Down the street from where I live, there is a large nondenominational Christian church; I have no idea what they teach inside but do know to avoid that street during the holidays. This is because they always have these huge outdoor parties for the kids with bouncy houses, pony rides, carnival games, and what all else. Set this information aside for just a moment; we’ll come back to it.
On June 9, 2016, The Moscow Times reported that Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Russian city of Belgorod were to be disbanded for being “extremist,” per the local Supreme Court. According to the story, “The Belgorod branch is not the only Jehovah’s Witness group banned in Russia. A Jehovah’s Witness congregation was denounced as extremist in the town of Stary Oskol in the Belgorod region earlier this year. Another group was banned in Obninsk in 2015.”
The story said this city found JWs to be “extremist” because they “tore” families apart and “tried to entice young people into the group.” Other news stories stated that the book, “Save Yourself in God’s Love,” and similar JW writings “propagate hatred toward other religions, linguistic and religious studies experts concluded during court proceedings that lasted for over a year.”
Examining Their Teachings
Let’s consider if there is any truth to these allegations. Many people were appalled by the hardcore approach to shunning that was taken at this year’s regional convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with one public discourse strongly encouraging congregants to shun those who are inactive from the religion, even family (this post). A video boasted of JW parents tossing their adult daughter out of the family for being in love with a man who wasn’t one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not even taking her phone calls, while overtly blaming her for being shunned (this post). You can visit the Shunning category of this site to see for yourself how this religion easily “tears families apart” with this practice.
As for enticing young people into the religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses have an entire section of their website dedicated to teaching children (this link) and teenagers (this link). The religion also recruits on or near college campuses and outright preaches to children; in this story, they boast of speaking to children and teenagers in the country of Oceania, saying about experiences at a trade fair:
“Children sat for hours watching videos from the series ‘Become Jehovah’s Friend’ in the Tetun Dili language. Some children even memorized the words of the songs in this series and sang them happily.“
Note the claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses “propagate hatred” toward other religions. I’m going to assume the book they were referencing is “Keep Yourselves in God’s Love”, which says on pages 83-84:
“Above all, true Christians avoid involvement with “Babylon the Great,” the world empire of false religion and the most bloodguilty of all.”
“Abandoning Babylon the Great involves more than having one’s name removed from a membership roll. It also includes hating the evil practices that false religion condones or openly advocates—such things as immorality, political meddling, and the greedy pursuit of wealth.”
So, in two paragraphs of this book, Jehovah’s Witnesses have condemned all other religions as false, as having evil practices, being immoral, meddling in politics, and greedily pursuing wealth, as well as being blood-guilty! This is not unusual language for Jehovah’s Witnesses when talking about other religions.
This brings me back to the story at the beginning of this post. I don’t know what that church down the street from me teaches; however, I don’t see all that evil every holiday when they’re throwing those huge parties for the families, something that Jehovah’s Witnesses never do. I can’t imagine people of this church appreciate being called “the most blood-guilty of all” when they’re just going to their Sunday sermons and having family parties on the holidays.
Another news story about the Russian ban quoted a JW spokesperson as saying:
“The accusation of extremism is based on a false understanding of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ assertion that theirs is the only true religion. Prosecutors have alleged that means they are promoting ‘religious discord.’ … “And of course, it’s totally wrong,” [spokesperson] Sivulsky says, “because every religion feels that they have the only true religion. This is the nature of any religion, otherwise, why are you following a false religion?“”
This is a false statement by Jehovah’s Witnesses; not everyone feels that they have the “only true religion” or that there is even just one true religion. I remember preaching as a JW and hearing people outright saying that you’re acceptable to god no matter your religion; one woman I remember said that every good person was getting to heaven whether you “took a bicycle or car or just roller skates.” It isn’t up to this JW spokesperson to make a statement about what “every religion feels,” and you immediately see his black-and-white way of arguing; according to him, if you don’t feel that you have the “only true religion,” if you don’t arrogantly think that every other religion is false, then you must be in a false religion yourself. Sorry, but not all religious persons look down on everyone else that way.
The news story went on to say:
“Some opponents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses say their claims are more than just polite disagreement … ‘In their literature, there are some very harsh statements and very insulting statements about other faiths,’ says Alexander Dvorkin, a former Russian Orthodox priest who now teaches the history of religion and cult studies at St. Tikhon University in Moscow. ‘Of course, every religion has the right to criticize other faiths, but that should be done in a non-insulting manner…’”
I would say calling every other religion on the planet “blood-guilty” is pretty harsh and downright defamatory, not just insulting.
The point being, it doesn’t seem as if this city of Belgorod is fabricating accusations; Jehovah’s Witnesses do tear families apart by outright encouraging shunning, brag about preaching to children, and create a “hatred” for other religions by saying that they’re “blood-guilty,” greedy, immoral, “evil,” and the like.
The Thought Police
It may be easy to call the Russian authorities the “thought police” who are kicking in doors and dragging people away simply for their beliefs. This is very naive, not to mention an incorrect understanding of the situation. No one is banning Jehovah’s Witnesses for their thoughts. The Russian police did not ask them if they believe in Jesus or not, or if they agree with the Russian Orthodox Church, and then put them in prison for those beliefs; it was actually stated that they have the right to “criticize” other faiths. Jehovah’s Witnesses are being sanctioned for their actions; they actively instruct members to shun family, and some groups call this a human rights violation. They spread outright lies about other religions; this is called defamation.
You can believe anything you want and think anything you want, but once you start saying things out loud or taking action based on those beliefs, you can then cross a line, a line that can be monitored and controlled by authorities, and rightly so. Governments, courts, and police exist to protect those who are harmed by the actions and words of others; your neighbor can believe that you’re a piece of human garbage, he can even tell people that he doesn’t like you and why, but if your neighbor tells people that you’re blood-guilty, he has crossed a line.
There is another important point to consider; the Russian authorities are not targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses for harmless but simply “non-mainstream” ideas, like not believing in the trinity or thinking that only 144,000 go to heaven. Jehovah’s Witnesses are being targeted for those few teachings and statements that are specifically and overtly defaming to other people.
Consider that Jehovah’s Witnesses openly state that you need to follow their governing body to be approved of by god or else you are soon to die at Armageddon, a very harsh teaching that actually condemns the rest of the world to death, but Russia said nothing about that doctrine; however, when you say someone else is guilty of “bloodshed,” then the State actually has the responsibility to step in and stop those defaming remarks, the same as if that neighbor of yours went around and said that you once killed a man. Your neighbor isn’t being picked on because he believes in reincarnation or because he doesn’t like the neighborhood’s favorite family; he simply cannot spread defamation and lies about anyone, and neither can Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While I would never condone arresting people for their religious or spiritual beliefs, as I certainly have some that are very non-mainstream myself and despise countries that run under a religious law, I also don’t think that you can go to the opposite extreme and allow a group to get away with saying or doing anything they want just because they’re following their “religion.” As I bring out in this post and others, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a laundry list of hateful speech and damaging actions for which they need to answer, including abusing their children under the guise of discipline, calling rape victims fornicators, blaming homosexuals for pedophilia, defying legal orders to not destroy records related to their handling of child sex abuse accusations, and the list goes on. No, a group or organization cannot do and say all these things, especially those things that victimize children, and then cry about law enforcement stepping in to stop them.
The State may of course overstep its bounds on occasion, I’m half Native American and half German so I’ll never argue about government crossing the line, but Russians are not mandating religious beliefs or forcing membership in certain religions, not in this instance anyway. Courts have the right and the responsibility to protect innocent third parties from hate speech, defamation, systemic abuse, and the like, no matter the framework of that abuse. When a group as a collective or whole teaches or practices these damaging things, that group needs to be addressed as a collective, for their actions, not their thoughts, as is happening in Russia.
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