Why I, as a Former Jehovah’s Witness, Kneel With Colin

You would need to be living under a rock these days to not know the name Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL quarterback made headlines some years back when he began getting down on one knee during the pregame national anthem, as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.

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Kaepernick is not wrong to think that racial inequality and prejudice are alive and well in law enforcement in the U.S. Note some facts and figures before you dismiss all that “liberal propaganda”:

  • There is “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.”¹
  • A 2015 analysis found that police officers in several locations “used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars more than twice as often as white motorists—even though they found drugs and weapons significantly more often when the driver was white.”¹
  • “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states.”²

Of course, Kaepernick’s gesture didn’t go over well with everyone. Some people immediately started criticizing him for supposedly disrespecting the flag, veterans, and so on.

NFL: Preseason-San Francisco 49ers at San Diego Chargers

Nice pits. Photo Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever your opinions about Kaepernick, you might be asking, What does that have to do with being an ex-Jehovah’s Witness?

“COUNSEL = RESPECT”

The Australian Royal Commission Inquiry Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse (ARC), conducted in 2015, questioned some 30 organizations as to how they manage child sex abuse allegations under their roof. Jehovah’s Witnesses were Case Study 29; see this post for more information.

The Inquiry questioned one victim, “BCG,” who testified that, when she was a child, her father repeatedly raped her and her sisters, while the family was in the religion. The father had also been physically abusive to BCG, and she often attended the meetings (like church services) of Jehovah’s Witnesses with welts on her back and, at one point, a black eye.

After consistently ignoring her initial pleas for help, the elders in BCG’s congregation confronted the father, but only because he had been caught cheating on his wife. Those elders decided to discuss BCG’s complaints at the same time.

During these meetings with the elders, BCG expressed that she was angry at her father for his long history of disgusting, vile, violent abuse. What was their response? From their own notes:

If you can’t quite make out that screen capture, it says, “counsel=respect father.”

Let’s review; a young lady was being beaten and raped by her own father. She finds out that he has been doing the same thing to her three sisters, two of whom are younger than her. Now the man is cheating on her mother.

Despite all these horrific abuses, the elders demanded that she respect her father.

Respect him.

Respect a man who wasn’t just raping children, but who was raping his own children. Respect, not just any rapist, but her rapist, respect a man who beat her black and blue, respect the man who was raping her sisters including her little sisters, respect the man who had now left her mother.

Let’s go back to the national anthem and kneeling. The United States doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to how certain citizens have been treated. Black persons were actually owned by the founders of this country, and continued to be enslaved for centuries. (See this site for more information.)

Once slavery was abolished, “Jim Crow laws” were enacted, legally enforcing racial segregation and discrimination against blacks. During this era, there were separate neighborhoods, separate schools, and even separate drinking fountains for persons of color. These laws were in place until the civil rights movement began in the 1950s.

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Before anyone dismisses all of this as “ancient history,” note that it was merely 1960 when six-year-old Ruby Bridges became one of the first black children to attend a desegregated elementary school in the U.S. Bridges actually spent that first year by herself, as white parents withdrew their children from school rather than let them attend class with her. Bridges’ school years might be a few decades ago, but they are hardly “ancient.”

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U.S. Marshals escorting Ruby Bridges to school in 1960.

While black children today don’t necessarily need to be escorted to school by federal marshals, this country still has a long way to go when it comes to systemic and downright deadly racism, as the above statistics show. Racism is not ancient history in this country; it’s not even just history. It’s still alive and well, and these days, it’s literally marching through the streets.

See also: White nationalists march through Tennessee town

Despite that, people demand that everyone, including those victimized by this country’s laws and social structure, stand for the anthem? Not just any song, mind you, but an anthem that originally contained a verse endorsing of the death of runaway slaves who had joined the British in exchange for their freedom:

“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave…”

As the article linked above says, “…’The Star-Spangled Banner’ is as much a patriotic song as it is a diss track to black people who had the audacity to fight for their freedom.”

This is why the subject hits close to home for me; BCG was told to respect her father, no matter the horrific, obscene abuses he committed against her. Those abuses meant nothing to the elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses; they demanded BCG respect her father despite what he had done to her and her family.

Respect him.

I seriously can’t get past that.

In much the same way, people are demanding that Kaepernick stand at attention in front of the symbol of a system that has oppressed persons of color and other such groups since its very founding, and which now continues to fail them in far too many horrific ways. It apparently doesn’t matter what that system has done or the abuses it currently allows; you still need to set aside your feelings, self-esteem, and autonomy, and blindly and rigidly stand at attention in front of its symbol, period.

BOTH THE PERSON AND THE SYSTEM 

Some might argue that Kaepernick shouldn’t “disrespect” the flag when it’s only a few, lone, “rogue” cops and others who are victimizing persons of color.

I wholeheartedly disagree, and would again compare it to BCG and child sex abuse in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in general, as this abuse does not happen in a vacuum. Jehovah’s Witnesses have created a religious system that allows this abuse to flourish, similar to how there are aspects of our society that allow abuses against citizens, and disproportionately persons of color, to continue virtually unabated.

How so? Consider a few examples of, and parallels between, the U.S. as a whole and the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, when talking about the subject of abuse:

Unabated Authority

In the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, women and children are taught to strictly obey men in general, but especially elders, husbands, and fathers. If an elder or father is an abuser, he will often use that teaching to his advantage, demanding silence and obedience from his victim; this happened in BCG’s case:

Transcript, Day 148, page 15284

The religion, because of teaching and demanding this strict obedience to men without any regard for what happens when that man is an abuser, or for the rights of a victim to stand up for themselves, is now culpable in that abuse. The religion has created this authoritarian arrangement under which abuse can so readily flourish, so the religion as an institution is not innocent when this happens.

The abuser needs to answer for his conduct, yes, absolutely; however, so do the people who give him unabated authority that can be used to facilitate that abuse so easily.

So it is in the United States. Time and again cops have been caught mercilessly beating or outright shooting citizens to death, for no valid reason. As in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, cops who commit these abuses are not simply acting on their own; instead, they are empowered by a system that gives them too much authority to stop and harass citizens, and allows them to use excessive force when doing so. In the same way that BCG’s father demanded she be obedient while he was committing his horrific abuses, cops simply scream “Stop resisting!” to citizens while they continue to pummel them.

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Citizens are also empowered by this racist system in many ways, as it’s still strongly hinted that persons of color need to “know their place” and be subjugated to the unspoken authority of whites. Do you think BBQ Becky was genuinely upset about someone grilling in a park, or Permit Patty really gave a flying crap about a child selling water without a business license? Of course not. The problem is that a black person was told to do something by a white person, but he or she didn’t immediately get up and go sit in the back of the proverbial bus, so 911 was called.

It’s not about barbecuing or selling water or sleeping in a dorm or standing in a doorway; it’s about white people too often feeling that they have an unspoken authority over minorities, and using that assumed authority to harass or outright abuse persons of color.

Judging the Victims

Yes, citizens and even cops can be arrested and charged with crimes when they abuse others, but punishments in many such cases have been spotty at best. Too often, the victims are put on trial; Trayvon Martin might have had marijuana in his system. Police searched Botham Jean‘s apartment and reported finding a tiny bit of marijuana. Philando Castile had a firearm.

Which begs the question, so what?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that those first two reports were truthful; why do we need to know that Trayvon Martin might have smoked half a joint that day, why was a murder victim’s apartment searched in the first place? What did a thumbnail’s worth of pot have to do with either of these cases?³

Castile had the legal right to own firearms, as does almost everyone else in the country, and had a proper license for it; he even told cops it was on his person when they stopped him in his car. Yet, the fact that he had a gun in the first place, as with all this other information, has been used as a type of justification for what happened to these victims.

In the same way, in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, children who make allegations of sex abuse are often dismissed, treated with suspicion, and even asked if they enjoyed their abuses or did something to somehow encourage their molestation.

See also: Jehovah’s Witness Elders Ask Pedophile Victims if They Enjoyed It

For those unfamiliar with their practices, Jehovah’s Witnesses demand a second witness to child sex abuse before they act on allegations. A second victim can suffice, but if that requirement itself is not harsh enough, elders have been found to dismiss or ignore the statements of witnesses and victims for a variety of reasons. In BCG’s case, they dismissed the testimony of her two younger sisters, ages 5 and 7 at the time, saying that the girls were too young to be believed:

Transcript, Day 148, page 15288

All of this adds up to the “juries” of elders in a congregation allowing a perpetrator to go free, simply because they’ve judged the victims more harshly than they judge the alleged abuser. As with searching a victim’s apartment and reporting on less marijuana than what you’ll find in Willie Nelson’s beard at any given moment, they are simply looking for an excuse to dismiss that victim and justify the abuse they’ve suffered.

“BUT WE’VE CHANGED ALL THAT…”

Some months ago, while I was in line at Macy’s… okay it was the Dollar Store… two people in front of me were talking football and started bellowing about whether or not “they” were still taking a knee during the anthem. I remember their loud, nonsensical arguments about “things have changed” and “who are they to complain” and “Kaepernick makes money” and etc., and recall the one woman’s high-pitched wail to this day, “They act like it’s still the 70s and they can’t sit at the lunch counter!”

Her inaccurate history aside, it is a common narrative I hear when discussing any prejudice against minorities, women, and so on. “We gave you the right to vote… we freed the slaves… you can own property, you have a dollar to your name, some people of your same gender or ethnicity are successful… so what’s the problem? Shouldn’t you be thanking us?”

Couple of things; number one, what do you mean you gave someone these things? The right to work any job for which you’re qualified, vote in a system that governs you, own property, etc., is intrinsic to every human being. No one “gives” you these things. Each person is born with those rights, period.

Which brings me to my second point; who took all those rights away in the first place? Who denied people their intrinsic right to vote, own property, work, etc., for so many centuries?

Think of how passive these sentences are and how they shift the attention from the abuses themselves, to the supposed charity of the abuser. Instead of saying “We aren’t quite as oppressive as we once were, we’ve let up on some abuses we routinely committed against other people as a means to control them, control wealth, and create a system that works for us and not them,” these statements make it seem as if the oppressors are doing the other person a favor by granting them the privilege of voting, owning things, etc.

These statements also include no acknowledgement of, much less take responsibility for, the horrific history of those abuses and oppression in the first place. Instead, people who say these things are congratulating themselves for whatever tiny improvements they’ve made in their own behavior and the system they created. They act as if they’re heroes and saviors for making concessions to other people, and for what? Rights that they themselves have had for centuries, and which they often take for granted.

The third point I might add is that, typically, concessions and rights are not granted or restored easily. This country went through an actual civil war over slavery, women were beaten and jailed when they demanded their right to vote, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was not without violence and bloodshed.

No one just got up and decided one day, out of the kindness of their heart, to “give” certain rights to minorities, women, or anyone else.

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Black people being graciously given their civil rights.

All of that having been said, it’s the thought of, “changes have been made so why is anyone still complaining, look at all the freedoms you have, it could be worse, etc.” that gets me.

As far as racism, as I’ve already brought out, of course things are better in this country than they were a few decades ago, but not as much as you might think. Racism is still practiced in the open, with Nazis literally marching through our streets.

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Racism? What racism? All I see is a group of fine young men on their way to a combination luau and rotator cuff injury support group.

A black person especially can’t just go about their business without someone calling the police on them, much less can they trust that they won’t get killed when the cops do arrive. What good is it to be able to sit at the lunch counter if you get beaten or even die at the hands of a cop on your way home from that lunch?

Compare this to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The religion has also made some changes in how they handle child sex abuse cases, yes. For example, victims were once required to make their allegations in front of their abuser and were purposely denied “moral support.”

This practice was recently reversed, with Witnesses now saying that a victim does not need to confront their abuser in person, and that they can have someone with them during their internal hearing processes.

In times past, victims who wanted to bring their allegations to the police were often threatened with disfellowshipping (excommunication) and its subsequent shunning by everyone they know. Elders are now told that they should not criticize anyone who reports their allegations to the police, and have been instructed to proactively inform victims of their right to report.

See also: “Responding to “Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Scripturally Based Position on Child Protection””

Before anyone allows Jehovah’s Witnesses a pat on their collective backs for these changes, note that it was their systems and practices that came up with these horrific rules in the first place!

As with the government that legally and systemically denied certain rights to minorities for so long, Jehovah’s Witnesses had purposely, proactively refused a child sex abuse victim the right to moral support when making allegations. The religion’s own policy is what threatened victims with ostracism if they dared report their abuse to the police.

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t need congratulating for dropping these disgusting practices; they need a kick in the pants for the fact that they existed in the first place!

Consider, too, that many such minor improvements in how Jehovah’s Witnesses handle child sex abuse allegations came only after the religion was publicly grilled during the ARC, after they faced (and still face) expensive liability lawsuits for these practices, and after many, many news reports exposing these policies resulted in their public shaming.

Jehovah’s Witnesses did not, out of the goodness of their hearts, decide all on their own to suddenly stop making the situation worse for child abuse victims. Victim after victim needed to suffer needlessly and then fight… and fight… and fight the religion, in court and elsewhere, in order for those changes to occur. Those victims may not have had dogs set on them in the streets, but they have had their entire lives shredded because of having to go through this fight with their own religion.

See also: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Child Sex Abuse – A Brief Handbook for Attorneys and Media Outlets

As with changes made to ensure the rights of persons of color in this country, the changes made by the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses are also far from enough. For one thing, the religion still demands a second witness, or second victim, to such abuses before they act upon allegations.

Elders are told to first phone their local branch office to find out if they are legally obligated to notify authorities of allegations of child sex abuse; this process helps no one if the elders are not obligated to notify the police.

The religion has also repeatedly attempted to hide behind clergy-penitent privileges to avoid notifying authorities at all:

“In court filings, [Jehovah’s Witnesses] don’t deny the abuse happened but say Montana law exempts elders from reporting “internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member’s serious sin.””
U.S. News & World Report
September 19, 2018

While elders have now been instructed to tell victims that they have the right to report their allegations to the police, the elders do not proactively offer assistance to the victims.

A victim can then be left on their own to contact police, find psychiatric help, and so on, a situation that no one should face alone. This situation becomes all the more impossible if the victim is still underage, and especially if their parent is the abuser!

The list of deficiencies in the religion in this area alone could go on.

TWISTING THE NARRATIVE

Early on in his protest, Kaepernick stated outright that he was speaking against injustice and police brutality most specifically, and said that this protest was not to disrespect the flag or veterans in particular:

Yet, despite the fact that the flag doesn’t represent the military or the veterans but belongs to all of us as citizens, and despite the fact that it was a veteran who encouraged Kaepernick to go from sitting to kneeling in the first place, his actions soon got twisted and outright smeared. He’s even been referred to as “police hating” and “America-hating.”

IMHO, Kaepernick is not disrespecting anything. He didn’t turn his back on the flag, burn it, or give it the finger. Kneeling is a form of supplication, much like when you get down on one knee to ask someone to marry you, or to pray.

Kaepernick is asking the country to do better, to improve the system for everyone. It’s actually a sign of respect to think that you can do better; otherwise, you’ve become complacent, or worse yet, have abandoned people to continue suffering neglect or outright abuses.

It’s not unusual for people to twist my motives and message in the same way. During one of the last visits I ever had by Jehovah’s Witnesses, I told a circuit overseer (a traveling individual who oversees the activities of many congregations and elders) about my disgust over the horrific domestic violence and misogyny in the religion, and he actually bellowed in my face that I was just a “man-hater.”

The husbands are beating up on their wives, but I’m the one who hates. Of course.

Some have also said that Kaepernick is hypocritical for protesting since he’s a somewhat wealthy man, wasn’t discriminated against when it came time to hire him for a good position in the NFL, and has apparently never been the victim of police brutality himself.

Oh for the love of sweet vegan maple syrup, where do I begin…

For one thing, I’m sure many children in the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t victims of sexual violence either; that somehow cancels out the overwhelming number who are? Every single child needs to be brutalized for this horrific problem to be discussed? Every single person of color needs to be brutalized and discriminated against for the issue to become important?

Flip this thinking around; are people saying that Kaepernick should have the attitude of, “Well I got mine so screw anyone who didn’t…”?

I also find the implication that you personally need to be the victim of some type of injustice before you can advocate against it to be confounding. By that measure, Americans can’t discuss poverty in Africa and someone who has never been raped can’t advocate for tougher laws against this crime.

This thinking would also mean that people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses shouldn’t care about the children who are being raped and abused, and who are then systemically abandoned to those abuses within the religion. I refuse to accept that. Kaepernick can and should protest violence and injustice of all sorts, whether or not he’s a victim of that same violence himself. Anything less is complacency, and shame on the people who don’t work to affect change, IMHO.

I DON’T RESPECT A CHILD RAPIST, OR MURDEROUS COPS EITHER

For those who still get angry at Kaepernick’s kneeling or any other similar form of protest, think back to those elders, telling BCG, that beaten, abused, and raped child, that she should “respect” her father. Rather than agreeing that her father’s long history of abuse was horrific, rather than having an ounce of compassion or respect or even courtesy toward her and her suffering, they chastised and lectured her, and demanded she show deference to the man who had put her through so much.

I can’t agree with that. I don’t respect BCG’s father; I don’t respect any child rapist. I think her father should have done better, to put it mildly. I think those elders who abandoned BCG to her abuses, who chastised and counseled her, should have done better. I think the religion could still do a lot better.

I think police in this country, as well as judges and lawmakers who allow abuses to legally flourish, and citizens who water down prejudices or look for excuses to justify abuses, can also do better.

I don’t adhere to the thinking of, “Oh well it could be worse look at how I can walk down the street and buy things and the cops haven’t pulled me over recently so I need to look the other way when it comes to these injustices,” no more than I adhere to the thinking that BCG could have somehow had it worse, she should be thankful to her father for putting food on the table and respectful to him no matter what he did, and so on.

There’s nothing wrong with expecting better of yourself, your religion, your society, and your country, and especially when talking about subjects like child sex abuse, systemic racism, and police brutality.

There’s nothing wrong with insisting that respect be earned, not demanded.

All of that is why, as an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, I will continue to write about the religion and call attention to its horrific abuses, and will continue to kneel with Colin.

*** ***

¹Vanity Fair

²Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Sentencing Project

³As of this writing, Amber Guyger, the off-duty police officer who unlawfully entered Botham Jean’s apartment and shot him to death, has been charged with murder. However, that does not eliminate the question of why a miniscule amount of marijuana even made the news during the initial investigation.

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