This chapter alone is written for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or rather, it was. It is culled from various posts written in real time as events unfolded. It, and some of the chapter that follows, is the only chapter of its sort. The general reader is invited to follow along, but if he thinks he is not primarily being addressed, he is right. He can skip the chapter with but salvageable damage to the overall storyline.
From this author’s point of view, it is the first chapter. It is my first stab at the topic. Some of the posts, in hindsight, seem overdramatic or betray naiveite. No matter. The object is to convey the emotion of the time. Search elsewhere for a Joe Friday “Just-the-facts-ma’am” narrative.1 Jehovah’s Witnesses are often naïve as to events with political overtones. “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” says Jesus.2 To entitle this chapter: “A Novice Comes Up to Speed” would not be far amiss.
At the present time (January 2017) a situation is unfolding in Russia that has unfolded many times in many parts of the world. The enemies of Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to ban the faith in that country. It may remind one of General Bell’s WWI threat to Joseph Rutherford regarding a bill specifically designed to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States: “That bill did not pass because [President] Wilson prevented it; but we know how to get you and we are going to do it!”3 In general, the military will not do such a thing. A patriot will not do it. Certainly, a civil libertarian will not do it. Those who grouse that Jehovah’s Witnesses have woken them up from a sound sleep will not do it. Even Richard Dawkins, the atheist advocate who thinks all religion is a cancer and would snuff them out in a heartbeat, will not do it to Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically. It is almost always powerful ones with strong Church connections who will do it.
Note who does not do it: Wilson. He “prevented it.” Thereafter, as the opponents stirred up major trouble for the Witnesses back then, was he even aware of it? It is not as though his mind was not occupied with other matters. Likely it is that way in Russia. It doesn’t go to the top. Likely, the one at the top will “prevent it” to a degree. But the one at the top is also like Pilate, as are all national leaders—he has a country to run. “Look, this is not my cause,” Pilate thought. “I’ll give the scoundrels what they want. That way, I’ll get them out of my hair.”
Countries like Russia favor the “house” church. They don’t necessarily believe it, they likely don’t—Russia was long a country officially atheist—but leaders have found that worship of God simply cannot be extinguished, so it is channeled into a single main church as a concession. The main church, they find, is a strong force for national unity. They like that. It is a win-win. “What can we do for you?” they ask the main church. “Take out the competition,” is the reply.
It is that way with the dominant Russian Orthodox church. One needn’t believe in God to embrace it. One needn’t believe in God to resent criticism of it. 42% of self-proclaimed atheists and 50% of self-proclaimed nonbelievers identify with the Church, says Baran from the previous chapter. Vladimir Putin, a former high-ranking Communist, is likely of the atheist or agnostic camp. Perhaps he finds himself in a similar bind as did Pilate, who knew very well that Jesus was innocent, and tried to free him, but in the end gave in to those demanding his death in order to keep the overall peace.
Are the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, or anywhere, truly extremist? Dr. Ekaterina Elbakyan says that charges of extremism are nonsense. “I saw with my own eyes the video material on the basis of which Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged with extremism. Twice I gave a detailed commentary in court explaining that this was a typical Christian religious service and had nothing to do with extremism, but the court did not take the expert opinion into consideration. It is impossible not to see this as a clear and systematic trend toward religious discrimination. As long as this trend continues, there are, of course, no guarantees that believers will cease to be classified as ‘extremists’ because of their beliefs.”4
Even the Bible translation used by Jehovah’s Witnesses has been branded “extremist,” though Dr. Gerhard Besier, director of the Sigmund Neumann Institute for the Research on Freedom and Democracy, observes: “The New World Translation has received high praise worldwide from Bible scholars representing diverse religious communities.”5 As to the experts relied upon by the state to eliminate Jehovah’s Witnesses, Dr. George D. Chryssides states “I have personally never heard of the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies, and the fact that Internet search engines can find no information on it speaks for itself…Since the so-called experts whose opinion has been sought in Russia identify innocuous books such as My Book of Bible Stories and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived as examples of subversive literature, this must call their expertise, as well as their motivation, into question.”6
If My Book of Bible Stories and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, and even the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures are banned as extremist, that means you had better not have them in your house of worship. Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses removed them; they’re nice, but not essential. There are other Bible translations available—they all work. But determined enemies planted the banned literature and their cohorts promptly came along to “discover” it.7 They have been caught red-handed doing this several times. It is searchable on the Witness website and is entitled: “Russian Authorities Fabricate Evidence to Charge Witnesses with Extremism.”8
How could any Witness in Russia not think it a remarkable coincidence that their greatest trial in decades erupts just as the 37th chapter of Isaiah is being considered in congregations worldwide through the scheduled weekly Bible reading? That schedule was determined 100 years ago, as it is simply reading through the Bible a few chapters at a time—reach the end and start over. The enemies of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of January, are fully empowered to close Bethel, the Administrative Center at St. Petersburg. (All branch headquarters, as well as main facilities in New York, are called “Bethel,” a Hebrew word that means “house of God.”) The final legal appeal has been lost. And because of the scheduled Isaiah 37, Witness meetings around the world discussed the one-hour video “Oh Jehovah, I Trust in You.” The video dramatizes the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem during King Hezekiah’s reign, and relates how a single angel eliminated 185,000 of the enemy army in a single night. It was first shown at the hundreds of Regional Conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and is now found on their website.
“Hey, remember that angel we dispatched to Jerusalem? I’m impressed with his portfolio. Check on his availability, won’t you?” Is there that sort of discussion somewhere? Probably not. Witnesses take in on the chin these days. That angel is the hit man angel and he is reserved for extraordinary occasions. Even Hezekiah, the Israelite King, was not smug about his back-up. He didn’t assume that God was going to send the hit man; maybe he would and maybe he would not. He just knew that his role was to trust fully in Jehovah and remain faithful. And that’s what our Russian brothers must do right now. Look, it will all turn against us one day. When Jesus was hauled before Pilate, he didn’t sweet-talk his way out of it, did he? Similar is the hostility of this world today toward those who would follow Christ.
How will it play out this time? Will world opinion prevail upon leaders there to carry on as every other nation does, Russia now being the only nation on earth to ban JW.org? Our brothers bear up under persecution when they must, and it often brings honest-hearted, to say nothing of courageous, people into the fold. People say: “Why are they making trouble for the Jehovahs? They’re nice people.” Time will tell.
Congregations worldwide have seen recorded interviews of ordinary Witnesses in Taganrog, Russia, whose lives have been turned upside down by years of legal trials. They have heard them speak of their hardships—emotional, physical, and financial—and how they have been drained of every resource they had simply for following Christ. They saw a child who thinks perhaps both parents will be sent to prison for worshipping God. They saw a grandparent who thinks he will be sent there yet again—“at 59, it is too much,” he says. They saw a young man who cannot hold a job, as his employer cannot accommodate his frequent absences for court. If they can endure as they have endured, they will completely pour themselves out, just as the early Christians did, just as the Apostle Paul did, and just as Jesus did. All Witnesses pray for them to be given strength. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” says Jesus.9
Witnesses realize who is their real enemy. They know that not all in government oppose them—they have been targeted by a vociferous minority with special interests. They recognize that their persecution does not come from ordinary people unless these have been stirred up by agitators, or the media under the influence of agitators. There was a barn fire in Russia in the dead of winter and firefighters saved 150 pigs. Find it and watch the firefighters joyously tossing piglets to each other in a bucket pig brigade.10 See? They rescue piglets over there just like we would rescue them here. People are people. Focus on the people, not the kings, nor their officials.
Do persons suffer in such countries as Russia? Without a doubt, they do. But people suffer here in the U.S, too. They are just different people. “Authoritarian” countries are much concerned with maintaining order. Many here suffer due to the lack of such concern. Some persons hearing of the Russian persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses are sympathetic. But others are exuberant. “Yeah! And not only there, but everywhere!” they shout. Is it people making themselves readily identifiable for the separating of the sheep and the goats, a separation based upon how they have treated “Christ’s brothers?”11
Jesus said to his followers: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, you will be led before governors and kings for my sake.” Why would that occur? So as to be commended for fine work? No. It would be so that accusations could be hurled, necessitating a defense. The more vile the accusation, the better it will play for those who would malign Christ’s followers.12
“I was just a boy when Stalin exiled my family to Siberia merely because we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is sad and reprehensible that my children and grandchildren should be facing a similar fate. Never did I expect that we would again face the threat of religious persecution in modern Russia,” says Vasiliy Kalin, as Russia petitions the Supreme Court to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses.13 Jesus said his followers would be hailed before courts. Was it so that they could receive “Good Citizenship” plaques? “What are they saying about me, here?” said the Christian Apostle Paul to the Jewish leaders in Rome. “Are they digging up any dirt on me?” “They answered him [this time literally]: “We have received no letters from Judea about you, nor has any of the brothers arrived with a damaging report or rumor about you. But we should like to hear you present your views, for we know that this sect is denounced everywhere.”14
Mr. Kalin was to testify at the trial, where he showed the Court his certificate of rehabilitation awarded him during the 1990s. It was presumably of him that one of the Witness attorneys said: “There is present a person who was born in prison. Because his mama, five months pregnant, was sentenced as an enemy of the people to eight years in prison merely because she was a Jehovah’s Witness. She gave birth in prison, and for two years the baby lived in the prison’s children’s home. His father could not take him, because he had been exiled to Siberia. In 1991 the state acknowledged the mother as a victim of political repressions, apologized to her, and allocated a pension. And now here in the court, this man, born in prison, came up to me and asked: ‘Does the Ministry of Justice really want to repeat this horrible history?’ And I did not know what to answer.” At any rate, Kalin himself said at the trial that he was experiencing “memories of the future.”15
Persecution is a mark of true religion today. Depend upon it that those who truly follow Christ will be “denounced everywhere” and even called extremist. One would think that the terrorist attacks that have become a staple of life would have taught the Russians what extremism is. Instead, for them it is as their opponent states:16 “In their literature, there are some very harsh statements and very insulting statements about other faiths,” says Alexander Dvorkin, the former Russian Orthodox priest who now teaches the history of religion and cult studies at St. Tikhon University in Moscow, whom we will hear from again. “Of course, every religion has the right to criticize other faiths, but that should be done in a non-insulting manner, especially if you are talking about [my faith] the faith of the majority.” (brackets mine)
The reason you can and should criticize other faiths is that, as any non-religious person knows, religion has historically served as cheerleader for war and killing. Thus, a growing number of persons would like to ban them all, not just Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is ironic that Russia should start with one of the few religions totally innocent in that regard, as Witnesses are universally known to refuse military service.
Trying to seduce the guileless ones, which is not necessarily difficult, for they are guileless, one opponent poses as a Governing Body member on social media. C’mon! You don’t say: “Brother Jackson is on Facebook! I know it’s him because he liked the Jumping Jehovah’s Witnesses picture!” There is such a thing as discernment. If he has actually opened a social media account (what are the chances?) it is a major change in method of communication. He would give plenty of notice beforehand on trusted channels. Here is explained why the Governing Body is unenthusiastic about Witnesses taking to the Internet: it is the land of the liars. It is the land in which a truly insightful remark is followed by that of a complete moron, who nonetheless has equal weight. One’s opening assumption online must always be: “Everyone here is a liar.” Sort them out later, but open with that assumption. How can anyone possibly know who’s who? Anyone can pretend to be anyone. Anyone can use anyone’s photo. You must be “social network smart.”
Some in the faith carry on as though they can assemble their own congregation on the Internet. They can’t. There is no way to gauge spirituality. There is no way to tell if you are speaking to a liar or a saint. There is no channel to dispense spiritual food. Nobody knows if I am a circuit overseer when I venture online or if I am disfellowshipped. It is an uncontrollable place, this land. Our people are inherently trusting—guileless, and sometimes that blows up in their faces.
The masquerading fellow said: “Pray for our brothers in Russia.” A noble sentiment, for they are going through difficult times. In time, though, it became clear that he didn’t give a hoot in hell for “our brothers in Russia”—jail them all as far as he is concerned. It was all a ruse so as to gain the confidence of trusting ones and redirect their attention to unflattering reports elsewhere. There wouldn’t be any brothers in Russia were it not for the organization he maligns. They would be all captive to the dominant church, whose daily text every day is: “Take out the competition.” They would know little of the Bible. It appears that he would like it that way, for it is not as though he represents anyone following the Christian commission to spread the kingdom message. Once his tweet had served its purpose, he deleted it, and it is preserved only in screenshots.
A Governing Body member appears on social media? Be “shrewd as serpents,” if you please. “We ask you…not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us,” writes the apostle to the Thessalonian congregation. “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy,” says the gospel. Depend upon it. They are up to no good when they come under false pretenses.16
I don’t even say that I am a Witness regarding my own web presence. Obviously, it can be read between the lines, but it is not plainly stated. I do get emails asking if I am or not. I don’t link to the JW.org website, either, because I imagine it imputes my idiosyncrasies (we all have some) upon them. Generally speaking, the Internet is a terrible place to witness. Yet our people do it all the time. A brother will say online: “Do you wonder about the origin of the cross?” The answer is NO! Secular people do not care, and religious people do not wonder. The only people who come along, 99 times out of 100, are ideologues who live to argue.
Once before in my memory have all Witnesses been invited to write officials of a nation’s government over persecution. This was during Malawi’s period of intense persecution that saw thousands of Witness homes and places of business torched, members robbed, beaten, raped, and in some cases, killed. The period is best captured by Enelesi Mzanga, an active Witness throughout that time, the wife of a circuit overseer and a mother of nine, who experienced all of it. Her life account can be found in print and online.17 The ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Malawi lasted for 26 years (1967–1993), the identical length of time that Witnesses operated legally in Russia (1991–2017).
Time Magazine then wrote: “By all accounts, a virtual pogrom is in progress against the 22,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the African nation of Malawi.” The article even supplied evidence that with the Witnesses’ chief opponent, it was personal: Malawi President-for-Life Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, an elder in that country’s Presbyterian Church of Central Africa, “has become increasingly angered by the ‘devil’s Witnesses,’ their unwillingness to join his ruling Congress Party, their refusal to take loyalty oaths, and their exclusivist claims to religious truth.”18
Despite Time’s report, three years later the World Council of Churches still wasn’t sure that there was anything to it, and if there was, it was probably the Witnesses own fault. An African churchman of the Council, quoted in the New York Times,19 stated that “there has been a problem regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses in many African countries. There are accusations and counteraccusations of one kind or another that come out of unsettled situations.” Matters were obscure, his peers opined, and they didn’t appear to be in any hurry to figure it out. Why—“according to some sources, they were accused of collaborating with antirevolutionary forces.” Is not any person is a source? The situation may have been “obscure” and “confusing” to the churchman, but it certainly wasn’t to Enelesi Mzanga. Jehovah’s Witnesses neither salute flags or pledge allegiance to any government on the ground, and from this circumstance are realized many opportunities to make trouble for them.
Video Vignettes Taylor Made for Current Persecution in Russia—February 24
The grandparents and great grandparents of many Witnesses in Russia will identify with the Apostle John, writer of the Book of Revelation, the book that concludes the Bible. He wrote it while exiled for his faith on the island of Patmos. It was an exile that serves to foreshadow that of the Russian Witnesses into Siberia, absent only the snow. It was for the same reason. The apostle’s predicament came about “because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.” One way to handle that problem is to pack the perpetrator off to Patmos or Siberia.20
In late-night raids, with only minutes to grab whatever they could carry, Witnesses were rounded up, herded into boxcars, and shipped into exiles that were meant to be long. Those who were missed in 1949 were rounded up two years later. For many, Siberia would become their permanent home, because when their sentences had been served many would choose to remain where they had set down roots.21
Video vignettes first shown at the 2016 worldwide Regional Conventions, and later on JW Broadcasting, seem tailor-made for the persecution that is building in Russia. The extreme situations depicted in the videos are not now reality, but they have been reality in prior Soviet times and they show signs of becoming so again. Russian Witnesses, and Witnesses everywhere, are being fortified with spiritual “food at the proper time.” If shaming does any good, the current authorities are being shamed before the world for backing or permitting what transpires. The clips have been nicknamed “the bunker videos” of the great tribulation,22 and they climax with police discovering the basement hideout into which a small Christian group has retreated. All that remains is to supply participants with Russian accents.
They actually do have Russian accents in another series of clips that deal specifically with persecution: 1) The friends jump when there is pounding at the door, only to find that, this time, it is not the police, 2) Sergei arrives home to find the police have beaten up his father, and he is threatened himself. 3) Sergei is sentenced to five years in prison, which he can avoid if he renounces his faith. These are all themes that have played out in various places at various times among Jehovah’s people. Alone of those groups incarcerated during the Nazi Germany reign, Jehovah’s Witnesses were given opportunity to write their ticket out if they would but abandon their worship.23 Only a handful complied. In faint echo, after the ban in Russia imposed by their Supreme Court, there were reports of Witnesses being exempted from military service only on condition that they discontinue their religion. When the Military Commissioner of Khabarovsk was asked how he would handle such a problem, he answered: “There is no sect—there are no problems! If a conscript declares his desire to perform alternative service, citing his membership in this organization that is forbidden in Russia, we will not even consider such a request.”24
These video vignettes are a new touch in Regional Convention programming, once restricted to talks supplemented by interviews or enacted demonstrations. Now it is talks supplemented by sequential videos. Presently it dawns upon one that the videos are the main story and the talks are supplemental. Let no one say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are behind the curve in their use of technology.
An Invitation to Write
The United Nations doesn’t buy the contention that Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremist. Only a day before the April 5th hearing began, it declared: “The use of counter-extremism legislation in this way to confine freedom of opinion, including religious belief, expression and association to that which is state-approved is unlawful and dangerous, and signals a dark future for all religious freedom in Russia,” and thereby expressed hope Russia would drop its prosecution of the religious organization.25 “The fate of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fate of any religious group that does not pledge its allegiance to the Russian government,” Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, a U.S. commissioner for International Religious Freedom, says.26 “April 5 will definitely mark a new chapter of religious persecution in post-Soviet Russia.”27
Roman Lunkin, a human rights fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on church-state relations in Russia, doesn’t buy the argument that Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremist, either. The government is just cozying up to the Russian Orthodox Church, he says. Though many groups are feeling the heat, he identifies another reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the actual target. Other minority Christian groups in Russia, such as the evangelicals, have not yet faced the same level of scrutiny. It is impossible to accuse evangelicals of extremist activity because their literature and Bible translation matches that of the Russian Orthodox Church…Evangelicals also have closer relationships with government officials, he says.28
“I cannot imagine that anyone really thinks they are a threat,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which monitors extremism in Russia. “But they are seen as a good target. They are pacifists, so they cannot be radicalized, no matter what you do to them. They can be used to send a message.” Andre Sivak, a Witness who lost his job as a teacher, tell what it feels like to be so targeted. Security officials secretly filmed his local meeting and accused him of “inciting hatred and disparaging the human dignity of citizens.” It’s a Bible study meeting. Anyone who has ever attended a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses knows that. “They say I am a terrorist,” he said. “But all I ever wanted to do was to get people to pay attention to the Bible.”29
“Anyone who would have our publications could be criminalized. It is of great concern,” says David Semonian, Jehovah’s Witness spokesperson. “The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and that is all we are asking, to have the same rights as other religious groups have so we can go about our ministry in a peaceful way.” To that end, Jehovah’s Witness leadership reached out to the U.S. State department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission for aid. “We will do everything within our legal means to have the judgment reversed,” Semonian says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses are known worldwide for our peaceful activities, and under no circumstances would we ever resort to violence or any other activity that could be misunderstood or considered extremist.”30
Time Magazine also confirmed: “Jehovah’s Witness leaders have also asked their eight million members worldwide to write letters to Russia officials, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to ask them to intervene. Instructions tell writers to be candid but respectful, and to mention how the faith has benefited their families. Keep in mind that ‘a mild answer turns away rage,’ and ‘a gentle tongue can break a bone,’ the instructions say, quoting the Biblical book of Proverbs.”
That invitation came on March 21st via post on JW.org.31 “Threatened with an imminent ban on their worship in Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses are responding with a direct appeal to Kremlin and Supreme Court officials for relief through a global letter-writing campaign. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is inviting the over 8,000,000 Witnesses worldwide to participate,” it read. More words of Mr. Semonian were included: “Reading the Bible, singing, and praying with fellow worshippers is clearly not criminal,” adds Mr. Semonian. “We hope that our global letter-writing campaign will motivate Russian officials to stop this unjustifiable action against our fellow worshippers.”
Six officials were listed to whom one might write, and their addresses were supplied. Additional instructions were included. It was okay to send more than one letter to the same official. It was okay to use a business letterhead, if you had one. Pay attention to grammar and spelling. Neatness counts. No need to have it translated into Russian. Sign it. Do not include literature. Don’t email. Use sufficient postage. (In the U.S, that meant the Global Stamp. It cost a dollar, is round, and features a picture of the moon, perhaps symbolic of Jehovah’s Witnesses shooting for the moon. Many Post Offices ran out of the stamp.) A page will do, no more. Don’t send copies to the branch. Don’t mention by name any Witnesses in Russia. Be candid but respectful. Pray about it.
Tell Them Something They Don’t Know—March 23
When you are writing to the Russians about their proposal to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, there may be a temptation to speak of legal and constitutional issues, since their recent conduct flies in the face of most of them. There may be temptation to observe that ISIS or the Taliban provides the template of what extremism is. Surely Russian leaders know what their own constitution says and for whatever reason, they are choosing to ignore it.
Tell them something they don’t know. Tell them about eight million people, from every nation, who don’t know their Russian brothers personally, but care about them anyway. Let them ponder the significance of what if the whole world was like that. When they look to the outside world of international relations, all they see is bickering, belligerence and bellyaching. Let them see another world.
Convey that we are ordinary, decent people, the sort who appreciate government’s role to preserve social order and improve the moral fabric of persons within its borders, and that we everywhere cooperate with governments as they pursue such goals. I like the suggestion at JW.org to relate some practical way in which Bible truth has helped us personally. Imagine! An invitation from Bethel to write to high Russian officials about the proposed ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a fine way for individual Christians, most of whom feel quite helpless, to “bring their gift to the altar.”32
“I am speaking words of truth and reason” said the apostle Paul before King Agrippa. “The king knows about these matters and to him I speak boldly, for I cannot believe that [any] of this has escaped his notice; this was not done in a corner.” Paul pressed: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You will soon persuade me to play the Christian.” Paul replied, “I would pray to God that sooner or later not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am except for these chains.”33 The chains were a downer. There is no nice way to spin that. Best to acknowledge it and move on, for such reversals of what should be are common in life.
Just as Paul said to Agrippa, the persecution of Witnesses in Russia has also not been done in a corner. The Witness central organization has not allowed that to happen. Not only does it adroitly coordinate a letter-writing campaign, stimulating front page coverage from the New York Times, and Time Magazine on “Day of Delivery,” but it has succeeded in strengthening an already unified people. All they had to do at Bethel is to invite once for individual Witnesses to write—they did nothing else—and the response is a deluge. Clearly, organization is not an impotent thing. It serves here as a magnifying lens for Christianity, and for this reason some attack it.
It makes the Russian government uncomfortable that Witnesses can be mobilized through an agency that lies outside national borders. They ought not be uncomfortable, for the Witness agency goes out of its way to make clear it poses no threat to it, nor any other government. Still, with a century of East/West distrust as a backdrop, it is very hard to convince them of that. If only world leaders would stop squabbling! Look, Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States rely upon the Bible. They do not rely upon Western media for their worldview.
The best letters I have seen are from children, who have a knack for going straight to the heart. Putin is tired of being lectured about human rights. That issue, like all others, comes laden with political overtones. Yet he is in danger of being made to look very foolish due to the machinations of the main religious body. Witnesses would spare him. They do not share the common Western sentiment of maligning him. Nor is he their buddy. He is the leader of another form of government, that is all. All human governments will drop the ball—this fact explains why many of Jehovah’s Witnesses become Jehovah’s Witnesses in the first place. Usually it is a bowling ball that they drop, and as people ponder the vulnerability of their right or left feet, thus is decided their politics. But Witnesses strive not to bring such matters into the congregation, thus disturbing its peace. They opt instead to focus on the fact that human governments of all stripes will drop the ball, unlike God’s kingdom, which does not.
What sort of letters have emerged from the campaign?
March 23, 2017
Dear Mr. Chairman:
Forgive this intrusion into your affairs. I am writing to ask you to reconsider facts in view of the upcoming Supreme Court consideration to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. I am an American JW and have been so for 35+ years.
We are a community of eight million who are deeply concerned about the welfare of our Russian brothers and sisters, though we have not met them. True Christians are united. If you know one, you know them all. I implore you to take a good look at their organization before acting. Do not let others decide for you, for they would have Russia look like fools on the world stage. Nobody can visit JW.org and think for one moment that it is extremist.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are ordinary, decent people, the sort who appreciates government’s role to preserve social order and improve the moral fabric of persons within its borders, and we everywhere cooperate with governments as they pursue such goals. We make it our aim to live quietly and to be a force for good in the communities in which we reside.
This is an opportunity for the leaders of Russia to stand up in behalf of the little people who comprise most of any country’s citizens. We pray that you will rise to this occasion. If any of our people should appear tactless, kindly forgive them for that. We are not accustomed to addressing high officials.
John Q. Witness [actual name withheld]
March 23, 2017
Dear Mr. Minister:
I am writing with regard to the future of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. I am a Witness in the United States, a member of an international community of 8 million persons who deeply care for each other.
In the Bible I have found answers to age-old questions such as: “why do we grow old and die?” and “why does God permit suffering?” We value the answers to those questions, for everyone has such questions. It accounts for our public ministry—if you know something valuable, you don’t just sit on it. Sure, it’s possible to travel through life without a clue to these answers, but why would anyone choose to do it? They add meaning to life.
We add only good to the Russian (or any) people, and not bad. We ask that when the time comes to render judgment upon lowly people whose only desire is to serve God, you strike a blow for fairness.
James Q. Witness
March 23, 2017
Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
I am writing with regard to the future of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. I am a Witness in the United States, a member of an international community of 8 million persons who deeply care for each other.
If need be, Russian Witnesses will follow the course of first-century Christians. They will, like those the apostle Paul wrote of at Hebrews 10:36, allow themselves to be tried by “mockings,” by “beatings,” by “prisons,” before a world [that] “was not worthy of them.” The practice of Christianity is that important to them.
Not every last one of them will do this, of course. But the vast majority of them will. It has played out many times before in many parts of the world. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you,” says the Bible at John 15:18. Christians worldwide don’t like persecution one bit. But they expect it because Christ told them to. Sometimes it even adds members to the faith, as some will realize Christians are told to expect persecution.
Why should this be? I would plead for them. Jehovah’s Witnesses everywhere are decent, law-abiding people. They are not ones who meddle in government affairs. Instead, they are of strong moral character and thereby assist any government in encouraging good qualities in its people.
The Bible says that true Christianity to be “spoken against everywhere,” as Acts 28:22. However, also depend upon the supposed reasons to evaporate as frivolous upon inspection. I hope you will not be swayed by some giving you bad advice when the future of Russian Witnesses is decided.
Peter Q. Witness
March 23, 2017
Dear Mr. Prosecutor General:
I have been told that Russia is thinking of placing a ban on my brothers and sisters. I hope this will not happen! Jehovah’s Witnesses wish to worship freely as Russian law says it will allow their citizens to do.
Unfortunately, there has been a false accusation made stating that Jehovah’s witness are extremists. In no way could we be called revolutionists or rebels. For over 40 years I have associated with the Witnesses and have never heard any encouragement to act against any government. To the contrary, we are told to be respectful and obey the laws. We pay our taxes.
My personal experience speaks to the wonderful way Jehovah’s witnesses are taught at their Christian meetings. Before I began to study the Bible, I was a drunkard and lived an immoral life. Now I can say I am a better mother, wife, and citizen. I know I am not alone in my experience.
On April 5th, 2017, I request that you choose to see the truth about us and allow Jehovah’s Witnesses to continue their peaceful meetings and worship. We are eagerly awaiting the time when the world will be united, and we will all be at peace as brothers and sisters.
Mary Q. Witness
March 23, 2017
Dear Mr. President:
Please excuse this direct contact, but the situation is desperate for us and so we feel need to resort to unusual methods.
News reports here indicate that Russia has its hands full battling protestors. That is the reality in many lands. Please do not devote your energy to harassing the one people who do not protest.
Andrew Q. Witness
Fear the King do not treat him with disrespect—March 27
In most countries, if you taunt the king too much, you risk your neck. But if you make it your aim to live quietly, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, won’t he leave you alone? Russia has a different form of government. It is nothing more threatening than that. “What! You think we’re so righteous here?” Trump shot back at his critics.34 If they tolerate interference less than is done here, there is still no reason to think that they are not genuine in their desire to provide stability and good government. At the drop of a pin, Western media and politicians will describe Russian leaders in the most insulting of terms. We need not play that game. Our perception of the king there need not be formed by the king here.
We should not chuckle at the spectacle of these people not being able to move because we have flooded their mail. If anything, we should apologize for it, with the caveat that when you feel backed into a corner, you resort to unusual tactics. With our very existence under assault, we felt we had to get their attention somehow. Nevertheless, fear the king. Do not treat him with disrespect.
To the extent that anyone is indiscreet, making taunting comments like: “You think you’re powerful in Russia? Well, wait till you see what OUR God can do,” it explains why not everyone at Bethel is enthused about social media. I haven’t seen many of these remarks, but I have seen some. Hopefully they died on the cutting-room floor and were never sent. If there is one thing we know about Russian police, it is that they like to be respected. And our brothers in Russia do respect them, to be sure. It is just that they respect and fear and love Jehovah more. Before we make any comment, it seems well to ask ourselves whether a Russian brother would say it.
Here, Putin is routinely reviled by politicians and media. Respectful letters from ones who have every reason to gripe may make more impression than we realize. Sometimes a mild tongue can break a bone. Sometimes the heart of a king is like streams of water that God turns this way or that. Sometimes the king is prevailed upon to do things not of his own originality, just like Cyrus of history.35 Other times he just carries on the way he always does. We cannot foreknow. But as our brothers in Russia brace for their greatest trial, Mark Sanderson speaks to them on JW Broadcasting in Russian.36 Who knew that he spoke Russian?
There was a report that our brothers in Russia have withdrawn all appeals and have instead requested the largest possible courtroom for the April 5th hearing, the “overflow” courtroom. It is exactly what they would do—play this out before the largest possible audience. It is just how Jehovah is having it play out on the world stage today. The Governing Body invites us to write. Our people respond to such an enthusiastic degree that national Post Offices are being crushed. Of course, this leads to publicity everywhere as to just why that is. I’d be surprised if every Witness in the world does not write to Putin or one of his co-officials. Surely, the world takes notice of a faith in which each member takes such an interest in each other. Putin may just load the letters on supertankers and sink them at sea. Just how do you cope with millions of unexpected letters anyhow? but he cannot fail to know that they exist. It has to register somewhere, somehow.
Those who hate Jehovah’s Witnesses join in the fray, writing letters in support of the ban, like the Edomites of old who screamed “Lay it bare!” when Jerusalem was under attack.37 This almost makes it better, for it adds to the tonnage. It is as the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Of course, some preach Christ from envy and rivalry, others from good will. The latter act out of love…the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not from pure motives, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. What difference does it make, as long as in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed? And in that I rejoice.”38 Let everyone take their place on the world stage. Let the people firmly and publicly separate themselves into the sheep or goat column. Perhaps God is luring them all, as with hooks in their jaws.
Meanwhile, note how our people conduct themselves. Note how extraordinarily respectful they are, as is evident on JW Broadcasting, toward government authorities. Note the September 2016 Study Edition Watchtower article, “Defending the Good News” before courts, which is being used today as a template. Note how the Witnesses’ respect for authority is so contrary to what anyone would expect that it only adds to the witness. Let every person in the world become aware and take a stand on this issue. If it is to be, let Russian officials look themselves in the mirror and publicly declare: “I believe, what with all the villains and scoundrels on the loose today in our country and world, that taking out Jehovah’s Witnesses is the most important thing we can do.”
The campaign may fail in its goal of swaying the minds of Russian officials. But it will not fall short in its goal of giving a massive witness. It will not fall short in stepping up the preaching work worldwide, as it presents fresh evidence that “the time is running out.” It will not fall short in giving our Russian brothers tremendous reinforcement. For the rest of their lives, persons will approach them and say: “You crushed our Post Office. Just what kind of people are you, anyway?”
The trick will be to generate such worldwide publicity—so as to make every person aware—that for Putin to snuff out Jehovah’s Witnesses would be comparable to his strangling a cat on live TV. He may decide not to do it. He wants to be regarded as wise, as firm where necessary, but certainly not as an unhinged despot. To be sure, he plays hardball when he has to, but he may come to realize that here he does not have to. Due to a massive campaign of publicity, everyone except the most disconnected should become aware of the situation soon to be decided by him. Will he want to be an international pariah? All our letters will be respectful, except for some seeded in by religious enemies eager for the ban to proceed, in sharp contrast to how he is usually portrayed in the West.
He may get fed up, not with us, but with the national Church that is trying to feed him the line that JW.org is extremist, doing so for the purpose of taking out the competition. He may, on a night that he cannot sleep, become like King Ahasuerus of long ago,39 peruse JW.org (surely he’s allowed to see it), recognize that it plainly is benign, as every other nation in the world recognizes that it is, and come to resent the national Church that would have him look like a total donkey on the world stage. He may come to realize that, what with all the very real concerns facing his country, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not one of them.
I apologize to Mr. Putin—April 3
When Putin opens my letter, he will be disheartened. He will see several paragraphs. He will want with all his heart to read it, but he has several million other letters to get through. He will toss the letter.
He will then open the next letter and discover, as he suspected from the envelope, that it is from a child. It includes drawings, one of a sad little girl because Putin is being mean to her nice friends, and one from a happy little girl, because he has had a change of heart. Putin will smile faintly, for everyone loves children. He will put this letter aside. Possibly he will show it to his grandchildren someday.
He will open the next letter. It will also be from me—not the same letter, but one worded and reasoned anew. He will roll his eyes. “Another letter from that windbag Harley,” he will mutter, and toss it in the trash.
How many letters will he receive? Eight million, at a minimum, as every Witness in the world will write him. They were invited just once. They all thought it a good idea. Putin has never seen anything like it and he will not forget it. It will not necessarily melt his heart. It may make him mad.40 He has a country to run. He has a world infested with scoundrels he must stay abreast of, and one of them succeeded in taking out his favorite limousine driver, a no-doubt decent man who I would have hung out with, had I visited, before any government official. He may not like it that Jehovah’s Witnesses try to paralyze him and his Kremlin with paper, like the Dr. Seuss king mired in oobleck.41 Perhaps he will ship all letters to the North Pole, like ones to Santa Claus.
I apologize to him. I really do. Unfortunately, the well-being of my brothers is at stake, and we feel we must get his attention somehow. He is being given bad advice by religionists. If he takes it, he will look like an utter fool before the world, because nobody can read JW materials, online or in print, and think them extremist. Perhaps he should vent his anger at those who would maneuver him into such a ridiculous position.
Most likely, the eight million is just for starters. Six addresses are listed at JW.org. Many Witnesses will send their same letter to all six, bringing the total to—say, 30 million. Yuri will not be jealous that Dmitry received the same letter as he. Some, comfortable in writing, will compose several letters and send each to all six. Make that 50 million. Then there will be non-Witness human rights people. These will write in numbers of far less percentage, but there are far more of them. There will also be some who don’t like Jehovah’s Witnesses and who will write to support the ban, not to mention some virulent opposers who will chide him for being so half-hearted. Will that bring the total to 60 million? More? Your guess is as good as mine.
Will the letters from opposers fool him? I doubt it. He will say: “Look, I can see why Harley would write me, he and all his 8 million chums, but what about this loser? Is he pretending he is somehow my friend who would warn me of a great danger? Is he not part of the general world who was last week (in the United States) called me a ‘thug and a murderer?’”42
Let us now consider how Vladimir Putin will shake in his boots as he reads a letter on the business stationary of Bob’s Cleaning Service. Witnesses were invited to use their business letterhead if they had such, and not all Witness-owned businesses will knock your socks off. There are elements of comedy in everything, and Christians are a spectacle to the world. The Christian drama is the one to watch. Who knows? Maybe Bob will remind Putin of his chauffer pal and thereby carry the day. Maybe an aide will tell him of some impending crisis that requires his immediate attention. “Handle it, will you?” Putin will respond, as he wonders what would the world be like if everyone behaved like Bob, transcending national, racial, and social divisions to show loving concern for their spiritual brothers.
Tell the House Church to Take a Hike—April 7
The American popular media, almost to a person, opposed the election of President Trump. Throughout 2017, they pushed the narrative that Russia had meddled in the American election and that Trump was a Russian stooge. But in early April, Trump became convinced that Russian ally Syria had used chemical weapons within its borders. He ordered a missile strike in retribution.43 American pundits recalibrated. Russian pundits were livid. Perhaps the country they regarded as the perennial aggressor was fomenting another war, as it had (in their eyes) 100 years ago to the day with World War I.
Russian media source RT.com recounted how Woodrow Wilson, the world’s “first globalist,” propelled the U.S. into that war, reversing entirely his campaign promise to keep the country out of it. When enthusiasm for the nascent entry seemed less than he had anticipated, he came to favor mandatory conscription and laws that would penalize anyone speaking ill of the war effort. Thus was born the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of May 1918.44
The Espionage Act was famously used against Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1918, sending leaders to Federal prison. Their convictions were overturned nine months later. Today, Russia’s own Extremism Law threatens to do the same for its counterparts on the other side of the world. Okay, I know it’s naive, and the following is tongue-in-cheek, but could this possibly play out? Might Putin possibly say: “Yesterday, it is St. Petersburg!45 Now it is Syria! Next it will be North Korea! What a crazy world! What do I care if the Jehovahs want to preach? Get this case out of my hair! I’ve got things to do! Tell the House Church to take a hike!”
Now the priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. When Jeremiah finished speaking all that the LORD commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests, the prophets, and all the people laid hold of him, crying, “You must die!”
…The priests and prophets said to the princes and to all the people, “Sentence this man to death! He has prophesied against this city! You heard it with your own ears.”
…Then the princes and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man does not deserve a death sentence; it is in the name of the LORD, our God, that he speaks to us.”46
It is always this way. The princes have no problem with it. It is the priests and the prophets that oppose religious truth. The very ones who you think would be in harmony with it are on the other side. Will it turn out that way in Russia today?
It is hard to imagine that traffic to the Witnesses website will not increase, perhaps even explode. In view of the publicity, people will want to see if it is truly extremist. This will be especially true with those we find difficult to reach: the newsworthy and well-connected. What will be the result when they discover that it is not extremist at all? Perhaps that is the greatest contribution our Russian brothers make to Jehovah’s service. The decision itself may not go in our favor. Russian Witnesses may once again become like the Christians of early times who walked about under duress, “and the world was not worthy of them.”47 It happens with good precedent in a world unfriendly to Christians. Jesus was not summoned before Pilate to receive a pat on the back, was he? It was more than a pat on the back he received. Pilate saw through the scheme in a heartbeat. He tried to free Jesus. But he had a province to run. In the end, he proved unable to withstand the clamor of that day’s religious leaders desperate to preserve their place and the status quo.48
The non-Orthodox religious world follows this case closely, for fear they will be next. Many of them are cozier with the politicians, as Lunkin noted,49 and their literature isn’t necessarily that different from that of the Orthodox Church, so it may take a while, but they fear their time may yet come. After all, if you are going to the Baptist church, then you are necessarily not going to the Orthodox one. As is not infrequent, they are letting Jehovah’s Witnesses do their heavy lifting for them. They hold back. What support they offer is tepid, because Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult that do not believe in the Trinity. If we win, they will latch on for the ride. Will they be grateful? It’s unlikely. We will continue to be portrayed as a cult that fully deserves whatever bad comes upon it.
In one of my online haunts, a scoundrel taunts me, trying to get me going. The letter-writing campaign involved advising foreign JWs “to send their personal address details to the Russian government.” Did this not work to the detriment of a Danish citizen, arrested there after the ban went into effect? By following such direction, “he would surely have put himself on a watch-list before entering the country. As indeed has everybody else who sent them their family details and personal address.”
I confessed to him: “It’s true. I followed Governing Body directions to send my address to the Russians and now every time I part a window blind, I see Putin staring in. Sometimes it is not he himself, but one of his minions. At the supermarket, suspicious men in heavy coats with Russian accents approach me to say “We’ve been waiting for you, Tom. You see, you gave your address ‘details’ to His Evilness, and now he would like a little chat with you.” I spoke to every other Witness in the world and they all said the same thing had happened to them.
Come now. There is such a thing as maturity. What with political crazies on one flank, nutcakes on the other, bombers in St Petersburg, ISIS kicking up everywhere, Putin has all he can do to harass 175,000 Witnesses in his own country, assuming that he elects to do it. You would have me believe he is going to expand his efforts to harass every Witness in the world? “Methinks you have been too heavily influenced by Western politicians and media,” I answered. “The police checked everyone’s papers, and discovered he was not a local. They didn’t consult their 8-million-person master list.” In fact, Dennis Christensen was not a visitor at all. He has lived in Russia many years with his Russian-born wife. He was the first to be arrested after the ban went into effect.
“But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him to the tribunal, saying, ‘This man is inducing people to worship God contrary to the law.’ When Paul was about to reply, Gallio spoke to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of some crime or malicious fraud, I should with reason hear the complaint of you Jews; but since it is a question of arguments over doctrine and titles and your own law, see to it yourselves. I do not wish to be a judge of such matters.’ And he drove them away from the tribunal. They all seized Sosthenes, the synagogue official, and beat him in full view of the tribunal. But none of this was of concern to Gallio.”50
Gallio saw that what was before him was a religious dispute. Why should he care about it? He had an empire to run. He “drove them away.” Despairing of his waning attention, they beat the daylights out of someone right under his nose. But their fifteen minutes of fame had expired. The Roman official had moved on to other things, perhaps finishing his newspaper, rustling the pages to shoo the agitators away. What of Putin when the Church and its friends accuse Jehovah’s Witnesses? Might he also be like Gallio?
Eleven days after the trial, which Jehovah’s Witnesses lost,51 a Russian language site posted a summary set to musical background. It should not be missed. What follows is an English translation of the subtitles displayed onscreen:52
Supreme Court of the RF (Russian Federation)
Six days of court hearings
Ministry of Justice demands the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Yaroslav Sivulsky: member of the Governing Committee of the Administrative Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia: “When the court case began, the judge was denying our petitions one after the other, it seemed that, that was it, the issue had already been decided beforehand.”
Judge Yuri Ivanenko: “The Court, having listened to the opinion of the persons taking part in the case, of the representatives, has decided to … reject, reject, reject … [the rest is not clear, maybe ‘persons and evidence’ [DM]”
Brother Sivulsky: “On the whole, about 17 petitions were denied and only 1 granted by the Court. We did not see any evidence supporting the claim of the Ministry of Justice. To clarifying questions, often the representative of the Ministry of Justice said: ‘I am not aware of… I don’t know…’”
Judge Yuri Ivanenko: “You prepared for this court case.”
Justice representative Svetlana Borisova: “Yes.”
Judge: “So certainly, you know what remaining danger we are talking about...”
Borisova: “It is hard for me to answer now.”
Lawyer Viktor Zhenkov: “Tell me, have there been specified cases of disturbance of public order by Jehovah’s Witnesses under the influence of the reading of Jehovah’s Witness literature? Do you have such facts?”
Borisova: “No I don’t have such facts.”
Lawyer Anton Omelchenko: “Please tell me which local religious organization spent what sums of money and on what extremist activity.”
Borisova: “We do not audit local religious organizations.”
Omelchenko: “That is, you don’t have any such information; have I understood you correctly?”
Omelchenko: “Thank you.”
8 witnesses were called
of whom 4 were on the side of the Ministry of Justice.
Brother Sivulsky: “Although the witnesses on the side of the Ministry of Justice tried to damage the reputation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they could not present one single fact supporting extremist activity on the part of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Judge Ivanenko: “In the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation it has been decided, in the matter of the claim of the member of the Ministry of Justice, to uphold it…”
The very same day, unknown persons threw stones at a religious building [Assembly Hall in St-Petersburg].
Legal expert Maksim Novakov: “From this status of “extremists” will flow a general application of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
BANNER: The activity of the Administrative Centre is BANNED.
Brother Sivulsky: “Never before have the press, social workers, people in general, been so interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses to this extent.”
BANNER: The verdict of the Court will be appealed.
Judge Ivanenko: The court session is closed.
It was sealed on April 20th what Jesus had said at John 15:20: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” “We know that this sect is denounced everywhere,” said the Jewish leaders to the apostle Paul.53 Including here, says Russia.
Early indications that the trial would be little more than a sham to rubberstamp a decision already made were recounted by Mark Sanderson, a Governing Body member, who was present throughout. Eighteen of the defense team’s nineteen motions were promptly denied, among them one to admit videotaped evidence clearing showing police planting banned literature. That motion was denied. Every other interested party in the world had already seen it on JW.org; the only ones who refused to see were the ones who had a moral obligation to do so. Embassy officials of other nations saw it, too, and they were surely dismayed to see it barred as evidence. Their turn was to come, as the Court went on to refuse to hear their own testimony regarding the record of Jehovah’s Witnesses in their respective countries.
It is just like Jehovah’s Witnesses to look for the silver lining in the cloud. They observed on their web broadcast that six of their people had provided clear, cogent testimony reflecting the true nature of their faith’s worship and work. They even declared a victory of sorts, based upon a passage in Luke, for events certainly had worked out in the following way: “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony.”54
Toward the end of the trial, Witness attorneys were able to remind the Court that it was not really they before the Russian authorities. Rather, it was everyone, defense and prosecution alike, arguing before the Supreme Court of the universe. Also included in the broadcast were Russian brothers who gave assurance of their intentions to serve Jehovah steadfastly regardless of their new circumstances, and to do it with the Christian trademark of not returning evil for evil.55
[Moved by this broadcast, ISIS World Headquarters rehearsed their own special broadcast to be made in the event that they, too, should ever get into hot water with the Russians. They, too, tried to line up interviewees to upbuild their adherents. They were thwarted in this, however, because any person that stepped forward was instantly blown full of holes by heavily armed ISIS members. This happened because ISIS is an extremist group.] (bracketed material concocted by author for purposes of comparison.)
On day two of the trial, the Russian Presiding Judge became surprisingly active, reported Sanderson. He questioned closely the Ministry of Justice on just what might happen if Russian Witnesses were to continue reading their extremist publications. Virtually everything Jehovah’s Witnesses publishes is on the government’s list of extremism literature. The Ministry of Justice assured him that there could be dire consequences. What of the rights of 175,000 Russian citizens? the judge wanted to know. It was not the only time he was to do his job. On Day 5, he questioned the Ministry of Justice as to the legal basis for shutting down Jehovah’s Witnesses and confiscating their property. The Ministry of Justice declined to identify one. Other times, too, it was observed that he was “surprisingly” impartial. He peppered the prosecution with questions that they seemed totally unprepared for. Possibly, they had imagined an unchallenged cakewalk.
Russian brothers were not surprised at the outcome. They had never expected to win. In the West, people are accustomed to judges acting independently of the executive branch. In Russia, it is not a foregone conclusion. Nor are the Witnesses there unaccustomed to dealing with police harassment, which they expect to intensify. Several said that the judge appeared sad as he granted the Ministry of Justice’s petition to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, after reviewing 43 volumes of submitted evidence in a single hour. He knew what he had to do. But possibly he was a man with a conscience. Possibly he did not want to, even for a single hour, be chief spokesperson for the Devil.
Still, he did a lot. He was very bold. Not many are prepared for their 15 minutes of fame. Even Peter caved, three times denying Christ. By asking pointed questions throughout the trial, which the Ministry of Justice seem totally blindsided by, he exposed them as not having a legal leg to stand on. In this, he aids future appeals as well as present worldwide review. He did a lot, even if he ultimately declined to throw himself under the bus. Not many persons would. This writer will chalk him up as a supportive figure, even if flawed—for who is not flawed?
Throughout history, during the repressive days of countries ranging in government from authoritarian to liberal, Jehovah’s Witnesses have blanketed areas with preaching campaigns that were thorough and quick, sometimes happening overnight. Suppose that the Russian Witnesses were suddenly to intensify their service to God? Either separately or on cue? There are 175,000 of them, after all, and for the time being, they have the sympathy of the world behind them, a circumstance that is not that common.
It is not for others to say what they will do. It is their neck on the line, not ours. But since they have been dealing with police harassment for some time, and the legal defeat does not surprise them, they fully expect opposition to intensify. “We may as well supply a reason for it to intensify,” perhaps they will say. In one way or the other, they will give an answer not unlike that given to the Jewish high court leaders of long ago: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.” It is not that they would not. It is that they could not; it was “impossible.” It would have been like lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket. Who would do such a thing? Will they be intimidated that they are just regular folk standing in the face of ones more “awesome”? If anything, they will draw power that they are in good company. They are like Peter and John, uneducated, ordinary men, who confounded the ones educated and extraordinary of their time.56
“The king knows about these matters and to him I speak boldly, for I cannot believe that [any] of this has escaped his notice; this was not done in a corner,” said the apostle Paul before Festus and Agrippa. So it is with the Russian ban on religion. It has not been done in a corner. The Governing Body did not permit it to be done that way. Nobody with a finger on the pulse of events could have failed to have heard about this.57 The entire affair, which Russian Witnesses, if not the rest of them, always thought was a long shot, was publicized so that as few as possible could say they were unaware. Let them declare themselves on one side or the other with Christianity. Let the churches that are so often intricately involved with the world carry on as usual. All know the identity of those who are truly following Christ’s command to “lay down the sword.” All know the identity of those who are truly proclaiming “this gospel [good news] of the kingdom” and striving to live by its requirements even today.
A Witness worried online that other nations, far from being outraged, might take Russian events as a template for banning Witnesses in their country, too. If it should happen, let it happen with maximum publicity, as does this. How literally is the second Psalm to be fulfilled, that the “kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one?”58 Let them all take their stand publicly if it is to be. Let it become clear before all who is loyal before God and who would fight against him. At some point the experiment of human self-rule must end. Has it not proven itself an obscene failure?
The Witness organization gives this campaign the greatest publicity. Our Russian brothers will forever know that their courageous stand, which they are prepared to continue, spurs honest, hungry and humble persons to look into the faith now on display via Internet and literature in the streets, as heretofore uninterested persons check to see if it is truly extremist. When they see that it is not, how will they respond to that?
Will Jehovah’s Witnesses now fold in Russia, as some have predicted and as their enemies have hoped? Time will tell. It may turn out instead that they will be as a hurricane gathering strength over warm waters, for the words of Peter will not be lost upon them: “For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace… for to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered.”59 The invitation to imitate Jesus is impossible to turn down. They will also call to mind Jesus words: “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.”60
- The lead character never actually implored witnesses with “just the facts, ma’am,” but variations of “all we have are the facts, ma’am.” I remember the former, a circumstance from which inferences may be drawn about memory (or Snopes).
- Luke 16:8
- “They Broke Free from False Religion” The Watchtower – study edition, November 2016, 29
- “International Experts Discredit Russia’s “Expert Analysis” in Identifying “Extremism” JW.org, November 28, 2016, https://www.jw.org/en/news/releases/by-region/russia/expert-analysis-identifying-extremism-discredited
- Nathan Glover, “Russian Court Bans Jehovah’s Witness Bible,” worldreligionnews.com, August 18, 2017, http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/russian-court-bans-jehovahs-witness-bible
- Willy Fautré, (Human Rights Without Frontiers), hrwf.eu, Russian “religious experts” hired by a court against Jehovah’s Witnesses have no academic credentials August 14, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, http://hrwf.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Russian-%C2%AB-religious-experts-%C2%BB-hired-by-a-court-against-Jehovah%E2%80%99s-Witnesses-have-no-academic-credentials.pdf
- Press Release, “Russia’s Attack on Religious Freedom” Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, March 5, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.jw-russia.org/sites/default/files/russiareport_proof-3.pdf
- Video footage: “Russian Authorities Fabricate Evidence to Charge Witnesses With Extremism,” JW Broadcasting, https://tv.jw.org/#en/mediaitems/docid-802016695_1_VIDEO
- Matthew 10:28
- Gemma Mullin, “Saved Their Bacon: Touching Footage Shows Moment Brave Firefighters Rescue 150 Pigs and their Tiny Piglets from Huge Barn Fire in Russia,” thesun.co.uk, January 23, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2679459/touching-footage-shows-moment-brave-firefighters-rescue-150-pigs-and-their-tiny-piglets-from-huge-barn-fire-in-russia/
- Matthew 25:31-46
- Matthew 10:17
- Chloe Farand, “Russian Government Files Lawsuit Against Jehovah’s Witnesses to Declare it an Extremist Group,” indedpendent.co.uk, March 17, 2017, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russian-government-jehovahs-witnesses-extremist-group-lawsuit-supreme-court-a7634671.html. Separately, Vasiliy Kalin testified at the trial and said he was experiencing “memories of the future.”
- Acts 28:21-22
- Newsfeed: “the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation is...” Portal Credo.ru, April 20, 2017, site accessed on March 21, 2018, http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=125383. For English translation, see http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/170420a.html
- Transcript: Corey Flintoff, Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Fight ‘Extremist’ Label, Possible Ban, All Things Considered, May 17, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/05/17/476898973/russias-jehovahs-witnesses-fight-extremist-label-possible-ban
- 2 Thessalonians 2:2, John 10:10
- Enelesi Mzanga, “Life Story: Jehovah Always Cares for Us,” The Watchtower, September 1, 2003, 23
- Time Magazine, December 18, 1972, 98
- Special to the New York Times: “Jehovah’s Witnesses Complain They’re Persecuted in Malawi,” New York Times, December 6, 1975, accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/1975/12/06/archives/jehovahs-witnesses-complain-theyre-persecuted-in-malawi.html
- Revelation 1:8
- Emily P. Baran, Dissent on the Margins - How Jehovah’s Witnesses Defied Communism and Lived to Preach About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) 111
- Video Presentation: “Be Loyal, as Jesus Was,” JW Broadcasting, accessed March 26, 2018, https://tv.jw.org/#en/mediaitems/2016Convention/pub-jwbcov_201605_2_VIDEO
- Study Guide of the Holocaust Teacher Resource Center, originally a pamphlet of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C. 20024-2150, accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.holocaust-trc.org/jehovahs-witnesses/
- News Feed, Porto-credo.ru, December 28, 2017, Accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=129229 For English translation see http://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/171228a.html
- Press release: “UN rights experts urge Russia to drop Jehovah’s Witness lawsuit which threatens religious freedom,” United Nations Human Rights – Office of the High Commissioner, Geneva, April 4, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21479&LangID=E
- Elizabeth Dias, “Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah’s Witness Worship,” Time Magazine, April 4, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, http://time.com/4723456/jehovahs-witness-russia-supreme-court/
- The Supreme Court Hearing commenced April 5th and concluded with a decision to liquidate the Witness organization on April 20th. It represents less ‘court time’ than meets the eye, as many days were adjourned. The Memorial of Christ’s Death fell upon one of those days (April 10th) and Russian Witnesses were grateful to celebrate it without incident. The Memorial, observed annually, is the only meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses that might conceivably be called ceremonial.
- Elizabeth Dias, “Russian Supreme Court”
- Amanda Erickson, “Russia Labels ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses’ as Extremists and Tries to Ban Them from the Country,” Washington Post, April 14, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/04/14/russia-labels-jehovahs-witnesses-as-extremists-and-tries-to-ban-them-from-the-country/?utm_term=.506e99076f23
- Elizabeth Dias, “Russian Supreme Court”
- Press release: “Jehovah’s Witnesses Mobilize Global Response to Threat of Ban in Russia,” Jehovah’s Witnesses World Headquarters, March 21, 2017, search: JW.org
- Matthew 5:23
- Acts 26:25-29
- He caught a lot of heat for it, too. The home team ever assumes it alone is the most virtuous: Sophie Tatum, “Trump Defends Putin: ‘You Think Our Country’s so Innocent?’” CNN, February 6, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/02/04/politics/donald-trump-vladimir-putin/index.html
- The Jewish historian Josephus relates that Cyrus of the Persians was shown a portion of Scripture highlighting what he was foretold to do and was apparently much influenced by it.
- “Pure Worship Under Attack in Russia,” JW Broadcasting, Accessed March 8, 2018, https://tv.jw.org/#en/categories/VODOurOrganization
- Psalm 137:7
- Philippians 1:15-18
- Esther 6:1-3
- One on the list whose heart decidedly did not melt was Russian Minister Sergey Lavrov, as evidenced at a later press conference. Press Service – The Minister’s Meetings, “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation,” July 12, 2017, accessed March 8, 2018, http://www.mid.ru/en/vizity-ministra/-/asset_publisher/ICoYBGcCUgTR/content/id/2981131
- 41. Oobleck was bad stuff, a new type of weather sent to a bellyaching king who was sick of the existing seasons and wanted something new to fall from the sky. It was green and stuck to everything, paralyzing his entire kingdom. He came to regret his rashness. It is from the 1949 Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) book, Bartholomew and the Oobleck, a childhood favorite.
- An accusation made by prominent U.S. Senator John McCain. It proved to have durability for reasons having more to do with American politics than with Putin himself.
- Andrew Buncombe, “Trump Order Missile Strike on Syria After Chemical Weapon Attack on Civilians,” Independent, Friday April 7, accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-tomahawk-missiles-syria-reports-latest-donald-trump-homs-bashar-al-assad-russia-a7671411.html
- “War With Germany: US Enters WW1 on this Day in 1917,” RT.com, accessed March 26, 2018, April 6, 2017, https://www.RT.com/usa/383775-usa-enters-ww1-wilson-debs/
- On April 3rd, a terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro killed 15 and injured 45. There was the Syrian missile strike related in narrative. And on almost a daily basis during that time, Kim Jung Un and Donald Trump were exchanging taunts about nuclear weapons.
- Jeremiah 26:7-16
- Hebrews 11: 33-38
- Luke 23:4-5
- Elizabeth Dias, “Russian Supreme Court Considers Outlawing Jehovah's Witness Worship,” Time Magazine, April 4, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, http://time.com/4723456/jehovahs-witness-russia-supreme-court/
- Acts 18:12-16
- A detailed description of that first trial, proceedings updated approximately every 5 minutes, can be found in the tweets Anton Chivchalov starting April 5, 2017, and also Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, accessed March 27, 2018, https://www.jw-russia.org/pages/17040614-132.html. The latter is a news only site run by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russian and it appears to have been overlooked by authorities until it was banned in March of 2018.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, accessed March 8, 2018, https://www.jw-russia.org/news/17050117-152.html
- Acts 28:22
- Luke 21:12-13
- “Pure Worship Under Attack in Russia” tv.jw.org, April 20, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://tv.jw.org/#en/mediaitems/OrganizationFeatured/pub-jwb_201801_12_VIDEO
- Acts 4:13-20
- Acts 26:26
- Psalm 2:2
- 1 Peter 2:19
- Matthew 14:13