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.