At the Wilkes-Barre “Love Never Fails” Regional Convention
At the Oneida Community Museum / Bed n Breakfast

Introduction to Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah's Witnesses Write Russia

In March of 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide were invited just once by their parent organization to write Vladimir Putin. Within two months, up to 49 million letters had been sent. They weren’t all to Putin—several other officials were identified, but his was the most recognizable name.

On the surface, the campaign was a failure. Opposition, which would ultimately lead to an April 20th Supreme Court ban of the religious organization, continued unabated. It has only intensified since. Still, Witnesses felt the heat on their Russian brothers and sisters as though it were on them. They longed to do something and here was something tangible they could do. By taking part, they demonstrated to all that there is one nation on earth in which every citizen cares deeply for every other. They fortified their Russian counterparts, who are now in the eye of the storm.

Throughout Soviet times, from the eradication of the czar to 1991, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned in Russia. Witnesses who survived the tribulation of Nazi Germany found, if they happened to live in the wrong part of the country, that they had simply swapped one set of persecutors for another. Perestroika and Glasnost set them free in Russia during 1991, but their time of freedom has lasted only until 2017, and the present laws are harsher than those of Soviet days.

Books about Jehovah’s Witnesses authored by Jehovah’s Witnesses are not plentiful. This is a shame, for no outsider, even with the best of intentions, can do justice to the faith as can a Witness—they miss the nuances, and in some cases, even the facts. Three reasons account for this drought. Jehovah’s Witnesses are primarily drawn from the ranks of working people, who are not inclined to write books. Pathways of publicizing their faith are already well established and few think to go beyond them—why write a book when you can and do look people in the eye and tell them what you have to say? Even blogs of Jehovah’s Witnesses are relatively few. There is also a sense of not wanting to compete with an official channel.

What books Witnesses do author are usually of specialized subsets – say, of endurance under persecution, contributions to civil liberty through national supreme courts, or the topic of blood transfusion. What this writer attempts here he has seen no Witness do before. If they have, he is not aware of it. Non-Witnesses can write of the nuts and bolts of the movement to destroy the faith’s infrastructure in Russia. But they will miss the subtleties of the motive for doing so. They will miss totally the atmosphere impelling every Witness in the world to write relevant Russian officials. They will miss what the rank and file felt as they followed the ups and downs of breaking events.

Enough of “this writer.” Portions of this book are deeply personal statements which will resonate with all Witnesses, and I do not want to calcify them with references to “this writer.” Though there are accepted rules of style and format, ultimately the only rule that counts is what you can get away with. Accordingly, I’ll flip back and forth with the self-references—sometimes “this writer” and sometimes just “I.”

As might be surmised, I am not impartial. This book will not be impartial. I am a 40-plus year member of the faith. While not ignoring other points of view, I will consistently present matters as Witnesses see them. Like most Witnesses, my year-long process of introduction to and eventual embrace of the faith I liken to assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Once you have put the pieces together and have reproduced the mountain vista on the box cover, you have a strong basis for faith not easily shaken.

You are not immune, however, to the discouragements of life that afflict everyone. Nor are you immune to your own shortcomings, or to trials your newfound faith brings you. Ultimately, you will lose the game, because the one of long ago that you strive to follow also lost the game—executed after preaching the gospel for just a few short years. But your loss is illusory. It will be transformed into a win, just as the master’s loss was.

The life Jehovah’s Witnesses have their eye upon they would call “the true life” of 1 Timothy 6:19. The true life is not the present reality of an earth carved up into endless squabbling factions, each demanding the allegiance of those within its jurisdiction. It is the life that commences after the end of that system. Contrary to popular view, the Bible does not present a world gradually transformed by Christian values. It presents a world increasingly opposed to them that is ultimately replaced by God for that reason. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” says the familiar prayer. No one would say that God’s will is not done in heaven—surely things must run smoothly up there. But neither would anyone say that his will is done on earth today. There are glimmers of it here and there, to be sure, but no one would ever say that it predominates. It is a present tragedy that is remedied when his “kingdom comes.”

A pitfall I had to face early on involved taking care that whatever I wrote would not be banned in Russia as extremist. Of course, it is possible that the whole book might be—the present federal list of writings designated extremist includes, at present, over 4000 works,1 but why ensure the fate by quoting from works already on the list? Most Watchtower-published material the Russian government has declared extremist. Even the children’s books are so labeled. Even the Bible translation they use is so labeled. Even their website is extremist and off limits. If you are in Russia, you cannot read it. If you are anywhere else, you are okay.

I did not immediately realize the ramifications of this. In my early drafts I linked a few times to the website. Must I remove those links? Here and there I quoted some Watchtower publications. Must I rewrite those portions? It wasn’t my only option. Early on, I imagined writing two versions: the first as I pleased and the second with offending passages redacted, highlighting the silliness of it all, for the passages are all innocuous. The cover of the public work would carry a caution at the bottom: “Warning – Do Not Read in Russia” and the cover of the redacted would be typewritten and without image, as one might expect of an underground work. In the end I settled upon a mix of both. There are two versions with identical covers, one warning in an orange circle to not read it in Russia, the other “safe” version with orange circle saying it is okay. Watch those orange circles. Make sure you are reading the right book. You do not want to be thrown into the hoosegow.2

I did realize from the onset that the New World Translation would have to go. Even a quote from it is enough to designate a book as extremist. Even, in theory, Jesus’s words about how one must love one’s enemy. Such quoting might not actually draw the wrath of officials, but it is difficult to know for sure. Russia is a land of Kafkaesque contradictions in matters of religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses are declared extremists in Russia and shortly thereafter Putin inducts one into the Order of Parental Glory as a fine family example. The mischievous mind envisions him awarding an ISIS family the next week—for they and Jehovah’s Witnesses are both declared extremists under the same law—with grenades hanging from belts. A town official honors a Witness for cleaning up the public park. Shortly thereafter that Witness is carted off to jail for conducting a Bible study meeting. One envisions that same official next week honoring ISIS for cleaning the park and then being blown to bits by a mine left behind while strolling the grounds, for they are extremists.

The only safe assumption is that there are, at present, four approved faiths in land of the bear—just four—that’s more than enough, the government decrees. For the religiously inclined who favor the Christian brand, there is the Russian Orthodox Church. Going anywhere else is dicey. Church protodeacon Andrey Kuraev is no friend of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he verbally savages them, “but blaming them for extremism is not even funny. This decision cannot be called anything other than glaringly idiotic: to accuse pacifists, uncompromisingly non-resisting Tolstoyans of extremism!”3  

“Prohibiting is irrational,” he continues. “And certainly not with the arguments that were given (or, on the contrary, not given). Especially since there haven’t been any intelligible arguments quoted yet. By the way, there are a number of these forbidden books in my house, [uh oh] I did not notice anything extremist there. So, and now I have to arrest? Yes, they have harsh statements about other religions. It’s true. But the same Supreme Court of the Russian Federation a few years ago decided that criticism of religions is not a crime.” (brackets mine)

Does Kuraev really mean to suggest that prosecution presented no intelligible arguments at the Supreme Court trial? An observer of the trial might well think it. He might well wonder just what does the government have against Jehovah’s Witnesses? There must be something, but it is not stated. At one point the judge asked the prosecution (the Ministry of Justice) whether it had prepared for the case. A decision had been plainly made somewhere from on high and it would fall upon the judge to rubber-stamp it. Of course, he did, perhaps because he wanted to remain a judge. The actual reasons behind anti-Witness hostility were never presented. So I have presented them in Part II, along with how they might be defended.

Some Witnesses, truth be told, will be uncomfortable with Part II and might best be advised to skip over it. They will love the idea of defending the faith but may be unaware of the scope of the attacks made against it, some of which are truly malicious. Deciding to sit out this or that controversy will earn them taunts of “sticking one’s head in the sand” from detractors, but it is exactly what Jesus recommends, as will be seen. Not everyone must immerse themselves in every “fact,” for many of them will turn out to be facts of Mark Twain’s variety: facts that “ain’t so.” You can’t do everything, and most persons choose to focus on matters most directly relevant to their lives.  Part II thereafter rolls into Part III, which suggests an offense—not a legal offense, but an overall moral one.

Kuraev goes on to observe that “our Christian authors, including sacred, ancient, authoritative, have extremely negative statements [about other religions].” And he points to Jesus’ own words about the founders of other religions: “All who [have] come before me are thieves and robbers.”4 He continues: “The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation seriously compromised this decision. The belief that you can trust the judicial system of Russia, even at the highest level, is shattered.” He fears lest “the ax once clamped against the Jehovah’s Witnesses does not attack us with the same arguments.” He worries the Court’s decision “shakes the boat, represents power in an evil and unpredictable manner and thereby creates unnecessary distrust and fear in society.”5   

Since there are but four approved religious channels, Jehovah’s Witnesses are plainly not the only minority faith to experience persecution in Russia. All of them do to some extent. Witnesses are in the vanguard; they are the first to have their organization outlawed, but many are shaking in their boots that they will be next. They watch things unfold. Had Witnesses prevailed in the Court, they would have claimed equal victory. They mostly held back, not challenging the government prosecutor’s assertion that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a cult. The definition of cult has changed greatly over the years. It once had a precise meaning. These days it has been expanded to include people we don’t like, just as news we don’t like is fake news. Gone are the days when nefarious deeds and the withdrawal from life under the spell of a charismatic leader sufficed to be labeled a cult. Approaching are the days where simply standing against contemporary trends and mindsets is enough. The entire New Testament could be reinterpreted as the writings of a cult by this definition, for it is not warm and fuzzy toward the popular culture of its day, and those who embraced the new faith it espoused withdrew from that culture.

If they withdrew from it then, they withdraw from it now. This is a point of much concern to Witness detractors, as will be seen. After a period of investigation into the Bible, seldom lasting under a year, Jehovah’s Witnesses come to feel they have found something better, and most immerse themselves in it, sometimes to the point of losing touch almost completely with the day-to-day political concerns that preoccupy others.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, which claimed the lives of 2,753 persons, teams of Jehovah’s Witnesses, organized at the branch level, visited the scene. Branch member Gregory Bowman relates: “When we were ultimately granted access to ground zero, and we started encountering the first responders, we let them know how much we appreciated their hard work, and that they had a skill-set that we didn’t have, but yet our skill-set was trying to offer comfort to them. We shared a scripture with them. Immediately we could tell that that was something that caused emotion to rise up in them right away. And they expressed great appreciation for that. One of the beautiful things about the scriptures is they’re calming, soothing, comforting, and the scriptures did not let down the workers that were there at ground zero either.”6

Likely, the representatives of many denominations took action to comfort people. But what could they say? “Out of evil, comes good”? “God works in mysterious ways”? “He (she) is in a better place, now”? Witnesses would never say any of these things. It is from such banal and insensitive remarks that atheists are born. I like the expression “skill-set,” both applied to the first responders and then to the Witness volunteers themselves. The “skill-set” of Jehovah’s Witnesses is an accurate understanding of the Scriptures and a cultivated desire and ability to share it. An accurate understanding of the Bible makes unnecessary the trite sayings above. In fact, it eviscerates them, and offers something far better, as will be seen.

This writer, too, regards himself as having a skill-set, and finds, to his surprise, that it is a somewhat unusual one. Newsmakers have little insight into the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In turn, Jehovah’s Witnesses have little insight into the political doings of this world. In a spiritual sense, they would say that they do have insight, but that is not the sense that that world itself is most familiar with. I am passably familiar with both and can build a bridge between them. It will not be a literal bridge that people can cross in either direction, but it will be a bridge of joint understanding, which can hardly be a bad thing. Even in the current climate of distrust bordering on hostility between the United States and Russia, it is generally conceded that understanding the other’s point of view is an asset, not a liability.

Choice of a substitute Bible translation was not easy. Perhaps it should have been. Any of them will do. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses are accustomed to the divine name appearing in the Bible. They are frustrated by its banishment. They think that if an author puts his name in his work 7,000 times, it implies strongly that he wants it there and may not be happy with any who would hide it. They choke when they watch The Ten Commandments movie, and the Israelites are distraught early on because they do not even know their God’s name but later they are as pleased as punch because they have finally learned it—it is “the LORD.”

There are some translations that render the divine name whenever called for as Jehovah or the more Hebrew-flavored Yahweh.7 But most of these translations are old and afflicted with archaic language. Many translations, even the Russian synodal one, employ Jehovah in a few token places. The newer ones, though, are apt to remove it completely, substituting LORD in all capitals to distinguish it from “Lord.” The first verse of the 110th Psalm contains both LORD and Lord, and this writer, in his own house-to-house ministry, will sometimes ask the householder if he knows why that is.

The house Bible for this work shall be the New American Bible – Revised Edition, a Catholic translation. I’ll just have to get used to reading The LORD everywhere. “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” Jesus begins. What is that name? The LORD. I’ll just have to get used to it. The New American Bible came in second place in the Jason Beduhn book Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament. He liked that it was free of what he called the “Protestant’s burden.”8 The New World Translation is a relatively recent work, its first complete edition appearing in 1961. If it dictates something different from the Witnesses’ current practice, the latter can simply change, as they did recently with the specifics of appointing elders.9 If the Catholics encounter the same problem, they don’t have to change. They have long held that Scripture is not the final word; it can be superseded by saints or tradition. But the Protestants are in a tough spot. They insist they follow the Bible in every detail, and yet it was written long ago. There is therefore always a powerful temptation to translate in a manner that accords with current practices, even if that translation is “stretching it.” Beduhn states such translators “all approached the text [John 1:1] already believing certain things about the Word…and made sure that the translations came out in accordance with their beliefs.”10 (brackets mine)

If the New American Bible is Beduhn’s second choice, why do I here employ the revised edition of it? That was largely an accident. I had written some time before I noticed it and decided to let it slide, on the theory that a revised version of anything is usually an improvement over the original. I also decided not to place scriptural citations of that, or any translation, within the paragraphs, as though in a Watchtower article, but in endnotes. First, this book is not a Watchtower publication, and I wished to avoid any confusion. Second, many readers will be non-religious—why should they think they are being preached to? Third, in these days of search engines, it is an easy matter to enter any passage and find its source. 

I am a rank-and-file member of Jehovah’s Witness and not an insider. I am a foot soldier. I am a good foot soldier, and loyal. I have been around for a while and have even served as a congregation elder, but otherwise I am nothing special.  But I am a foot soldier who can write well, especially if one is not fussy. Foot soldiers can tell splendid history when they get around to it, but one must cut them some slack. This foot soldier looks at the established rules of scholarly writing and they seem burdensome to him, like Goliath’s armor, so he sets them aside and hopes for the best with his sling. I will even accept the derisive title given the apostle Paul by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who wanted to know “what is this scavenger trying to say?” Literally the word means “seed-picker” and it denotes a bird that picks up a seed here and poops it out there.11 That is all I am doing. That is all most writers do. 

I am not even a thinker, really, at least, not a rigorous one. I am like Pastor Inqvist’s substitute preacher, specifically selected for his dullness, because the pastor does not want to return from vacation and see the disappointment in the eyes of his flock.12 So he chooses a substitute that they will listen to and say: “I’ll bet he’s good in the shepherding work.” Then he will come to their house and they will note the lack of eye contact and say: “Maybe he’s a scholar.” I am not a scholar either. Leave the deep thinking to others—I don’t trust it anyway—but I do have a certain knack for refocusing and crafting words in ways not typically crafted. It will have to do. Only a foot soldier can relate the emotions prevailing as every Witness in the world wrote Russia.

I know no “higher ups” and do not want to know any. As soon as you know some higher-ups you will know some who have erred because they are human. As soon as you know some who have erred because they are human, you have a media that wants to know what those errors are. As soon as the media knows what those errors are, they have but one solution: Fire them! Isn’t that why nobody knows anything today? At the first misstep it is “Off with his head!” Better not to know them and focus my writing as a foot soldier with 40 years of service. I’ll present the facts as persuasively as I can and if readers don’t believe me, they don’t believe me. In matters of religion, as in most other matters, people decide up front anyway, and choose from the available facts afterwards to fit their viewpoint. It is a sign of the times we live in and is evident everywhere.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” but perhaps it has not all been collected in one place. No non-Witness can write with the same passion as me on this topic. If they could they would become Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. The overall topic does not relegate itself to side dish status. It ever pushes to be the main course. “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart,” says Hebrews. Furthermore, “No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”13 One either embraces such news or runs away; it is very hard to be a neutral bystander. Strangely, in today’s atmosphere of critical thinking, the moment people embrace a cause, they are considered biased, and their testimony is looked at askance. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this effectively means that their detractors get to write much of the story, since strictly neutral persons are uncommon.

My rank-and-file qualifications are high enough to know the Witness organization well. It is the most transparent organization in the world, and if you are a member who knows one Witness, you know a thousand. Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy. Anyone doing anything was once an ordinary congregation member as yourself and you will have kept in touch with many of them and met many more. They all talk. Watchtower literature is extensive and easily accessible, especially to anyone who has collected it, as most Witnesses have, or did, until electronic formats made bulky bound volumes collections less desirable; they have been called (by me) “the family gods” of the Abrahamic variety, in that they were cumbersome, never discarded, but seldom resorted to (at least in my case—doubtless there were better students). Online resources and computer CD’s are just so much more compact and convenient.

All of the preceding makes for great transparency. Individual Witnesses go directly to doors to present their faith. What could be more transparent than that? But it is not necessarily the transparency that the world’s media would like to see. The latter likes to send reporters to cross-examine those “at the top.” The Watchtower declines such requests and contents itself with a Newsroom tab on the web page. The way to find out about the Witnesses is to ask the next one who stops by. But news outlets often hesitate to do this for fear that those Witnesses may (gulp) witness to them. The lazier ones copy material about them off the Internet authored by those who don’t like them. Even the expert witness that the Russian Supreme Court relied upon is known to do this.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists in some respects and quite liberal in others. They are not easy to pigeonhole. Zealous advocates for and dissenters against them serve to further muddy the waters. Witnesses are Bible-believing, yet they acknowledge that the creative days of Genesis are “epochs,” the time preceding them “aeons.”14 They are socially conservative, yet they remain entirely apolitical—their standards are theirs alone and they do not attempt to force them through legislation upon others. Joel Engardio, a journalist and human rights advocate, who was raised a Witness, says they provide an excellent example, perhaps our last hope, of how groups with strongly polarizing ideas can yet coexist peacefully.15

They look to the Book for direction. If you grant that there is an interested God, there is no finer way for him to communicate with humans than through a widespread book, and no book is more widespread than the Bible. The more familiar you are with it, the better off you are. Is such-and-such in the Book or isn’t it? The trouble with religion by revelation is that you invariably come across people who have also experienced revelation, but their revelation is different from yours, and then there is no way of ever getting to the bottom of it. To be sure, endless people muddy the waters, offering this or that interpretation of verse. Some would paint the book as unreliable on that account, and others as outdated. But at least there is always something to go on with a book, and not just “God told me so.”

Knowledge of the Book may be quite surface with many of these ones, extending little beyond some formula texts to argue this or that doctrine. I once worked with an agnostic woman who knew that God’s name was Jehovah because she had seen an Indiana Jones movie. She knew that God’s original purpose was for the earth to be a paradise because she had seen the film Dogma. Though she had never been in a church, she knew more about God, from two movies, than do the majority of regular churchgoers.

Nonetheless, there will be little discussion of doctrine here—only so much as to set up the occasional punch line. Most of it must be read between the lines and may not reliably be found even there. Suffice it to say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are generally credited with knowing their Bibles well and they think that most teachings of the traditional churches are wrong. Seeking to obscure the fact that President Eisenhower was raised a Witness, as though wistfully envisioning a standing tree without roots, a family member recalls that “Mother and Father knew the Bible from one end to the other. In fact, Mother was her own concordance. Without using one, she could turn to the particular scriptural passage she wanted,” since they “lived by the cardinal concepts of the Judaic-Christian religion.”16 Yep. It is usually true of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They usually know it “from one end to the other.”

Almost all brands of religion respect Jesus. He is also a common denominator for the religious and non-religious. Mark Twain savaged religion. He savaged the Bible. “He was a preacher, too… and never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too!” one of his fictional characters (Huck Finn) says. But Twain never had an unkind word for Jesus as related in the gospels. To the contrary, the problem in his eyes was that nobody followed him.17 This is among the reasons the book The 100, by Michael Hart, rates Mohammed before Jesus in importance. Both are founders of religions, but Mohammed’s followers, by and large, follow him and Jesus’ followers, by and large, do not.18 “There has been only one Christian. They caught and crucified him–early,” Mark Twain says.

Therefore, start with the words of Jesus and you are usually on firm ground. Hang with the gospels long enough and you begin to speak as he does. You begin to think the heart is much more important than the head, even though leadership in the greater world today is invariably presumed to be a matter for the head, and only the most educated need apply. Jesus addresses the heart, spinning parables not readily grasped by head alone, and therefore dismissed by ones of little heart as unworthy of their time. In elevating heart over head, you may trigger the scorn of those who would reverse the order. They might feign pity over how you must be suffering massive cognitive dissonance to be so intransigent in the face of their mighty arguments.

Don’t let it bother you. If there was anything to cognitive dissonance, Americans would explode watching television pharmaceutical ads, with narrator insisting that you must have the stuff peddled and voiceover saying it may kill you. One way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to acknowledge that you don’t have to know everything. Another way is to acknowledge that you don’t have to know it now. There will always be some cognitive dissonance in searching for the human/divine interface, as we will be doing. Some people derive energy from debating, like a hurricane gathering strength over warm water. Step aside and let them drown in it. Jesus relied upon heart and common sense. Sometimes common sense turns out to be wrong and should be rejected, but never for the sole reason that it is “common.”

Some of my initial assumptions about Russia proved questionable. Others proved flat-out wrong. No matter. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not political people—some of them barely know that stuff exists. They are not experts on the issues that governments face nor their underlying philosophies. They don’t know much about the world of kings. If some initial assumptions prove inaccurate, they never said they knew about them in the first place. This book tells of our efforts to reach Russian officials as persons, not as government leaders. I like to think the best of people. Sometimes that turns out to be naïve. What I hope to do is capture the emotion, the hopes, and even the joys of those given an opportunity to identify with their “brothers” in a distant and different part of the world. This will be a human story, not a political one. It will be an account not only of what happened, but of what people thought was happening.

What Witnesses know most about government is that they’d like for them to leave them be. “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity,” writes the apostle Paul to Timothy. “Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose.” Okay. Got it. Jehovah’s Witnesses will not make trouble as they lead their quiet, tranquil lives of devotion and dignity. But sometimes trouble searches them out.19

Several have thought me too charitable in my assessment of Russian officials, to which I acknowledge that my assessment is to some extent built upon wishful thinking and a distaste for imputing motive. How can anyone know for sure? I am halfway around the world, immersed in a completely different culture. Modern life molds us to ignore fundamental principles of getting along that once were as common as dirt. Always impute good motives. If it turns out you are wrong, drop a notch and see if you can get your head around how the villain became a villain; sometimes that allows you to snatch a measure of victory from defeat. But if you accuse every foe from the outset of ill motive you have lost before you begin.

As far as I am concerned, Trump v Hillary is a godsend for the preacher of the gospel because it brings into stark relief 2 Timothy 3:1-5, that run-on list of negative traits: “There will be terrifying times in the last days. People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, as they make a pretense of religion but deny its power.” It used to be that if you cited the passage and your listener didn’t agree it is fulfilled now more than ever, there was not much you could do about it; manifestly, it is subjective. These days its fulfillment is evident. It used to be that people would scream at each other till the cows come home over God/no God, medicine/alternative medicine, science/metaphysics or various other sideshows that could be ignored by the average person. But with Trump/hate Trump, almost everybody is drawn in and Two Timothy 320 becomes the defining year text for this entire system of things.

Even “truth” and “lies” have become subjective. Everyone has their own. It is as the Bible Book of Isaiah says. People say: “what is bad is good and what is good is bad.” It is not just true in spiritual matters. It is true in every aspect of life today: in politics, in philosophy, and in the general discussion of all things, whether slight or serious. Charles Manson’s greatest contribution to humanity, perhaps his only contribution, was to say: “Once upon a time, being crazy meant something. Nowadays, everyone is crazy.” This new normal adds a new relevance to Jesus words: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come” an utterance always on the list of favorite Witness scriptures. “As a witness” is the best one can consistently hope for, a witness to another way of life in which people actually get along with one another.21

Let us not be too maudlin in telling this tale. We could be forgiven for doing so. The 56-year-old Witness chatting with friends who suffered a liquor bottle smashed over her head by someone screaming “You Jehovists are banned!” so that people nearby thought they had heard a shot – she may not laugh for a while.22 It may be some time before Dennis Christensen, the first modern Witness in Russia to be jailed for studying the Bible, will laugh. How funny can it be languishing in prison? though he actually did break into encouraging song at a video court appearance before the guards told him to shut up. But let us not sing the blues, much less “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”23 In general, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a happy people. Knock them down and they get back up. They laugh a lot. It should not be a great surprise as God himself is said to be happy. If he is, those who trust in him will also be.24

Christians are described as providing a theatrical spectacle to the world.25 It is theater enacted on countless front porches, which must suffice for the stage. Sometimes Witnesses get rave reviews. Sometimes they are booed off the stage. There is an element of comedy to it. “I can never get over a Christian’s “need” to save people,” one atheist told me derisively. It is a little funny, isn’t it? I played along and told him my psychiatrist had diagnosed in me just such a need, on the hunch that maybe he would play ball if he thought he was cooperating with science.

The verse I was suggesting that day, from Job, was one that can set the stage for many a discussion about suffering and why God permits it. “You that have understanding, hear me: far be it from God to do wickedness; far from the Almighty to do wrong!”26 I like that verse because some people think he does do wickedness. Others look at all that is transpiring and say: ‘I don’t think there is a God.’ An ensuing conversation can veer in so many directions. This particular stage featured a new twist: the householder was in a wheelchair. I had noted walking up the driveway two bumper stickers, “Born Right the First Time,” and “There are Death Squads in America – They Are Called Insurance Companies.” Now, I am not one to read too much into bumper stickers, but sometimes they tell it all. “You are here to tell me about suffering?” he hurled in my face. “No,” I answered. “I am here so that you can tell me.” You never know what will happen. The porches are stages. The door to door ministry is the show. Best not to be rigid in what you plan to say or do.

Let us also avoid any “clash of the titans” tone. Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg about the turmoil in Russia. He is a fine writer. He gets everything right. He has read Emily Baran’s book (more on that later) which everyone should read. He misses only the possible machinations of the rival church, which is not his specialty. But he cannot resist a dramatic flair at the end: “Russia has no more patience with openness and tolerance. Putin’s regime doesn’t care whether it passes any tests on that score. In a way, it’s as defiant as the Witnesses, and so far, it’s just as resilient. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been resilient for longer.”27 Such dramatization makes for more gripping a read. I do it myself. But Witnesses don’t carry on in this way. They are resilient, but they would not characterize themselves as defiant. They stay low-key. They are not the Hollywood version of The Bible in which Moses pops Pharaoh in the nose and gets the girl. They are the Bible’s own version of itself in which Moses squirms to avoid his commission because he is clumsy of speech and acquiesces only when he is told Aaron will be there to hold his hand.28  

Neither will we demonize Russian President Putin. He is head of a different type of government—a different type of “human rulership.”  I am a product of the West and I like it here. But if I were a product of the East I would no doubt like it there, too. Russian Witnesses (absent the persecution) are perfectly content within their country of origin and go out of their way to behave there. Often as one surveys news reports one reads statements to the effect that they love the people and culture and would prefer not to leave. They set themselves up as neither cheerleaders nor resisters of any form of government. “Tell us your rules for maintaining public order,” they say to the king, “and we will follow them.” The temptation to demonize officials is strong. Outright confiscation of the Watchtower branch facilities in St. Petersburg, which essentially means picking the pockets of modest and poor people the world over who donated toward it, provides such temptation. But let us not go there. All human governments are a mix of virtue and villainy. Let us not attempt to sort it out here.

Though unapologetically a Witness, I promise, more or less, not to take any cheap shots at Witness detractors. Cheap shots are in the eye of the beholder and there are intransigent opponents of the faith to whom anything short of a complete renunciation of beliefs will be a cheap shot. There is little I can do about that and I won’t try. But everyone else gets a fair shake and even the opponents themselves are not deliberately antagonized. My audience will vary from non-Witness to current Witness to former Witness. Roll with it if you can. The task is all the more challenging because I have not renounced sarcasm, “the language of the Devil,” as Thomas Carlyle called it. If Bershidsky cannot swear off the dramatic flourish, I cannot swear off the sarcasm. It may be the language of the Devil, but it is also the more stimulating, and ye (that is, me) of little willpower falls for it every time. But I do not want to be like the American celebrity who blurts out something blatantly partisan and thus antagonizes half his or her audience. I have endeavored to keep it under tight control. Expect nothing but joy and love around here, with minor caveats.

From: Dear Mr. Putin - Jehovah's Witnesses Write Russia

  1. “Inventing Extremists: The Impact of Russian Anti-Extremism Policies on Freedom of Religion or Belief,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, January 2018, 4
  2. ‘Hoosegow’ is American slang for ‘jail’ that might not be known outside America. It brings up connotations of the lawless Old West, and that seems to me an appropriate connotation when dealing with the possible detainment of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds of extremism.
  3. Andrei Kuraev, “Prohibition of Jehovah’s Witnesses Undermines Trust in Court,” To Truth, a project of the Tomsk Information and Consulting Center on the problems of sects and occultism, April 25, 2017
  4. John 10:18
  5. Kruaev, “Prohibition of”
  6. “Refreshing Those Toiling and Loaded Down,” JW Broadcasting, a seven-minute video presented at congregation meeting the week of January 28, 2018, accessed March 27, 2018, https://tv.jw.org/#en/mediaitems/pub-jwb_201705_4_VIDEO
  7. “Hebrew-flavored” because the work of Nehemia Gordon suggests the name was pronounced “Yehovah.” One who has worked as a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he and his research team have discovered hundreds of ancient documents with that complete pronunciation. See “The Original Hebrew Name of God Re-Discovered in 1,000 Bible Manuscripts,” Religion News Service, January 25, 2018, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.religionnews.com/2018/01/25/the-original-hebrew-name-of-god-re-discovered-in-1000-bible-manuscripts
  8. Jason Beduhn, Truth in Translation: Accuracy and Bias in English Translations of the New Testament (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2003) 163
  9. Per a letter from the Governing Body read to all congregations during 2014, where it was noted that traveling ministers of the first century directly appointed congregation elders and did not defer the job to the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem, citing verses as Acts 14:33 and the record of Titus and Timothy.
  10. Beduhn, Truth in, 124-125
  11. Acts 17:18
  12. Thanks to American humorist Garrison Keillor here. Pastor Inqvist and his Catholic counterpart, Father Emil, were fixtures in Keillor’s Tales from Lake Wobegon, his fictional Minnesota hometown, “where all the men are strong, all the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The gentle humor of his two-hour weekly radio show landed him on the cover of Time magazine, which he spoofed with his song: “Mr. Coverboy.” He is a significant influence on my own writing.
  13. Hebrews 4:12
  14. See, for example, The Watchtower, Feb 15, 2011, 8-9
  15. Joel Engardio, “Filmmaker Statements” to the 2006 documentary ‘Knocking,’ accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/knocking/statement.html
  16. Melvin Eisenhower, as quoted in Modern Maturity Magazine. The quote also appears in Awake! Magazine, April 22, 1975. Additionally, the October 15, 1980 Watchtower tells of a World War II American soldier who became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while enlisted. Efforts to explain to his superiors his newfound neutrality went nowhere, so he resorted to writing a letter to the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces’ (then the future President, Dwight D. Eisenhower) mother, Ida Eisenhower, which Awake! reprints.
  17. Gary Sloan, “A Connecticut Yankee in God’s Court: Mark Twain’s Covert War with Religion,” Skeptic, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001. See also, for a moderating view on Twain’s spiritual outlook: Tom Rapsis, “It’s Time to Take Mark Twain Back from the Atheists,” Wake-up Call, October 22, 2014, accessed March 26, 2018, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wakeupcall/2014/10/its-time-to-take-mark-twain-back-from-the-atheists/
  18. Michael Hart, The 100- A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons of History (New York: Citadel Press, 1992) 3-19, 17-21
  19. 1 Timothy: 21-2, Romans 13:3-4
  20. The ‘Two Timothy’ is deliberate. In seeking to rally the religious crowd, which politicians have done since the beginning of time, Trump cited ‘Two Corinthians 3:17,’ rather than 2 Corinthians 3:17. This employment of verse persuaded his audience that he was indeed one of them, though they conceded perhaps he was still growing as a Christian.
  21. Isaiah 5:20, Matthew 24:14
  22. “A Brutal Attack on Believers in the Moscow Region on the Basis of Religious Hatred,” Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, September 4, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, https://jw-russia.org/news/17090416-211.html
  23. An African-American spiritual song, first published in 1867
  24. 1 Timothy 1:11
  25. 1 Corinthians 4:9
  26. Job 34:10
  27. Leonid Bershidsky, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Had Foes Before Putin,” Bloomberg.com, April 21, 2017, accessed March 26, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-04-21/jehovah-s-witnesses-had-foes-before-putin
  28. Exodus 4:10-16

 

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