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.