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.

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*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.