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.