Neutral People and Pacifists

When nations start pounding the war drums, you’d better snap to. Even when they’re not pounding, but merely tuning them up, they don’t put up with much dissent. Thus there are peaceful countries (as countries go) such as South Korea in which young people are drafted into the military. Our people don’t go. So they routinely do jail time instead, since no exemption for conscience is granted.

From the preceding, a person might conclude that Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists. But we’re not. We are neutral.

If you were merely a pacifist, you might just do food service. Or Hummer repair. Or patch up wounded troops. Or mend uniforms. But if you’re neutral, you don’t do any of those things.

Neutral is a tougher sell to governments. Many can deal with pacifists. But not neutrality.

For too long a time my soul has tabernacled with the haters of peace. I stand for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.    Ps 120:6,7   

The neutrality stems from our view of God’s Kingdom. We take it seriously. We take it literally. It is the government that will, at long last, bring peace and restore earth to God’s original purpose. We endeavor to represent that kingdom.

We are therefore ambassadors substituting for Christ, as though God were making entreaty through us....2 Cor 5:20

If you were an ambassador from, say…. Krukordistan, you would live in Washington, or Ottawa, or London, or Paris. You would adapt to all laws and customs of your host country. You’d come to love the land in which you live, and its people. But...when it comes to the host’s politics, you wouldn't really take a position...nor would anyone expect you to. It is not your business...your business is to represent Krukordistan . Even if heavy issues develop and positions evolve for which, living in the host country, you may have some sympathy, still, it is not your job to take sides. Your lack of involvement is not because of callousness, or apathy, or lack of interest in fellowman...but it is simply not your place, representing Krukordistan, to take sides in the disputes of your host country.

That is our position regarding God’s Kingdom. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Abraham’s position:

By faith Abraham, when he was called….resided as an alien in the land of the promise as in a foreign land, and dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the very same promise. For he was awaiting the city having real foundations, the builder and maker of which [city] is God.   Heb 11:8-10

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The Flag: Salute/Respect

Driving home one night, I saw a flag flying upside down. I did a double-take. Maybe the wind had caught it some odd way and wrapped it around the pole. But no, here was another one! And I’ve seen a few since. Turns out it represents some protest, if not about Iraq, then about Patriot Act restrictions of rights we’ve grown accustomed to.

Still, it’s jolting to see, even when we’ve grown used to flags serving as jackets, bandanas, patches, underwear, and even fuel at the occasional flag-burning.

Jehovah’s Witnesses would never do any of the above to the flag. At all times, we treat it with respect. And yet we do something which, to many people, is worse. We decline to salute it.

This is a hot button issue for many. If, in your mind’s eye, you can see troops hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima, then you may not take kindly to people who won't salute. Maybe they should find another country in which to live, you might fume.

It might help to realize that JWs refrain from saluting any flag in any land, not just that of a particular country. Thus, whatever their reasoning may be, it is obviously not one of disrespect, much less subversion, toward any nation. The obedience of Jehovah’s Witnesses to civil authorities is well known.

Their stand can best be summarized by reading the ten commandments. Found in Exodus chapter 20, here is the second commandment: 

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God...  (Exodus 20:4,5 bold type mine, 21st Century King James Version

Thus the flag salute is seen as an act of worship, an act of idolatry, and if there’s one thing that God makes clear he doesn’t like, it’s idolatry.

One might suppose that flag salutes go back to antiquity. In fact, it’s a relatively modern trend. The present hand-on-heart salute dates back only to 1942. It replaced what was known as the Bellamy salute (named for Francis Bellamy, who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance) instituted in 1892. The Hitler salute of the 1930’s so closely resembled the Bellamy salute that the latter was modified to its present form. Thus, while flags are old, flag saluting is not.

The 1990 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses tells of a Canadian Witness child who they tested with regard to flag decorum. She and another child were summoned separately to the principal’s office, where they found a Canadian flag draped across his desk.  The non-Witness child was told to spit on the flag, and she did so, notwithstanding that she saluted it every day. Spitting must be okay….her teacher had told her to do it.  The Witness child was brought in and told to do the same. She would not do it. They tried to coax her. Since she didn’t salute, there’s no reason not to spit, they suggested. She held her ground. No, spitting would be desecrating the national symbol, she explained. Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the flag, though they do not worship it. Results were announced in class, hopefully not with the other child’s name. Apparently, it was part of some civics lesson.

So what is in a gesture, anyway? If a child who salutes the flag can just as readily spit on it, how meaningful is the salute?

The well known

English historian Arnold Toynbee warned of the development in our time of the “grim shape of a pagan worship of sovereign national states,” describing this also as “a sour ferment of the new wine of democracy in the old bottles of tribalism.” Those who claim that their own nation is superior to all others, even to the point of worshiping the State, have been manipulated by rulers and regimented in order to carry out their policies, whether good or bad…..[This results in occasional trials for Jehovah’s Witnesses]….who love the land of their birth but decline to worship the State and its symbols.
Watchtower  1989 1/1 p 22, par 17, brackets mine

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Half Honors for All

It once was unusual to see the flag at half-mast, and replaying the news in your head, you always knew the reason: someone noteworthy had died. That's changing. Now, 16 states lower the flag for any state resident who dies in military service. It's a popular trend and it's on the increase. So reports the WSJ, 7/1/06.

Flying the flag half-mast for each fallen troop seems a fine gesture. But is it not simply me-ism, the same self-celebratory force that impels us to erect roadside monuments at every phone pole our loved ones smack into?

Don’t think this trend can do anything but spread. Grizzled veterans, long content with an annual remembrance of their services, Memorial Day, will soon feel left out. In time, they too will expect half-mast treatment when they die.

And you just know someone will see the irony in that 1942 Flag Code, which allows half-mast honors for high state officials. We all have a short list of officials whose deaths, if anything, should be greeted with hoisting the flag yet higher, were that possible. If they merit half-mast, surely firemen, policemen, ambulance drivers and the like, must qualify. And what of the common taxpayer, who makes it all possible?

In time, full-mast flying will be unheard of, and the upper pole halves will rust from disuse. Inevitably, greedy business will begin to realize how much money can be saved by not building the upper half. The new pint-sized poles will first appear at WalMart, and will quickly spread. Cost cutting is not something to be sneezed at today.

Of course, this new tactic will not negate the need for half-staff honors. As the flag seeks its new half-position, it will fly lower yet to the ground. Repeat the cycle a few times and it will begin to touch the ground, especially those half-acre flags they fly at pancake houses.

We all know that the flag must not touch the ground. It’s difficult to predict what might happen next, but one possibility is that citizens, not wanting to risk flag desecration, will stop buying them, and the flag industry will go belly-up. Nor should we imagine this threat confined to America only. True, the USA may lead in me-ism and lean-n-mean business, but we should not be so smug as to imagine other countries will not catch up. Thus, nation after nation may see their flag industry wither and die, the only possible exception being tyrant-run countries, where people can drop like flies and nobody gives a hoot.

A world without flags….truly a scenario too terrible to imagine. But it could happen if we don’t nip this half-mast trend in the bud.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)