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You Know Exactly What I Mean

 If he hadn’t flat-out called me a liar, I’d let the point slide. But he pummeled me again and again - liar! - liar! he taunted. Me! Tom Sheepandgoats! He grabbed me by the lapels and shook me like a dog with a rat. But now there is new light. An update. And, sure enough, the asinine point he was harping on is every bit as asinine as I thought it was. Moreover, by hashing this out again, I get to put in a plug for the delightful (based on what I've heard, which is not all of it)  new Randy Newman album Harps and Angels.

It all began when I commented here  on the blog of a certain atheist, whose name I will not mention, but whose initials are Plonka. He and the like-minded Dikkii were hoo-hawing over Australian Prime Minister Kevin Ruud, who had said something reverential, or at least not sufficiently anti-God. What an ass he must be, they mocked. What proof does he have? Pandering for the religious vote, and so forth. As for me, I’d just been reading Rolling Stone magazine, and had come across an interview with Randy Newman in which the songwriter explains Harps and Angels, his new CD, and the background behind it. Now, he is in his 60‘s, he says, and reaching that age “doesn’t make you want to run out and hold up a banner for atheism.” What about that, Mr. Plonka, I queried. But Plonka ran to the newstand, got the same article, found the song lyric (one of the few published) “you boys know I'm not a religious man,” and, like Johnny Cochran and the fitting glove, threw that in my face!

As often happens, I took the seed of that exchange and worked it up into my own post: “It Doesn't Make You Want to Run Out and Hold Up a Banner for Atheism.”The first one to comment was Plonka, armed with his favorite lyric: “And once again you seem to have neglected the lyric "You boys know I'm not a religious man..."“

‘What about that, Tom, hmmmm? you liar? He said “You boys know I'm not a religious man,” didn’t he? What about that?! You haven’t admitted to that, yet!’ As if imagining Mr. Newman's new CD is a musical lecture on atheism.

So I said: “Randy Newman, in a song, included the lyric "You boys know I'm not a religious man..." There.

“Look, I didn't portray him as a raving Bible thumper. Most likely he is agnostic, like the majority of people today. What would you have me believe.....that he "hardly wants to run out and hold up a banner for atheism," but he runs out and holds it up anyway?? Being "not religious" and being atheist are not the same thing. I've done Randy no injustice. Let him comment here himself if he feels I have.”

He didn’t, so it’s obvious he agrees with everything I said. Of course, Mr. Newman was never more than a lead-in tangent to that original post, but he became the main topic when Plonka started harping on his smoking gun lyric “you boys know I’m not religious,” and he is the main topic of this post.

So here I am, today, driving down the road with my radio tuned to my favorite station, the way it always is, when I hear “you boys know I'm not a religious man.” They’re playing Randy Newman’s song! Of course, they didn’t just play that line. They played all the other ones, too:

Hasn't anybody seen me lately
I'll tell you why
Hasn't anybody seen me lately
I'll tell you why
I caught something made me so sick
That I thought that I would die
And I almost did too

First me knees begin to tremble
My heart begin to pound
First my knees begin to tremble
My heart begin to pound
It was arrhythmic and out of tune
I lost my equilibrium
And fell face down upon the ground

As I lay there on that cold pavement
A tear ran down my face
'Cause I thought I was dying
You boys know I'm not a religious man
But I sent a prayer out just in case
You never know
Lo and behold almost immediately
I had reason to believe my prayer had
been heard in a very special place
'Cause I heard this sound

Yes, it was harps and angels
Harps and angels coming near
I was too sick to roll over and see them
But I could hear them singin ever so beautifully
in my ear

Then the sound began to subside
And they sounded like background singers
And a voice come down from the heavens above
It was a voice full of anger from the Old Testament
And a voice full of love from the New One
And the street lit up like it was the middle of the day
And I lay there quiet and listened to what that
voice had to say

He said, "You ain't been a good man
You ain't been a bad man
But you've been pretty bad
Lucky for you this ain't your time
Someone very dear to me has made another
clerical error
And we're here on a bit of a wild goose chase
But I want to tell you a few things
That'll hold you in good stead when it is your time
So you better listen close
I'm only going to say this once

When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
'Fore they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Don't want no back stabbing, ass grabbing
You know exactly what I mean
Alright girls - we're outta here"


"Encore. Encore."
(He spoke French)
"Tres bien
And off they went into the night

Almost immediately I felt better
And I come round to see you boys
'Cause you know we ain't living right
And while it was fresh
I wanted to tell you what he told me

He said, "When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
When they lay you on the table
Better keep your business clean
Else there won't be no harps and angels
coming for you
It'll be trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks,
and tambourines."

Sing it like they did for me one time
Ooooh - yes
Ooooh - beautiful
Wish I spoke French

So actually the main thing about this story is for me
There really is an afterlife
And I hope to see all of you there

Let's go get a drink

Okay, okay, so he doesn’t exactly approach God with fear and trembling. Not a lot of reverence. No. More like the amiable codger you meet in service who, when he thinks of it, which is not too often, supposes he must be “okay” with “the Man Upstairs.“ I won’t ask what Kingdom Hall Mr. Newman attends. But it‘s hard to infer from those lyrics that he‘s an atheist. I mean, you really have to work at it.

So that’s my admonition to you, Mr. Plonka: “Better keep your business clean. Don't want no back stabbing, ass grabbing. You know exactly what I mean."

'Liar,' my rear end!” And you know, almost immediately, just as Mr. Newman sang, I felt better.


This post updated here. (sigh)

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Nelson Barbour and the Rochester Connection

It’s obvious to any reasonably astute spiritual person that Rochester, my hometown, is nowhere mentioned in scripture. It’s equally plain that such neglect is grossly unjust. Not only unjust, but arbitrary. After all, if I lived just 90 miles east, in Syracuse, I would at least have minor (yet satisfying) scriptural mention. I think it was Tom Wheatandweeds concluding a District Convention held in that city a few years back, at the Onondaga County War Memorial Auditorium, who pointed out that all in attendance had fulfilled a scriptural pattern. He referred to Acts 28:12, the clown, which reads:  “And putting into port at Syracuse we remained three days… " And what if you lived in Rome, NY, 30 miles to the northeast. Well, then you’d have scriptural mention all the time. But Rochester….not even once.

Perhaps, though, things are different when we consider the modern-day history of Jehovah’s people - you know, the one that got underway in the late 1800’s, the one where Charles Taze Russell was a prominent figure. What finds we when we do a search of that period?

Whoa!! Right off the bat we hit a home run! In the very early days of Jehovah’s modern-day Witnesses, Russell came across a fellow searcher of scripture in Rochester by the name of Nelson H Barbour. The latter published a journal called The Herald of the Morning which advanced some doctrinal points that Russell, too, had discerned. The two teamed up and combined their Bible study groups, Barbour’s being the larger of the two. They became coeditors of the Herald. Russell infused cash into it, as it was in danger of going belly-up. They published a book together (in 1877): Three Worlds, and the Harvest of this World.

Ah….but the marriage didn’t last. Barbour began veering away with some ideas Russell didn’t care for, most notably denying the ransom value of Christ’s death, saying that [Russell’s words] “Christ’s death was no more a settlement of the penalty of man’s sins than would the sticking of a pin through the body of a fly and causing it suffering and death be considered by an earthly parent as a just settlement for misdemeanor in his child.” The two squabbled back and forth in the Herald magazine for awhile - each penning separate articles - and then Russell broke off partnership and started a journal of his own: Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, known today as the Watchtower. The Watchtower grew to its present circulation of 37 million. The Herald of the Morning disappeared.

Who was this fellow Barbour? I don’t know if I’d be especially curious, were it not for his Rochester connection. But I spent some time in the library archives [unnecessary, it turned out, since most of the information is also at Wikapedia] and uncovered some basics about him. He was a serious student of the Bible. Born in 1824  and raised among Presbyterians [as I was], he was a little too inquisitive for them and broke off at age 19 to do independent study and preaching. He published some tracts and books before he met Russell, and he founded The Church of the Strangers afterward. A pork chop preacher! Joe Hart might have called him, but such wouldn’t be fair. Unlike storefront preachers today, who, Joe suspected, preached just so as to supply themselves with pork chops, Barbour gives every appearance of being legit. Another Barbour, Clarence A Barbour, was a local Presbyterian preacher at the time, and he gets more contemporary press than does Nelson. Was Nelson the black sheep of the family?  And an Elizabeth Barbour - apparently Nelson’s wife - is listed in the records of the Central Presbyterian Church (3/31/1873) as “suspended, erased & excommunicated” [!] Did she stray from Presbyterianism and join Nelson in his heresy? She died in 1901. Nelson died in 1905.

There were a lot of guys like Nelson in those days. In fact, Russell was like him. As the end of the Gentile times approached, there were many in the decades leading up to 1914 who began searching the Scriptures - roving about, as Daniel phrases it. They focused on the fulfillment of prophesies - many of them found in the book of Daniel. You could say they were “keeping on the watch“ as to the Lord’s return. Might they be the “you” of verse 12?

10 Concerning this very salvation a diligent inquiry and a careful search were made by the prophets who prophesied about the undeserved kindness meant for you. 11 They kept on investigating what particular season or what sort of [season] the spirit in them was indicating concerning Christ when it was bearing witness beforehand about the sufferings for Christ and about the glories to follow these. 12 It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven. Into these very things angels are desiring to peer.       1 Pet 1:10-12

At any rate, Daniel relates what was told him about prophesies he recorded:

And as for you, O Daniel, make secret the words and seal up the book, until the time of [the] end. Many will rove about, and the [true] knowledge will become abundant.    Dan 12:1

You couldn’t count on the Presbyterians or any mainline church to do any such “roving.” They’d long since grown fat and happy with well-paid clergymen who were content to confer God’s blessing on whatever human government they lived under. No, it would be breakaway students - folks like Barbour - and Russell.

In the early twentieth century, Charles Taze Russell enjoyed particular success. The Bible study group he formed has grown into Jehovah’s Witnesses of today. Is it because he was smarter than the rest of them? Or more dedicated? Started with more money? Was more humble?  Was more blessed?  He would, I think, have emphasized the latter factor. At any rate, the movement he chaired became exceedingly active. Russell himself saw his weekly sermons published in 4000 newspapers. A publication called The Continent said of him: “His writings are said to have greater newspaper circulation every week than those of any other living man; a greater, doubtless, than the combined circulation of the writings of all the priests and preachers in North America; greater even than the work of Arthur Brisbane, Norman Hapgood, George Horace Lorimer, Dr. Frank Crane, Frederick Haskins, and a dozen other of the best known editors and syndicate writers put together.”

In what would have made Sam Harris proud, were he willing to give credit to a “deist,” -  which he is not - Russell and associates “called a spade a spade”with regard to the God-dishonoring teachings of the churches. So much so that when the eight principle officers of them was railroaded off to jail in 1918 (convicted under wartime charges of sedition - a conviction reversed nine months later, the original trial having been shown to contain 125 errors) the churches all high-fived each other.   Ray H Abrams writes in his book Preachers Present Arms, (published in 1933)  “An analysis of the whole case leads to the conclusion that the churches and the clergy were originally behind the movement to stamp out the Russellites. . . .
“When the news of the twenty-year sentences reached the editors of the religious press, practically every one of these publications, great and small, rejoiced over the event. I have been unable to discover any words of sympathy in any of the orthodox religious journals. ‘There can be no question,’ concluded Upton Sinclair, that ‘the persecution . . . sprang in part from the fact that they had won the hatred of “orthodox” religious bodies.’ What the combined efforts of the churches had failed to do the government now seemed to have succeeded in accomplishing for them—the crushing of these ‘prophets of Baal’ forever.”

Upon release from prison -their convictions overturned - the eight officers of the Watchtower were not a bit abashed. They resumed with full vigor their preaching campaign, and, in fact, intensified it. We see the result as the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses today. Of course, we view the movement as not brand new, but a restoration of first century Christianity, following a foretold period of “sleep:”

Another illustration he set before them, saying: “The kingdom of the heavens has become like a man that sowed fine seed in his field. While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat, and left. When the blade sprouted and produced fruit, then the weeds appeared also. So the slaves of the householder came up and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow fine seed in your field? How, then, does it come to have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy, a man, did this.’ They said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go out and collect them?’ He said, ‘No; that by no chance, while collecting the weeds, you uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the harvest season I will tell the reapers, First collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up, then go to gathering the wheat into my storehouse.’”  Matt 13:24-30

But all that’s mere background for the post at hand. We’re dealing here with the backwater eddy that was Nelson H. Barbour. Rochester Central Library archives list his Church of the Strangers at the address 86 Williams Street* in Rochester.

No way!!! That’s not 100 yards from the old Irondequoit Kingdom Hall! (which is now a dentist’s office) I used to live in that Hall, in a downstairs apartment, when I pioneered back in the 70’s. Let me tell you, this is weird. It almost makes me feel like a bad Elisha, having caught the cloak of a bad Elijah. Of course, he missed by 100 yards, but that is what a bad Elijah would do. And I hate to think of the implications for this blog!

Sheesh! I’m almost sorry I asked.

*It is possible that the Williams St of today, at the very edge of Rochester City limits, is not the same Williams St. of 100 years ago. But I’ll leave matters as they are. How often does a guy get to end a sentence with three exclamation marks?



The Rochester Union and Advertiser for October 5, 1895, page 12 offers the following article on Nelson Barbour:

The 57th installment of the Union’s Series of Saturday articles on Rochester pastors is devoted to the Rev Nelson H Barbour, pastor the Church of the Strangers, located on Williams St.

"Nelson H. Barbour was born at Toupsville, three miles from Auburn, N. Y., in 1824. At an early age the family moved to Cohocton, Stueben County, N. Y. From the age of 15 to 18, he attended school at Temple Hill Academy, Genseco, New York; at which place he united with the Methodist Episcopal Church, and began a preparation for the ministry under elder Ferris. Having been brought up among Presbyterians, however, and having an investigating turn of mind, instead of quietly learning Methodist theology he troubled his teacher with questions of election, universal salvation, and many other subjects, until it was politely hinted that he was more likely to succeed in life as a farmer than as a clergyman. But his convictions were strong that he must preach the gospel even if he could not work in any theological harness. And at 19, he began his life work as an independent preacher. Since which, all that is worth reporting in his life is inseparable from his theological growth. He could not believe in an all wise and loving Father, permitting the fall; then leaving man's eternal destiny to a hap-hazard scramble between a luke-warm Church and a zealous devil. On the contrary he believed the fall was permitted for a wise purpose; and that God has a definite plan for man, in which nothing is left to chance or ignorance.
"Mr. Barbour believes that what he denominated the present babel of confusion in the churches is the result of false teaching and the literal interpretation of the parables.
"The Church of the Strangers was organized in 1879. Mr. Barbour has preached in England, in several Australian colonies, in Canada, and many states of the Union. For the past twenty-two years he has published the Herald of the Morning in this city; claiming that in his 'call' to preach, he confered [sic] not with flesh and blood. Nor was he called to convert the world; but independent of creed, to search for the truth 'as it is in Jesus,' the 'second man Adam,' believing that the restored faith is a precurser [sic] of the millenium [sic] and 'Times of restitution of all things.'"



Tom Irregardless and Me          No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


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For Mac

“Once you learn the truth, it doesn’t change; it doesn’t flip around like worldly reasonings. Once you learn what God requires of you, just do it.” That was Mac Campbell’s reasoning, and nobody can ever say that he didn’t “just do it.” Unique even among Jehovah’s Witnesses, he died last week at age 85. He and I had kept up over the years, so I was there for the funeral. Surely, the verse was true of him:

“a name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better is it to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take [it] to his heart.” (Ecces 7:1) On his day of his death, Mac’s record is his. No one can take it from him.

Mac specialized in a type of ministry rare these days - “street work.” Not the type of street work where you approach passersby, but the type where you just stand there and they (ideally) approach you. A couple dozen years ago the JW organization started to discourage that type of witnessing. Don’t just stand there like a sign post, they’d say, what can you possibly accomplish by that? Sure enough, two or three times I’d gone downtown and just stood there like a sign post. After a time, I began to feel like one. People would whiz by you - did you even exist? But when I endeavored to move and mingle and approach people - the ministry, though a bit more stressful, became both enjoyable and productive.

Still, Mac made a success of the old style street work. He did it because he was always there. Ever  immaculate in appearance, he staked out a position on Main Street and made it his own. They’ve since boarded up that abandoned doorway - I don’t know what he’d do now - but he’d been off the streets for several years, incapacitated by poor health.  He was as much a fixture as any Rochester landmark. Businesspeople would eye him a dozen times or so, eavesdrop, note that he was amiable, dignified, in no way a screwball, and would end up chatting regularly. He’d spend all day speaking with people.

Probably that’s how he caught quirky Bob Lonsberry’s attention. Bob is a radio fixture here, and was once a fixture of the newspapers. He wrote about Mac in his “Real People” series back in July of 1992: [nobody was more real than Mac]  “In friendly conversation, Malcolm is hard to reject. He is commanding of respect; he’s dignified. He is 68, married 45 years and a grandfather of 18, [he took Gen 1:28 -be fruitful and become many and fill the earth - seriously, the funeral speaker pointed out.] coming back from a stroke last year.”

His manner, speech and appearance were the match of the most prominent businesspersons, with whom he frequently spoke. They would have been amazed had they known his modest circumstances. They would have been more amazed had they known it was by design. Mac worked part-time in basic blue collar-type work, which provided enough so that the majority of time was his, and that was all he asked. Even among us, who constantly hear the virtue of simplification, few have the combination of faith and capability to simplify to that extent, particularly while raising a family. Yet, spending time with Mac made it seem quite doable and reasonable, and you began to wonder why you weren’t doing it also.

He was a frugal kind of guy. There he was, having run across this fellow who had built his own furnace from scratch, going on and on about it. Why would anyone do that? his pal responded - just call a furnace guy. But Mac was always impressed with those who could make do. Wasn’t it he who defined (in 1982) the phrase “keeping up with the Jones?” It was “spending money you don’t have, to buy things you don’t need, to impress people you don’t like.” He had that green Volare - he must have driven that 100 years. One day, stopping by, there were two of them in his driveway. Identical. Same color and all. One was for parts. “You probably paid more for those shoes than I did for this car,” he told a visitor. Sure enough, the shoes had cost more.

If that impresses me, it’s because it is a quality I don’t have. Alas, with some justification Mrs Sheepandgoats has accused me of living the motto “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it is broke, don’t fix it.” I’m not especially handy, which makes me appreciate guys who are.

Mac was also a put-together guy, again, something I am not. He told of one fellow who would pat his shirt pocket just once to find his pen. If it wasn’t there, he didn’t have it. He wouldn’t pat down his shirt pocket, then his pants pockets, then his coat pockets, then do it all over again, then pull stuff out of all pockets to make sure, like I would do. No. He was organized. There was only one place that pen could possibly be. Mac, too, had that sort of organization.

And he wouldn’t blow his horn. On the mean streets of Rochester, where people routinely block traffic so they can kibitz with their pals - not in the snooty suburbs, where “such things just aren’t done” - but in the city where they are done all the time, Mac wouldn’t blast his horn to break up the jam. “Daddy, just blow your horn,” his daughter would say, “that’s what people do.” But Mac wouldn’t. “You never know when you are the last straw,” he’d observe.

He kind of hoped - in vain, as it turned out - that his own funeral would not be a big deal. “Just put me in a pine box and lay me down quietly,” he’d say. "Don’t make a fuss over me.“ He was troubled that his death would inconvenience people, make them take a day off work, and such. (Indeed, for a time, funerals did get out of hand, with some high-profile people filling up the whole assembly hall, but I think that is not done anymore) “Mac, it’s not for you, it’s for us,” a friend retorted. “You’ll be asleep. We’re the ones who’ll be comforted by it.” He smiled, in the way that Mac did. That was the only answer that could have prevented him from going on and on.

I served with him once in one of the congregations, and had more or less kept up with him since, visiting him at home a few lengthy times, and always seeking him out at conventions. “You going to visit me again?” he asked at the last convention. “It depends on if you’ll give me a beer,” I responded. Mac was hospitable, and he liked beer. “I’ll give you a whole case,” he replied.

Six months later, in one of those strange convergences that you don’t quite know what to make of afterwards, I was mentioning to my wife how I was going to pop in for a visit - I brought the subject up several times. But I was too late. Next meeting they announced that he’d passed away.

I’ll probably hear about it upon his resurrection.


More in the Afterword of Tom Irregardless and Me      "Black Mack, Slow Joe and Davey the Kid"

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Bernie Madoff and E.T. the Extraterristrial

Poor little E.T! So all alone and very far from home. His mummy and daddy landed their spaceship to explore the strange and beautiful planet earth. Of course, they told little E.T. to stay close, but you know how little boys and girls are, even those from other worlds! Soon E.T. was all turned around and hopelessly lost. All of a sudden, his mummy and daddy started their spaceship and zoomed away. They didn’t know they‘d left their little boy behind! Then, mean atheist grownups tried to catch E.T. and put him in an alien museum! But E.T. made friends with earth children, and the earth children hid him. They carried him on their bicycles to get away. When the grownups made a roadblock, E.T. used space powers to make the bicycles fly, leaving the grownups far below!

What a heartwarming movie! How wholesome! How uplifting! However, in E.T. Returns - the Sequel -didn’t I hear that was on the drawing board? - E.T. returns as a teenager. He’s surly. He’s sullen. He drinks, fights, and swears. Finally, he incinerates all of planet earth, starting with Wall Street!

Director Stephen Spielberg just lost an everloving fortune to Bernie Madoff, the shyster-financier whose legendary investment fund turned out to be no more than a massive Ponzi scheme, run from his non-descript office on Wall Street. Spielberg's not happy about it. In Ponzi schemes, earlier “investors” are paid off with funds taken from latter ones. Ponzi schemes work great until you run out of new investors. Once you do, they collapse. Mr. Madoff’s hadn’t yet reached the point of collapse. His sons had turned him in.

Bernie Madoff’s financial and personal pedigree was impeccable. Cultured, wealthy, refined, active in philanthropic causes - he had sealed his reputation chairing the NAZDAQ stock exchange. Surely he knew how to make investments behave! His sterling credentials attracted funds from the most financially savvy people in the world, themselves international bankers and hedge fund managers. Like shy debutantes, rich folk would sidle up to him at the country club, praying to be noticed, hoping to be invited to invest with him. A handful of his clients got too inquisitive - exactly how did he achieve his rock-steady consistent returns, anyway? - and he threw them out of his fund! This, of course, ensured that his remaining clients would toe the line - you don’t question a genius! Similarly, a handful of others complained about him to the SEC, at least one submitting a detailed analysis showing the man couldn’t possibly be operating the way he said he was. But the SEC, swayed by Madoff’s elegance and reputation, saw nothing amiss and declined to investigate! Their hero-worship cost Spielberg and other clients $50 billion dollars, at last estimate.

Ironically, Mr. Madoff’s clients included many bankers and hedge fund people who had shunned the CDO’s and credit swap instruments which have destroyed the world financial system. They were yet taking their bows for financial acumen and farsightedness, when their trousers dropped and all the world discovered they’d sent their money to Bernie instead, who’d lost every penny of principle! Isn't the Madoff scandal the spinning hubcap, still clattering long after the din of the main wreck has ended? When the racket finally stops, then maybe the whole demolished ruin of finance can be towed to the Obama collision shop, whose proprietor says he can fix it.

Mr. Madoff is Jewish, and the individuals who trusted him were predominantly Jewish. His scheme, therefore, was an example of affinity fraud, says this blogger.  She quotes an WSJ article:


The Madoff tale is striking in part because it is like stealing from family. Yet frauds that prey on people who share bonds of religion or ethnicity, who travel in the same circles, are quite common. Two years ago the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a warning about “affinity fraud.” The SEC ticked off a series of examples of schemes that were directed at members of a community: Armenian-Americans, Baptist Church members, Jehovah’s Witnesses, African-American church groups, Korean-Americans. In each case, the perpetrator relied on the fact that being from the same community provided a reason to trust the sales pitch, to believe it was plausible that someone from the same background would give you a deal that, if offered by someone without such ties, would sound too good to be true.

The sense of common heritage, of community, also makes it less seemly to ask hard questions. Pressing a fellow parishioner or club member for hard information is like demanding receipts from your aunt — it just doesn’t feel right. Hucksters know that, they play on it, and they count on our trust to make their confidence games work. The level of affinity and of trust may be especially high among Jews. The Holocaust and generations of anti-Semitic laws and practices around the world made reliance on other Jews, and care for them, a survival instinct. As a result, Jews are often an easy target both for fund-raising appeals and fraud. But affinity plays a role in many groups, making members more trusting of appeals within the group.

I’d never heard the term “affinity fraud,” nor am I aware of specific schemes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sure there have been some. I’ve just not heard of them. Of course, I do know of business deals between brothers going south or sour. You know - say Tom Sowmire invites Tom Oxgoad to go in halves with him to build a shoe horn factory. Surely they’ll make a killing! However, Sowmire - a passable enough Christian, is really not very bright as a businessman, and soon the whole project has gone down the drain. That’s why we get a lot of counsel through our publications to the effect that Christians ought not be stupidly naïve when it comes to business matters: don’t put trust in every word, count the costs, get all details in writing….that sort of thing. Jesus said that “the sons of this system of things are wiser in a practical way toward their own generation than the sons of the light are.” (Luke 16:8) It’s a disquieting observation, but there is truth to it.

Then there was the period about 20 years ago when the friends started to get sucked into multi-level marketing schemes. You know…you sell a line of health products. You persuade some of your customers to also sell your products, which makes you a distributor. They, in turn, persuade some to sell for them, and you get a cut of everything downstream. It’s seductive. The pitch is that you will be helping your friends, providing them with stuff they really need. The glossy advertising shows you and your family lounging around your fancy swimming pool, with your mansion and luxury cars in the background. Ideally, you are thumbing your chest, just like in those innumerable Watchtower pictures decrying materialism. Multi-level outfits love to target close-knit religious communities, like ours. Members of such communities have a lot of friends who are sitting ducks for sales pitches. It got so that everyone could tick off a half dozen or so brothers they knew who were hawking vitamins, or internet plans, or drain plungers - buttonholing all their pals. But one brother observed that if he was going to enthusiastically speak to all about anything, it ought to be about the truth. Since he didn’t do that, it seemed disingenuous to do it for the sake of nose hair clippers.

Anyway, the JW organization endured it for a short while, then starting coming out with articles that you don’t go using “theocratic contacts” for personal gain. Not setting rules, you understand, but by repeated counsel, an atmosphere was established in which you would never dream of pushing your line of deodorants upon spiritual brothers. Now it’s a little like passing gas in public - it’s not that it’s forbidden, but nobody does it.

From a distance, it might seem that Jehovah’s Witnesses are like salesmen - hawking religion. But those who approach their ministry that way are not effective. Me, I enjoy the ministry, but I make a wretched salesman. I’m always thinking about why the other person doesn’t need whatever I‘m offering. Consequently, I’ve stayed away from sales as a career. One time, though, I came across a product that I thought I could sell….a type of insurance. I applied for the job, signed up for training, obtained an insurance license.  Alas, it turned out to be arm-twisting. The supposed people who had already shown interest - so that you would not need to do cold calling - had actually shown interest a long time ago, and had already been bludgeoned a dozen times or so by arm twisters before you got their number. So they weren’t in very good humor. A training video demonstrated how one might overcome sales resistance - the householder involved was reduced to tears (by guilting him) until he finally signed on. The company (whose stock price just hit a 13 year low) considered this a sterling example of salesmanship. How else could you help such a person, it was pointed out. It wasn’t work I could see myself doing, so I dropped out, but to this day I regret not standing up then and there and telling them all how despicable their video was.

Ah well, that’s the business world for you. It is what it is. If you’re not very careful, you’ll find yourself using other people (or being used by them). But thanks to Bernie Madoff and the parade of bankers preceding him, perhaps all that stuff will go down the drain. Nobody has any money anymore.


Tom Irregardless and Me      No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash



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