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.

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)
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.

Monday, March 1, 2010

You're okay --- I'm not so bad, either.

Disfellowshipped Witnesses often face community rejection at a time when they need their friends and family the most.

Posted by Joel Gunz

If you have been disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witnesses, you probably already know that you are just one of many. Last year, an estimated 60,000 Witnesses willingly agreed to meet with a judicial committee of at least three elders to confess their sins in detail. An hour or two later, they were disfellowshipped and dismissed from the Kingdom Hall without a word.

True, there are bad people in the world, and any religious group has a right to keep its place of worship safe. It must be recognized that there is even a Biblical basis for doing so. (Of course, the word "disfellowshipping" doesn't appear in the Bible. Microsoft Word's spellcheck feature doesn't even recognize it.) That said, in the Bible, there is exactly one case of wrongdoing mentioned that resulted in disfellowshipping. It is the case of a man in Corinth who was carrying on an apparently incestuous relationship, in public, with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5). By any measure that's a socially unacceptable situation.

Jehovah's Witness' application of that rule is, by comparison, frivolous. Young people are frequently expelled for what basically amounts to acting their age. Others might have a real personal struggle, such as an addiction. While most churches see this as an opportunity to imitate Jesus by offering help, perhaps by hosting 12-Step meetings, the Jehovah's Witnesses use it a basis for shunning.

The Witnesses insist that they disfellowship only unrepentant wrongdoers. But isn't an individual's voluntary participation in the judicial process a sign of repentance enough? If submitting to an embarrassingly intrusive inquest, followed by a humble request for forgiveness and spiritual help isn't a clear sign of remorse and repentance, then what is? Obviously, their biggest mistake was to trust a group of elders to handle with common sense the revelation that they have been less than perfect. The point is, most of my friends who are also disfellowshippees are good, trustworthy people, inclined to do the right thing.

My point isn't to question the rightness of Watchtower policy. As a religion, they have a Constitutional right to do just about whatever they want. It's been my observation, though, that many ex-Witnesses are really good people. While they might have committed what the Bible calls "sin," their behavior was, in most cases, a far cry from the scandalous behavior described in 1 Corinthians. (And, by the way, let's get real: if the Bible's prohibition against lying was applied with the same force as fornication, how many Witnesses would escape being disfellowshipped?) Some of these people are still in their teens -- energetic, bright, socially engaged individuals of whom any normal parent would be proud. Instead, their parents view them as a source of shame.

That's why, if you have left the Jehovah's Witnesses or are considering leaving, you can take comfort in the fact that there are people nearby who can provide you with an emotionally safe place to land in your post-Witness life. They're good people who've been where you are and who care. To get in touch, feel free to email me at theadguy123 (at) yahoo (dot) com, or visit the Portland, Oregon ex-Jehovah's Witnesses Meetup group.