of "worldly people," or snubs a disfellowshipped person, he or she is betraying a deep well of hostility.

Most psychologists would agree that anger, in itself, is neither good nor bad. The Bible concurs. (“Be wrathful, but do not sin.”) But, in practice in the Witness community, anger is an unacceptable emotion, with anger against the Organization or Jehovah himself being completely forbidden. As ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, we probably know just how angry we are at our old religion. The reality is, most Jehovah's Witnesses are pissed off at the Watchtower Society for its many failings, but are stuck with no one to talk to and nowhere to turn. These feelings can find a home in our libido. As psychologist Steven Donaldson has written,

Just beneath the [sexually] addicted man’s conscious awareness lies a broiling pool of all-consuming rage.... He may not be all that aware of the anger or the object to which it ought to be directed — but that doesn’t make it any less real or present. The anger he is aware of may feel illegitimate, so he may attempt to repress it. Put simply, the sexually addicted man is literally phobic of his angry feelings, yet there they are, constantly demanding to be felt, to be vented.”

Excuse my language, but that's why they call it fucking.

But for a Witness, such choices usually end up in feelings of shame. Donaldson continues,Sexual acting out provides both a discharge of the anger (“I deserve this pleasure!”) and punishment for what he feels are illegitimate wishes and longings (“I really am a screw-up!”). The acting out makes him feel shameful. The shame in turn allows him to continue to be compliant with people and systems that unconsciously he hates.”

Sex is the ultimate act of self-acknowledgement. When a religion religion centers its life around the abnegation of self, is it any wonder that people turn to sex for relief? Afterward, however, shame may set in, causing the Witness to redouble his or her efforts to “squeeze in through the narrow door,” complying with Watchtower standards – which s/he actually hates, leafing once again, to the seeking of escape through sex. Thus the cycle takes root. As Donaldson concludes, “This cycle of compliance, repression, acting out and becoming shameful — followed by more compliance — becomes endless and exhausting. Thus trapped, how could hopelessness and depression not set in?”

That explains why the most vociferous moralists in the congregation are the ones most likely leading a double life. They themselves are stuck in this cycle.

Obviously, not everyone who feels angry toward his or her religion acts it out sexually, but many do, and this anger-shame cycle is often the form it takes.

Secrecy, exclusivity and isolation

I believe the Witnesses’ culture of secrecy is directly connected to the prevalence of illicit sexual behavior in their community. When you stop and think about it, Jehovah’s Witnesses are so secretive, conspiracy nuts could be forgiven for comparing them to the Masons. (I don't share that opinion, myself, but others do.) From the moment a newcomer is handed a special “study edition” of the Watchtower and asked to return it after the meeting, to the special “secret” books used by pioneers, elders, Bethelites and branch committee and Governing Body members, Witnesses are made to feel both included in one group, yet excluded from another seemingly more important one.

And then there are the various meetings, such as elders’ meetings, judicial committee meetings, meetings for traveling overseers and Branch Committee members, Pioneer School, Kingdom Ministry school, Ministerial Training School and the famed, hush-hush Governing Body meeting, all of which are strictly closed-door and considered confidential.

Never mind that the content of these books and meetings is usually innocuous. It’s the sense of being initiated — but only to a limited degree — that matters.

Witness culture is a series of circles within circles, a world in which members feel simultaneously “in,” yet “out.” Put another way, it’s a pyramid scheme, with the Governing Body's all-seeing eye at the top.

And it doesn’t stop there.

It isn’t enough to simply be a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and put in your service time. Oh no. Men are expected to “reach out” for oversight privileges and women are expected to pioneer. If you are not doing those things, you haven’t made it to the next inner circle and you are viewed as less spiritual than those who have. While some make efforts to include others in their social life, pioneers tend to stick with pioneers, elders with elders, Bethelites with Bethelites and so on. That exclusivity devalues and isolates those who come to Kingdom Halls seeking spiritual community.

Most people engage in spiritual fellowship so they can belong somewhere. The need is especially strong for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who sacrifice their ties to all non-Witness family and friends when they join. But what happens after that? Once they’re in the congregation, the organization then pushes them away, leaving members with feelings of alienation and a sense that, in spite of their best efforts, they still do not quite fit in.

And that relates to sex problems, how? Proverbs 18:1 is sometimes cited in order to condemn masturbation: "The one isolating himself will seek his own selfish longing." But what happens when a religious system isolates its own members?

As humans, we all crave a sense of belonging — without circumscriptions and head games. One way or another, we will find it. No wonder, then, that frustrated by the disconnect and exclusionism found in Witness congregations, some will seek connection by other means. That’s the human will for you.

Even such transitory pleasures as porn or a one-night stand validate the humanity of their participants. It makes them feel whole – if only for a moment. I’m reminded of Gerald, in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love who, while mourning his deceased father, crept into his lover Gudrun’s bedroom and “into her he poured all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death, and he was whole again.” The Witnesses’ secretive, exclusionary culture creates a yawning void, made all the more painful because it represents a failure to live up to the promise of true brotherhood, rendering members desperate for a real connection, no matter how fleeting.

Note the feelings of many sex addicts, as described in Sexaholic Anonymous literature:

Many of us felt inadequate, unworthy, alone, and afraid. Our insides never matched what we saw on the outsides of others.... We came to feel disconnected—from parents, from peers, from ourselves.”

From “The Problem,” published by Sexaholics Anonymous.

Pretty much sums up Witness life to me.

If someone is already prone to such feelings, association with Jehovah’s Witnesses will only make it worse. How profoundly sad. For all the faults inherent in the Witness culture, its secretiveness might be the worst. It subverts the very idea of brotherhood, twisting it into an Orwellian nightmare that says, in effect, “Yes, we have Christian ‘oneness,’ but some of us are more ‘one’ than others.” Their secretiveness is a betrayal of trust, and it proves false their promise that to join the Witnesses is to enter a spiritual paradise.

Throw in the guilt and shame of failing to live up the Watchtower doctrine's impossible standards, and it’s no surprise that many Witnesses feel dissatisfied, though they can’t quite put their finger on why. They feel betrayed, but they can’t point to their enemy. They feel angry, but they don’t know who to punch. The fact is, they hate the system itself. But they could never admit such a thing — not even to themselves. That would be apostasy. So they sublimate their hatred, disowning it.

Still, split off though it may be, their resentment at getting cheated in a spiritual bargain demands to be expressed, even if it means reaching for a token substitute for that which they hoped would make them whole. Sometimes they express their rage through sex.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Good bye, Ray Franz, 1922- 2010

Posted by Joel Gunz

Former Governing Body member Ray Franz's death yesterday marks, for me, the passing of an old guard of Jehovah's Witness leadership. It has been observed that, before his ouster, he, along with Dan Sydlik and Lyman Swingle could be counted on to bring a moderating voice to that group's decision-making process. Once upon a time, you could hold your own opinions about its teachings and remain a member of the congregation in good standing. To be sure, you couldn't actively promote your own ideas – that would be asking too much – but it wasn't the cardinal sin it is now to have them. That freedom was due in no small part to Brother Franz's influence (and he was a brother if there ever was one).

The capacity to think for yourself was once a valued quality; his was rewarded with a promotion to the Governing Body. In the wake of Nathan Knorr's grey flannel suit corporatizing of the Organization, he, along with his uncle Fred and others, celebrated the uniqueness of the individual. If at times he may have seemed too liberal, it was only to counterbalance other more conservative voices.

His dismissal from Bethel and subsequent disfellowshipping in 1981 changed all that. Search the Watchtower Index and you'll find that warnings against apostasy increased exponentially after that year. It's no exaggeration to say that the suppression of freedom of speech among the Witnesses now resembles that of the Communist-era Soviet Union. It would probably make even George Orwell do a spit-take. His demonization serves as a warning to any member who would speak up on behalf of the human spirit.

Ray wasn't the first Governing Body member to leave under inauspicious circumstances, but he was the first to talk about how that hyper-secretive clique operates. Not surprisingly, he was hated for it. His exit from the Organization attracted more gossip and resentment from the headquarters staff than anyone's since the rift that occurred when “Judge” Rutherford took control of the Society following Charles T. Russell's death. I recall being present at a Witness gathering where Writing Department old timer Harry Peloyan regaled an awestruck group with his version of the events leading up to the apostate housecleaning at Bethel. We listened with the rapt attention of a boy scout troop telling ghost stories around the campfire.

When I served at Brooklyn Bethel in the mid-1980s, there was still a cloud in the air from the witch hunt his ouster had provoked. Rumors abounded regarding his supposedly subversive activities. He was the poster child for the bad seed of apostasy. Still, he kept talking – and writing. I suspect that the rigors of missionary service in his early years toughened him to be able to take such a stand later on.

In 2003 or so, I found myself outside the Organization and decided to catch up on some reading. Even though my faith in the Witnesses had been shattered, ordering his book Crisis of Conscience still felt naughty, as if I were sneaking a peek at a Playboy magazine in the garage. Of course, it was an eye-opener. Reading his description of how the Governing Body actually works both dismayed me and rang true. Contrary to what I'd been taught, Ray wasn't a crank with an axe to grind. He was simply a man with a story to tell. His writings manifest the restraint, objectivity and careful wording of a man anticipating brutal cross-examination.

At its center, Crisis of Conscience is the cri de coeur of a man betrayed by an organization that he never ceased to love. Sensing that his time in this life was short (he was 80 years old when the book came out), here's what he said in its introduction:

“What this book contains is written out of a sense of obligation to people whom I sincerely love. In all good conscience I can say that its aim is to help and not to hurt. If some of what is presented is painful to read, it was also painful to write. It is hoped that the reader will recognize that the search for truth need never be destructive of faith, that every effort to know and uphold truth will, instead, strengthen the basis for true faith.”

In his way, Ray did more to help Jehovah's Witnesses than, perhaps, anyone. By resolutely sticking to his principles and sharing his experience, he has provided Jehovah's Witnesses and anyone considering joining – or leaving – them an authoritative alternative perspective on a religion that allows no room for second opinions. Thanks to him, many (myself included) have finally gotten straight answers to questions that bothered them for years. While the Witnesses may claim to be “in the truth,” it was Ray's mission to urge them to actively pursue it. By keeping his integrity and fearlessly standing up for the truth, he was a witness among Witnesses. I'm thankful for his courage to speak honestly, from a heart filled with love. He has inspired me to try to do the same.

I never met Ray. I wish I had. For me, his death finalizes that missed opportunity and is a reminder to create such opportunities while I still can.

R.I.P., Brother Franz.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

Posted by Joel Gunz

The foreword to the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures makes a humble admission, saying:

“It is a very responsible thing to translate the Holy Scriptures from their original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into modern speech.… The translators of this work, who fear and love the Divine Author of the Holy Scriptures, feel toward Him a special responsibility to transmit his thoughts and declarations as accurately as possible. They also feel a responsibility toward the searching readers who depend upon a translation of the inspired Word of the Most High God for their everlasting salvation.”

That last bit about feeling responsibility to their readers is unusual, if not unique, in Watchtower literature. I like it. I only wish it was true.

Throughout my life as a Jehovah's Witness, I never expected perfection from the Governing Body. For me, their claims to be both spirit-directed and imperfect were never contradictory. As the saying goes, everyone has a right to be wrong – and that goes for the leadership of the Watchtower Society, too.

When, over the years, they revised their doctrine regarding the 'generation of anointed ones in the last days,' it never bothered me that they'd (previously) gotten the idea wrong. I still believe that, to the best of their ability, they are trying hard to discern God's will. (We may have differing views on the nature of God and of Will, but no matter.)

Nevertheless, if they feel “a responsibility toward the searching readers” who study their Bible, shouldn't they also feel responsible to them when they misinterpret those scriptures, leading to errors of judgment that later have to be revised?

For instance, for a few years it was a disfellowshipping offense to accept an organ transplant. After that position was reversed, didn't the Society owe an apology to those whose lives were horribly disrupted because they either (a) obeyed the rule and lost precious years of their life or (b) disobeyed and were punished by the congregation? The same can be said for the Society's shifting policies regarding the use of blood and of sex practices in the marriage. Thousands of people have been traumatized over rules that were later reversed.

Maybe the biggest mistake the Society has made has been regarding its repeated misinterpretation of the words attributed to Jesus regarding “this generation.” Entire generations (plural!) of Witnesses have hung their hopes and planned their lives on the idea that the end of this system will unquestionably come in their lifetime. Like most Witnesses my age, I fully believed that I would never die (assuming I could keep those non-Watchtower-approved thoughts out of my head).

The Governing Body was wrong, and they've since recalibrated their understanding of Jesus' prophecy. And what do those whose lives were deeply affected by their misunderstanding of the Bible get? A sales pitch about the beauty of refined, more "accurate" knowledge, no grumbling allowed.

If I, as a father, had taken my family on a road trip and made a wrong turn that got us late to our destination, I would understand my family's disappointment. I hope that I would admit my mistake and apologize for the inconvenience.

But that isn't the Watchtower Society's way.

My oldest sister was told that the end would come before she graduated from high school. That deadline came and went in 1979. I was told that if I confessed my sins, “seasons of refreshing” would rain down upon me. Instead, I was stigmatized for what, in retrospect, was simply an admission to being human. I was convinced that I was a member of a loving brotherhood, but came to see that, aside from a few good friends and friendly acquaintances, that love was not directed at me as a person, but at my performance as a Witness. It turned out that my value as an individual was barely worth the postage stamp it took to send my disfellowshipping report to Brooklyn.

I forgive all of that. I really do. I can even forgive them for the fact that some of their leaders have engaged in child abuse. The way I see it, with hundreds of thousands of elders running around shepherding the flock, there are bound to be a few bad apples. Jehovah's Witnessism is a human institution. If I can still support and participate in government that sends its youth into wars for bogus reasons, I can give the Watchtower Society a pass for its boneheadedness. So it has my forgiveness.

But it does not have my trust.

In 1998, the March 1 Watchtower featured a series of articles about the apologies various churches have issued for crimes they've committed over the centuries, such as the Catholicism's collusion with the Nazi regime. The magazine found fault with those apologies, insinuating that they were made with ulterior motives, alleging, for example, that the Catholic Church “seems more concerned with making peace with the world than with God.” Perhaps.

Still, that would have been a golden opportunity for the Watchtower to cite examples from its own history of contriteness and confession. But it has none to share. Instead, the article lunges straight for the moral high ground, wrapping up its criticisms with an invitation for readers to bring Jehovah's Witnesses into their home to see “who today is really trying to follow God’s Word rather than seeking to preserve a position of influence in the world.” Self-righteousness has always left a bad taste in my mouth. This time it tastes like bile.

The Watchtower and Awake! have numerous articles encouraging members to confess their sins and admit their faults. They make good reading. They extol humility as a Christian requirement. True, dat. However, as a result of such counsel, many Witnesses go through their life baring their secrets to the elders and coping with feelings of worthlessness. Meanwhile, the Governing Body turns a blind eye to its own sins and the hardship it has imposed on its members due to its theological shell games. Those men are just as the ones described at Matthew 23:4: “They bind up heavy loads and put them upon the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.” Because the Governing Body says, in effect, “I have not sinned,” its sin remains.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ex-JWs in PDX now on Facebook!

Posted by Joel Gunz

Are you looking to connect to other ex-Jehovah's Witnesses in the Portland, Oregon area? You've now got two ways to do so. You can meet in person via our local Meetup group. And now you connect get in touch via Facebook! If you want to get super-fancy, add links and bling to your own blogs and social media. If you haven't joined the party yet, now's the time. (*Cough cough.*)

To add some flare to your blog or website and promote the Meetup and Facebook sites, you can paste some html code into your site. Email me and I'll send you the code.

Thanks be to Oliver Gifford for putting all this together and keeping it running. Praise Ollie!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Love, Worldly Style

Photo courtesy of The Halfway Point.

Posted by Joel Gunz

I was raised to believe that the "world alienated from God," (read: the realm of non-Jehovah's Witnesses) is an ugly, selfish, brutish place. As you might guess, I was in for a surprising -- though not rude -- awakening.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not bitter about this. I received more than my share of love and hospitality from the Witnesses. Once, when vacationing with my family in Italy, we were at the end of our trip and barely had money to get home. Then we missed our flight out of Milan and had to stay an extra night. An elderly Witness brought us into her home, fed us and even offered us money on the way out the door. Except for the fact that we shared the same religion she didn't know us from Adam. I will never forget her guileless open-handedness.

At the same time, however, I can also share stories of betrayal and mean-spiritedness. Both kindness and unkindness can be found among the Witnesses -- just as in the world at large. Which is to say, in my experience, there isn't much difference between Witness culture and "the world."

I can't stress enough how much this realization affected my outlook. In fact, it was love, not any doctrinal issue or "Watchtower scandal," that convinced me that Jehovah's Witnessism is no more special than any other religion. Frankly, I don't care that the Watchtower Society owns a controlling interest in a weapons-manufacturing company or that it once held membership in the United Nations. Heck, if you want to fry up a theocracy, you have to break a few eggs. No, it was love that moved me to reconsider my religion convictions.

After I was disfellowshipped, I tried vigorously to return. For a couple of years, I pursued an intense program of counseling and treatment (along with a near-perfect record of meeting attendance) in an effort to overcome character flaws that I was sure would bar me from gaining everlasting life. While putting 20 or more hours each week into these activities, something strange began to happen. Non-Witnesses that I had occasion to interact with began to appear in a new light. It wasn't that my faith was weakening, because I was still convinced that Jehovah's Witnesses worshiped "the only true God"; rather, those individuals showed me love, unselfconsciously sharing their time and material possessions with me, gladly putting up with my imperfections (not least of which was my smug air of religious superiority) for no benefit to themselves, except to pay forward love that had been shown them. Such experiences happened over and over again. It was overwhelming.

The words attributed to Jesus at Mark 10:29 became more true for me than ever: “Truly I say to YOU men, No one has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not get a hundredfold now in this period of time." (NWT) True, I hadn't left the Witnesses for the "sake of the good news," but I did accept my disfellowshipping as part of God's will for me (as I experienced God at that time), and my life sprouted more "brothers" and "sisters" than I know what to do with.

Maybe even more to the point is Psalm 27:10: "In case my own father and my own mother did leave me, Even Jehovah himself would take me up." (NWT) Even though I'm more of a half-hearted atheist than anything else, the point stands. Everything and everyone I'd ever believed in had suddenly turned away from me. Yet, if I felt alone or unloved in the universe for even a moment, I don't remember it. Some people call that grace. Whatever. That sounds a little too churchy for me, so if you don't mind, I'll just call it love and leave it at that.

Recently, someone I know experienced some financial setbacks and had to obtain donated food from the Oregon Food Bank. The food depot he visited (the OFB calls them pantries) was housed in the Allen Temple in Northeast Portland and operated by a trio of beautiful black women. Church ladies in the best sense of the term. He described it this way: "Their warmth and kindness, along with the dignity they accorded me, was deeply moving. If I'd stuck around long enough, I might have been converted. If I ever reconsider Christianity, I'm going to their church." Sure, they were providing a social service. But they did it with infectious joy.

I'm reminded of the words of the Dalai Lama:

"[Some people] claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree. ... I believe that if ... the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our overall population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that love and compassion predominate in the world. And this is why unpleasant events are "news"; compassionate activities are so much a part of daily life that they are taken for granted and, therefore, largely ignored."

Once I opened my eyes to it, I found that there is more goodness in the world than I ever imagined. Maybe that's been your experience too. If you're so inclined, drop a line to the comments section and share your experience with your fellow readers.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Apostate? Moi?

Not all apostates were created equal.
Posted by Joel Gunz

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion. — Albert Camus

Ever since I started this blog, my friends have been telling me I’ve gone apostate. As if I were like a bottle of milk that’s gone sour. Which is fine. Only my apostate friends say it, and they’re all a bunch of backsliding degenerates who go to discos, watch R-rated movies and stand for the national anthem. Besides, I think they mean it in a good way. Still, they’ve got me thinking. Really? For reals? Am I an apostate? How did that happen? I certainly didn’t intend to earn the designation.

Something in the name “apostate” rankles. On the face of it, of course, nobody likes to be labeled, whether it’s along the lines of race, gender, social class or whatever. Labeling is just a sophisticated form of name calling and it ultimately dehumanizes the person thus “tagged.” So, there’s that.

But I don’t even think the label applies to me. Or maybe it does and I just don’t want it to. Then I read this Wikipedia article and had to adjust my thinking. The light gets brighter, I guess. Take a look at what I learned:

According to the article, from the Hans Küngs of Catholicism to the Salman Rushdies of Islam, almost nobody who challenges his or her church gladly accepts the label “apostate.” Turns out I am (we are?) not all that special. Among my ex-Jehovah’s Witness friends in Portland, Oregon (thanks for noticing this, dear search engine), we apply the term to each other sardonically, laughing all the way to the dessert buffet at the table of the demons.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines an apostate as one “who has abandoned [his or her] religious faith, political party, principles, or cause.” By that definition, I guess I am an apostate. Then again, it also provides a clue to why I don’t feel like I fit the description. That definition also states that it is an abandonment of “one’s principles.” The Governing Body certainly includes that in its blanket definition, whether the shoe fits or not.*

And it doesn’t fit me at all. To be sure, my beliefs and habits have changed dramatically as I “stood off” from the Witnesses, but my principles have changed very little. For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that no man has the right to judge another and that the truth is more important than religious affiliation.**

Self-described radical and sociologist Lewis A. Coser expanded on the definition above, saying that an apostate is one “who, even in his new state of belief, is spiritually living not primarily in the content of that faith, in the pursuit of goals appropriate to it, but only in the struggle against the old faith and for the sake of its negation."

The image that Jehovah’s Witnesses have of an angry “evil slave class” of ex-Witnesses shaking their fist at the Organization and “beating their fellow slaves” while offering nothing better aptly fits Coser’s definition. There’s just one little problem. It doesn’t describe me, and it doesn’t describe any of my “apostate” friends. Most of us have moved on to new pursuits and are following our dreams and are living deeply principled lives. At the same time, we also remain critical of certain Watchtower beliefs. Dissent is not necessarily unprincipled; in fact, most people (i.e. most of the rest of the non-Witnesses human race) accept it as a healthy part of a vibrant society. I know that the fist-shakers are out there. I’ve seen them on YouTube. But they make up a small minority of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least in Portland, Oregon.

Another sociologist, James T. Richardson, maintains that those who defect from “new religious movements,” such as some Mormon sects and Jehovah’s Witnesses, make up their own subset of apostates. According to his research, their stories are often unreliable, because they seek to be perceived as “whistleblowers” intent on exposing the crimes of the church. Sometimes they embellish their story in order to gain attention from anti-cult organizations. Sound familiar?

Hmmm. That’s so... so... old school. Sure, there are a few people like that still around, but my gut says they’re a dying breed. I’m seeing a new school of dissenters who just want to articulate their objections to Watchtower policy and doctrine. Taking a principled stand for justice, they expose the abuses and hypocrisy that are defining characteristics of Witness culture. Others want to tell their story for no other personal gain than the healing that sharing can provide. They also know that by talking about their experiences, they help others to heal too. Numerous blogs, websites, books and at least one magazine take such a principled approach.

Even better, Meetup groups are popping up all over the country, giving ex-Witnesses a landing pad, a feeling of community, a reminder that they are normal and the reassurance that they’re going to be okay. If you haven’t visited one of these meetings, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the warmth, openness and camaraderie. Please accept this as an invitation to drop by the Meetup that I attend. It's made up of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses in Portland, Oregon. Just in case you were wondering.

-----
*Thank god you can’t get disfellowshipped for mixing your metaphors. Or can you? See Leviticus 19:19. It’s probably just a matter of time, folks.

**While preaching, if I got backed into a theological corner, I would say, “In my experience, Jehovah’s Witnesses have the best way of living. If I find something better, I’ll quit.” To be honest, I never thought I’d have to make good on that promise. Then one day, I was chagrined to find that it was time to do just that. Sometimes we receive enlightenment kicking and screaming the whole way.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What am I Supposed to Do with All this Anger?



Posted by Joel Gunz

Women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem once said, “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” No kidding. When we started seeing the truth about Jehovah’s Witnesses, didn’t anger soon follow? Anger at ourselves for having wasted years slaving for a corporation that masquerades as God’s chosen instrument. Anger toward the elders and Governing Body for abusing their power and taking advantage of our better nature. Anger at the missed opportunities to for a better education or to craft a real future.

The society we live in doesn’t place a high value on anger. It isn’t a politically correct emotionally. When current Witnesses ever have anything to say to us, it’s usually to shame us for having strong feelings: “get over it” they often say. As if we could.

If God exists, then she didn't stop once she created buttercups, unicorns and joy. She also created volcanoes, hornets and rage.

I love my anger. I enjoy it as much as I enjoy laughter. I feel whole, as if my emotions are just as valid as the next guy’s. I feel alive, part of the human race. On the other hand, pretending I’m not angry when I really am makes me feel small. I feel like a chump.

Just today, I had lunch with a friend who has left the Witnesses. My blood boiled as he described the abuses and hypocrisy that he observed in his congregation. Swear to god, I wanted punch one elder so hard he’d be defecating teeth. Obviously, I’m not going to do that. Still, that jackass’s behavior was, literally, outrageous—deserving of rage. It felt good to feel that way.

I don’t engage in a lot of ranting or criticism of Watchtower Society policy and doctrine on this site, but I do visit other sites and do that very thing. If you follow me on Facebook, you know I don’t hold my feelings back about Jehovah’s Witnessism. It’s a wonderful release. The best part is, I experience healing when I do it. When I express my anger in what I feel are these appropriate ways, I’m unlikely to lash out in less appropriate ways.

On the other hand, I’ve known a few ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who say they’ve moved past their feelings of rancor, but to be frank, I don’t buy it. More often than not, their disowned or repressed anger leaks out as veiled hostility and passive-aggressiveness. Anger is like poop. It will come out, one way or the other. I say it’s better to admit your anger, stop pretending otherwise and get it out there. It may not be pretty all the time, but I’d rather hang around someone who is honestly angry than someone who is dishonestly nice. And I’m grateful to have friends who let me express my feelings without judgment.

I think it’s very true, what Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh says:
“Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves and take good care of our anger. We cannot say, ‘Go away, anger, I don’t want you.’ When you have a stomachache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ No, you take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger.”
Here’s some more of his advice:
“When you get angry with someone, please don’t pretend that you are not angry. Don’t pretend that you don’t suffer. If the other person is dear to you, then you have to confess that you are angry, and that you suffer. Tell him or her in a calm, loving way.”
Being either disfellowshipped or disassociated, most of us can’t "confess our anger" to the congregation. They’ve shunned us and won’t listen. This is a difficult problem. I’d really like to go back to my old judicial committee and tell them about my anger and suffering. But I know they won’t listen. The truth for me is that, in a way, they are, like Hanh says, "dear to me." That is, even after six or eight years, I still want them to see me as a person, and not just as a moral degenerate or an apostate or whatever label they’ve attached to me that hides my personhood from them.

Some of the ex-Witnesses I know who looked the elders in the eye and told them, basically, to go fuck themselves have had an easier time moving on. But not all of us were able to do that. So I suspect that, for many of us, much of our anger stems from feeling frustrated because the object of our anger—the Witnesses, perhaps certain congregation members—refuses to hear us, so the conflict remains unresolved.

It’s very important for me to remember that I was wounded as a Witness. It’s as if the Watchtower Society aimed a cannon at my soul and blew away my self-respect and ability to stand on my own in the world. Despite all those years of pioneering, Bethel, etc. etc. etc., after I was disfellowshipped, all I had to show for it was a yawning hole in my psyche. It’s not that bad any more. Thanks to some therapy and amazing friends, I’ve been able to heal to a great extent. But I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t still some soft spots.

So there’s still some anger. I’ve found a lot of use for it. For starters, that therapist has guided me to get to know myself through my anger, examining my wounds and the suffering that resulted from them. That led to compassion and I was able to finally fall in love with myself unconditionally—loving my anger as much as my sadness, joy and other emotions. Once that happened, then I was able to understand the Witnesses better and to feel compassion for their members who are still being abused. I’m more able (imperfectly) to let go of the corrosive kind of anger—resentment—and that’s as good a definition of forgiveness as any. For me, all of this has been a difficult, sometimes frightening path into the unknown and I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Nevertheless, it’s just like Hanh said:
“In a time of anger or despair, even if we feel overwhelmed, our love is still there. Our capacity to communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is still there. You have to believe this. We are more than our anger, we are more than our suffering. We must recognize that we do have within us the capacity to love, to understand, to be compassionate, always.”
What I discovered, and I think it’s incredibly good news, is this: I’m still angry at the Witnesses because I still love them. This isn’t just self-help mumbo jumbo. I mean it. I miss my old friends. I know lots of Witnesses who would flourish, but may never do so because the Organization has clapped them into a straightjacket of religious subordination. Some of my old friends are knocking themselves out trying to live an authentic life in a system that rewards corporate phoniness. It's infuriating. They deserve better than that.

At the end of the day, you could say that I have a love-hate relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Which is to say, I still have a relationship with them. It’s not the kind I might want, and that pisses me off. On the other hand, it’s exactly the kind of relationship I’ve asked for, so I’m okay with it. To quote Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” And I’m enjoying every minute of it. (Except for the moments that suck. I'm not a masochist. (Or am I?))

Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. If you’re still reading this, thanks for letting me rant. It feels good to get it out.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mending bridges and fences

Posted by Joel Gunz

In my March 30th post, I made some suggestions about what to do when the elders come knocking on your door. They came across as a prescription, as if there was a "right" way and a "wrong" way to handle such encounters, and it was as if I was pointing out which was which. Of course, that’s nonsense. With a top of the hat to T. S. Eliot, I have to play my 'that wasn't what I meant at all' card. Of course, no two of our stories are alike, so how we handle various situations will be as unique as we are. My three-step dealybob is just one possible approach among many.

Oh, and one other thing, I guess I let my paper-thin veneer of equanimity slip in that last post. It was my friend Oliver who summed it up this way: “Snarkiest post ever!” Oops! My bad. [Insert the smack of my wrist being slapped.]

But the idea in the post that I’d like to revisit, which I think is worthwhile, is that upon leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we often need to set new boundaries in how we relate to other people. The elders are trained to impose on others’ privacy to shocking degree — and we were trained to go along with it. Just like an abused or neglected child that doesn’t know how to set personal boundaries, many of us have had to learn how to draw the line with those who would violate our personhood.

Re-orienting toward a more self-respecting outlook can be difficult. I know it has been for me. While it was a cinch to let many doctrinal beliefs go, changing my thought habits hasn’t been so easy. In the Organization, so much emphasis is placed on maintaining “theocratic order,” without question, that it’s like a never-ending boot camp. Shaking that mindset can be difficult. In my case, that affected my dealings not only with the elders — when I decided to leave the Witnesses behind I wouldn’t have been able to follow my own March 30 advice — but also my relationship with anyone in authority. At work, for instance, I’ve had to learn to disagree and stand my ground with the people to whom I answer.

So, if you’ve left or are leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you might want to think ahead about how you might handle the situation when the elders come calling. It’s probably going to entail setting some boundaries that weren’t there before. Some of my Ex-Jehovah’s Witness friends on Facebook suggested a range of approaches, such as answering the door naked, not answering the door at all, answering the door but telling them to get lost and more. Sure, why not? Any one of those could work and some of them sound fun.

I think the key is authenticity.

One person might not be ready for a face-to-face confrontation. For another person, the best therapy in the world might be to read the elders the riot act when they stop by. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with letting your fear hold you back from saying the things you’d like to say. You probably have something very real to be afraid of. It’s also a golden opportunity to gain some self-knowledge. Maybe I’ll finish that thought in another post.

In the meantime, stay in touch. Your comments mean a lot to me and other readers. Also, I’d like to do a plug for the Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses of Portland, Oregon Meetup group. We’ve got a couple of soirées lined up for April, and it’d be great to see you there.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When the elders come calling

Posted by Joel Gunz

Once a Jehovah's Witness stops attending meetings, it doesn't take long for the elders and other congregation members to notice.

I recently spoke with a friend who lives in dread that the next time she answers her doorbell, she'll find two elders standing on her porch ready to "encourage" her with a shepherding call. If you've never been a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, this situation can be hard to understand, but such encounters often provoke enormous waves of anxiety for those leaving the Organization. After all, we were programmed to give the elders "double honor" (twice that of even our parents?), deferring to them in even the most mundane matters.

Here, I believe, is where the anxiety kicks into high gear. We were groomed to always tell the elders the full truth, answering even their most prying questions; lying to them is like lying to Jehovah himself. But when you leave the Witnesses you may not want to tell them your full story. It would result in being disfellowshipped for apostasy, a stigma that incurs greater hostility from the Witnesses than mere disfellowshipping for the usual sins of the flesh.

What to do?

First off, when you see the elders in their Men's Wearhouse suits and polyester neckties (not that there's anything wrong with that) at your door, before you say hello, take a deep breath. Sort of like you once did before giving a talk, you might find it helpful to say a short prayer (or mantra or affirmation or knock-knock joke, whatever works) to help you gain the confidence you need. After that, take three steps that were taught to me by my friend Howard Moses: Stop. Tell the truth. Be still.

Stop.
The elders have a very carefully planned approach when making shepherding calls. Before the visit, they usually agree on who will take the lead in the discussion and will plan the scriptures and talking points they will cover. In other words, they have a routine and by dint of their authority it is seldom upset or questioned. This is why it's a good idea to stop and wait for a moment before replying. Just let a couple of beats go by. The break interrupts their flow and gives you chance to collect your thoughts and remain in control of the situation.

Tell the truth.
Tempting as it may be, it would be dishonest to make something up, like "I've been busy" or "I've been sick." That will only encourage them to keep talking or, worse, send there wives over with a casserole. It might also be dishonest to disclose your full reasons for leaving. That could be a betrayal of your self. The truth of the matter might be that you do not want them to know your full reason for avoiding the meetings. If that's the case, i t could be that your most honest exchange might look like this:

Brother Concerned (taking the lead): "We've noticed that you haven't been at the meetings for a while. Is there any way we can help?"

Sister Wantsout: "I'd prefer not to talk about this subject."

Brother Persistent (riding shotgun): "Well, we miss you at the meetings. And you know that it's only there that we can gain the spiritual nourishment we need to resist the spirit of the world. Would it be okay if I were to share a scriptural word of encouragement with you?"

Sister Wantsout: "Thank you for your concern, but, like I said, I will not talk about this matter."

Be still.
If you respond with that kind of declarative brevity, the elders won't know what to do. So then, be still. Let the clock tick. Let your truth have its full effect.

Three things will likely come out of handling their visit in this way: (1) it will throw them off their game, (2) your refusal to play on their terms will take their power away and put you in control, and (3) any anxiety you might have been feeling will get transferred to them. They won't know what to do after that, and will probably excuse themselves and leave. Their conversation in the car will be something like:

Brother Concerned: "What do you make of that, Joe?"

Brother Persistent: "Well, I'm not too sure."

Brother Concerned: "Did you see her husband, Brother Oncewasapioneer, in the background? I think he had a goatee."

Brother Persistent: "No, I missed that. I was too busy noticing her bare midriff."

Brother Concerned: "Yeah, sheesh, how worldly can you get? I think I even saw a tattoo peeking up from the waistline of her shockingly low cut and tight designer jeans. You can't get pants like that at Burlington Coat Factory, or on a housekeeper's salary. "

Brother Persistent: "Want to stop off for a cup of coffee? I feel like giving a food service worker an 8% tip and a tract."

Brother Concerned: "Thanks, but I'll pass. My wife went to bed early and I need to, uh, go online and, er, check my email."

The two elders drive on in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.

Remember this: as much as the very tissues in your body might tell you otherwise, you do not owe the elders any explanations for your absence from the Kingdom Hall. Your life is none of their business. In fact, just the opposite, it's presumptuous of the elders to call or visit expecting to hear you bear your soul to them.

When you made the decision to leave the Witnesses, you began taking your power back from them. In politics, business and personal matters alike, transfers of power create tension. When the elders come calling, someone is going to feel anxious. It doesn't have to be you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Happy Graduation Day!

Posted by Joel Gunz

When we were members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was emphasized in meetings that we were expected to “press on to maturity” (Hebrews 6;1). The way I see it, if you were to take that counsel at face value, it would inevitably lead you to leave the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg described the path toward moral maturity as a three-step process, each of which is made up of two smaller steps. I think his way of seeing things applies equally well to our path as spiritual seekers and explains why we were left with no choice but leave Jehovah’s Witnesses behind. I’ve paraphrased his notions here:

Stage One: Preconventional (Early childhood)
Obedience and punishment — How can I avoid punishment?
Having not yet developed their own internal moral compass, small children usually start out here — guided by the threat of external consequences if they misbehave. Time-outs are effective at this stage.

Self-interest — What's in it for me?
Soon enough, children develop a capacity for self interest and learn how to use the reward/punishment system to their advantage. They still have no internalized morality, but they’ve learned how to adjust their behavior in order to reap benefits. During this stage, bribery can work wonders to improve a child’s behavior.

Stage Two: Conventional (Adolescence)
Conformity to social expectations — The good boy/good girl attitude
In this phase the young person accepts society’s conventions regarding right and wrong, and sees the inherent value in upholding them. They learn, for instance, that if they want people to like them, they will not say hurtful things.

Authority and social-order maintaining — Law and order morality
This is the phase in which your children check to make sure you’re driving within the speed limit.

Stage Two-and-a-Half: Anti-Conventional (Late Adolescence)
Rebellion
While this phase isn’t in Kohlberg’s scheme, I think it’s an important one. This, of course, is the time when young people question everything — authority, social conventions and norms, their own identity, their sexuality, their place in the world. Rebellious, risk-taking behavior is usually a part of this stage. They may actively protest authority by engaging in rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

They are testing the value of life’s rules and regulations by violating them. As such, it an important step on the way to maturity, though not recognized as such by Witness Judicial Committees that routinely disfellowship young people for engaging in Stage Two-and-a-Half behavior.

Stage Three: Post-Conventional (Adulthood)
Living by social contract, not rigid dictums — Freedom
At this point, individuals see themselves as separate entities from society. Their own perspective may take precedence over society's view and they may disregard rules that don’t conform to their own world view. They see the value of living in conformity to society’s expectations, but they are also free to deviate from them when it seems reasonable to do so.

Universal ethical principles — Principled conscience
When adults reach this stage, they are guided by an internalized morality. No longer content to blindly follow the law, they adhere to the principles behind the law, an outlook that, ironically, could at times lead to rule-breaking. Unlike adolescent rebellion, however, their occasional non-conformity is guided by the sense that justice may, at times, be lacking in the rules themselves. They have written a unique moral code that works well for them.

What it means
Various religious systems, too, fall into one of these three categories. Some churches, such as revivalist tent meetings that emphasize the reward of heaven and the punishment of hell are very much a Stage One system. Governed by a sense of conformity to social conventions, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and many Christian fundamentalist and evangelical groups fall into the Stage Two category. Self-directed groups, such as some Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists and humanists, might be seen as Stage Three.

When Jehovah’s Witnesses approach individuals who are at the extreme low end of social integration (skid row alcoholics and others whose lifestyle is spinning out of control), they aren’t nearly as successful at gaining converts from this population sector as their literature placements would predict. Such people do, however, often benefit from churches that preach “fire and brimstone” and that point them toward social services, such as 12-Step programs. They need a Stage One religious program.

Those, on the other hand, who are well-educated, stable and who are already following a spiritual path are also notoriously difficult to convert. While Jehovah’s Witnesses attribute this to the “deceptive power of riches,” such generalizing doesn’t square up with what has been observed in independent research: well-educated people are just as likely to attend to their spiritual needs as others, though they may do so independently. Such people could people be viewed as operating from a Stage Three paradigm.

Where do Jehovah’s Witnesses fit in? As a Stage Two religion, their ministry is most successful among people who have a certain sense of right and wrong, but don’t know how to act in accord with it, or whose environment makes doing so an uphill battle. When you think of the people who were your most successful Bible Studies, weren’t they like that? They wanted to improve their lives, but friends and family often kept dragging them down. Or, they simply had no friends or family to speak of. Jehovah’s Witnesses offered something better than what they had been able to find on their own — structure, a set of moral rules, a sense of community. They felt as if they were finally home, and considering where they had come from, they were home.

All of that is fine, but some of us continue to “press on to maturity.” Whether we’d been converted, or had been raised in Witness home, we began to give attention to the doubts that gnaw just below the conscious awareness of almost every Witness: questions about doctrines that don’t make sense; observations that Witnesses aren’t really better people than those “in the world.”

We began to think for ourselves.

While still having a high regard for many of the principles that Witnesses teach (though may not actually practice) — love for neighbor, honesty, a high regard for truth — we began to discover that we no longer fit in.

The constant repetition of questionable assumptions at the meetings, the demand for lock-step adherence to even the slightest suggestion from the “faithful and discreet slave,” the restriction against even questioning statements found in the publications, all became wearisome and, frankly, boring — not unlike a young man who discovers he no longer has much use for his childhood toys, except to dust them off occasionally as artifacts of his immature past.

When we reached that point, we had already moved on, though we might not have recognized it as such. In my case, I was suppressing all of this awareness. In a subconscious effort to make the elders do to me what I couldn’t do for myself — leave the congregation — I went out and committed acts that led to my disfellowshipping. Others of us might have actually voiced our questions and issues — bringing the elders running to “counsel” us back into conformity. But it didn’t work for long, if at all, and we eventually disassociated ourselves or just faded away.

We’d graduated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Of course, instead of a cap-and-gown and a diploma, our ceremony consisted of a terse announcement at the Kingdom Hall. And with that, we were dispatched to follow the path of Post-Conventional, spiritual adulthood. It might be scary and even confusing at times, but our intuition, will to live and sense of justice got us this far. I don’t think they’ll let us down now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Story of N

Posted by Joel Gunz
(Deepest apologies for the weird layout -- I can't figure out how to make this video fit properly on the page.)




Three years ago or so, "N", then 18, posted a series of interviews on YouTube describing her life as a Jehovah's Witness and what happened when she left. Her story is articulate, funny, sad, courageous and spot on. After a month or two, however, she decided to remove the videos from the Web. In the words of YouTube member Publishing Cult, here's why:
"While the videos were met with mostly loving encouragement , appreciation, and support from ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, Jehovah's Witness and ex-Jehovah's Witness trolls alike descended on this young girl's youtube channel like vultures. Their attacks were often viscous and sexually degrading. The subject of the interview was mortified at some of the hateful and rude comments and asked that they be taken down."
I remember some the hateful responses she received. "I can't wait to see your face burn off when Armageddon comes," and name-calling such as "slut" and "whore" spring most clearly to mind. Turns out that Jesus was right: "Men will expel you from the synagogue. In fact, the hour is coming when everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God." (John 16:2, NWT)

N recently decided to allow the videos to return to YouTube and is permitting them to be reposted so others can benefit from them -- provided all comments are first approved and filtered of hate speech. I found these videos to be helpful and I'm glad shes' agreed to have them reposted. I hope you enjoy them too.