As ex-Witnesses, we’ve all read about situations where the Watchtower Society (or its representatives) claim that shunning a family member is purely a matter of personal choice. That is to say that the family members who shun disfellowshipped Witnesses aren’t being forced to do so, but simply chose not to have any relations with that person for reasons of their own. This makes the Watchtower Society seem less cult-like to the public and may help the organization avoid certain legal issues for the practice of disfellowshipping in other countries. The video above shows us an example of a Witness downplaying the Society’s role in shunning disfellowshipped Witnesses in a court of law. Notice how he ducks questions relating to whether the policy of disfellowshipping is enforced by the Society or how such enforcement might happen.
There are other examples where the Society’s representatives seem evasive when it comes to answering uncomfortable questions in the media or in legal proceedings. The issue of blood transfusions is one that comes to mind. The claim, once again, is that the family is not being made to do anything by Watchtower policy. They are simply refusing treatment out of personal choice. Hence, it’s the family’s responsibility, not the Society’s.
But here’s the big question. Is any of this really true?
Only if you stretch the reality of concepts like “choice” to the breaking point.
The reality is that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that talking to a disfellowshipped Witness – even a family member – is morally wrong because the Watchtower Society says so. Witnesses have been taught that associating with someone who has been disfellowshipped would offend their god, and just as bad, it could get the associating Witness disfellowshipped too. All of this is done per the Society’s policy, not simply because Witnesses dislike people who have been disfellowshipped1. We know this is true because the Society has written about it in its literature for many years. Society representatives have also talked about it in public meetings, even assemblies where thousands of Witnesses are present. To suggest that this is not the policy of the Watchtower Society or that there will be no consequences for violating it is simply untrue.
And yet, it is true that congregation elders aren’t holding a literal gun to anyone’s head. That, I suspect, is the loophole that many Witnesses are exploiting when forced to comment about Watchtower practices in public. Nevertheless, for any Witness who truly believes that the Society has “the truth,” the metaphorical gun of disfellowshipped seems a lot worse. If an elder actually killed another Witness with a firearm, the Society teaches that the Witness would come back in The New System of Things and live forever. If a Witness is disfellowshipped, he will be killed when Armageddon strikes without a chance for everlasting life. Which sounds worse to you?
In other words, the choice isn’t whether a Witness should speak to his disfellowshipped loved ones. The choice is whether the Witness wants to live through Armageddon or die without any chance for everlasting life. It’s also a matter of his own standing within his congregation. If he wants to be shunned, wants to be seen as “worldly,” and wants to lose his chance at living forever in a paradise Earth, then yes, by all means, he can go ahead and associate with as many disfellowshipped Witnesses as he likes. The elders won’t shoot him. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t forcing him to do what they’ve been taught is right by the Watchtower Society.
Isn’t that stretching the idea of “choice” more than a little bit? For Jehovah’s Witnesses, this simply isn’t how it’s done. It goes against their religion, even their very culture. Many people fail to grasp the power of that concept.
The Power Of Culture
Life as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses reminds me of life as someone from another, older culture where the family patriarch rules with an iron fist. I’m talking about cultures that adhere to ancient standards of family loyalty and obedience. If the grandfather says it, everyone must fall in line or be banished.
If you’ve ever seen a movie, or even a documentary about real people, where two star-crossed lovers can’t be together because one of them has a grandfather who doesn’t like the other person’s family, then you know what I’m talking about. Another example is the young woman who wants to start a business but can’t because her grandfather doesn’t think women should be allowed to make money unless it’s in a specific line of work.
“Women don’t start businesses like this,” he’ll say. “It isn’t how we do things and I won’t allow it! If you do it anyway, I’ll banish you and no one in our family will talk to you or help you! You must choose. Are you one of us or not?”
There are many cultures in the world where the patriarch, or the parents, must be obeyed in all things. I’m talking about cultures where the parents match up their kids with prospective marriage partners, tell them what kind of job they’re going to get, and basically make all the big decisions in their lives. I’ve even seen the children defend their parent’s right to do these things. Why? Because, for them, that’s just how it’s done. Our American values are not their values. And even then, there are American families where individuals wield similar levels of power.
Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses obey the Watchtower Society’s leaders in all things. The Governing Body could be likened to the grandfather in a patriarchal family whose authority exceeds everyone elses. The local elders could be likened to the parent whose adult children must obey him too, unless the grandfather pulls rank. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, that’s how God wants it, hence, that’s just how it’s done. It’s an integral part of who they are.
What we are talking about here is the power of culture, which many people underestimate. We’re also talking about the power of peer pressure.
You may not realize it, but our culture has restrictions of its own.
If you’re an American, have you ever walked into a movie theater that’s practically empty and simply sat in a seat right next to a total stranger? Probably not. Because, for us, that’s not how it’s done. If you have a big movie theater with plenty of empty seats, then you spread out to give the other person their space. If you sat right next to him anyway, it would be … well, kind of weird. A little kid who doesn’t know better might do this, but few adults would. It goes against our culture. Yet it’s so transparent that many Americans wouldn’t even think about it. They would simply do what’s considered right here in America.
The only penalty for breaking this unwritten rule is that the other person would move, think you’re a weirdo, or generally disapprove of you. And still, many of us could not bring ourselves to do it.
Meanwhile, for one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, associating with someone who has been disfellowshipped comes with a far greater penalty. Because the Witness who associates with someone who has been disfellowshipped would also be disfellowshipped, and basically, banished. Not to mentioned condemned by the god they worship. Or so they believe.
So Is It True That Shunning Is A Matter Of Choice?
I think most Jehovah’s Witnesses would say no. Unless you made them put their hand on a Bible and swear to it in a court of law where the outcome might have big implications for the Society. Or, if you’re a worldly person, they would probably deny it to you as well. Remember, according to the Society’s Insight on the Scriptures books, lying is only wrong if you lie to someone who deserves to know the truth. And worldly people don’t always deserve the truth under every circumstance. Hence, lying in court to protect the Society’s interests is acceptable.
Of course, Witnesses can justify this even further by telling themselves that Witnesses don’t have to obey the Society, even though the consequences of disobedience are, in their minds, the ultimate penalty. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, death by Armageddon is the equivalent of an eternity in Hell to most other Christians.
If you’re interested, there was an interesting conversation on JWD a while back about this one, too.
- In fact, if the Society changed this policy tomorrow and instructed Witnesses to call their disfellowshipped loved ones to encourage them, I daresay that many former Witnesses would come home to find their phone’s ringing off the hook. ↩
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