Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;

 

Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.

 

Religious Identity

Jehovah’s Witnesses derive a strong sense of religious identity from belonging to the organisation. Whilst Witnesses might not be easily distinguishable in terms of dress codes or physical markings, they are from their distinctive beliefs and practices, including not accepting blood transfusions, not celebrating birthdays, and proselytising through knocking on doors in their neighbourhood. It is baptism which makes one a Witness – a Witness is baptised by full immersion as an adult (or typically between ages 13–16 if they have been raised in the movement), even if they have been previously baptised in a different Christian denomination. This is because Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves the one ‘true’ church – which again contributes to a strong sense of identity amongst believers.Jehovah’s Witnesses, who can be found in all countries and across all ethnic groups, seek to have a global identity through being united in their beliefs. Their website states that they “work hard” to have “no social, ethnic, racial, or class divisions.”[3] They place great emphasis on all being equal in the eyes of God, as well as on reaching everyone in their own language. The Jehovah’s Witnesses publish material in over 900 languages and establish specific language-based congregations when there is the need.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are famously apolitical, refusing to vote or bear arms. Neither will they support any movement motivated by racial or ethnic hatred. This commitment to peace and equality has meant that members have lost their lives through conscientious objection and through refusing to denounce their faith in the most appalling circumstances, including the concentration camps of the Second World War and modern-day prison camps. As of January 2018, Jehovah’s Witnesses are imprisoned in Eritrea, Singapore, South Korea and Tajikistan for conscientious objection, and in Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan for ‘religious activity’.[4]

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ conscientious objection and imprisonment in concentration camps during the Second World War is not as well-known as the imprisonment and murder of other groups such as Jewish people, Roma, homosexuals, communists and trade unionists. During the Second World War, the Nazi regime considered the Witnesses ‘ideologically unfit’ as they would not salute the flag, say ‘Heil Hitler’, or take part in any military service. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only Christian denomination to be assigned their own distinctive badge in the concentration camps – a purple triangle (Jews wore the Star of David and all other Christian dissenters a red triangle). Jehovah’s Witnesses were also the only faith group to be given the option of release if they renounced their faith – the huge majority did not do so. Around 13,400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned in the camps. Around 2000 did not survive (which is a relatively small proportion compared to the Jewish population imprisoned). 270 Witnesses were executed – not through the gas chambers but by being shot or decapitated so as to be made an example of and to encourage others to renounce the faith. Chryssides writes that the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses at various times and in various countries has, from their perspective, “served to confirm the belief in the truth of the Society’s teachings (as) Jesus predicted that persecution would be one of the marks of the end-times.” (2016: 123).

3. https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/jehovah-witness-beliefs/

4. See https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/world/jehovahs-witnesses-in-prison-2/ for a list of the number of prisoners by country.

Family and Community

Jehovah’s Witnesses place great emphasis on family life and on raising children within the faith. They believe that marriage is a sacred and permanent bond and that by following Biblical principles, one can have a happy and long-lasting marriage. These Biblical principles include adherence to the authority of the husband in a patriarchal family dynamic: “A husband is head of his wife” (Ephesians 5:23), but must treat her as Christ treats the congregation and to love her “as his own body” (Ephesians 5:25, 28–9); “Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1).[5] A happy marriage depends on accepting these God-given roles, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Nevertheless, Witnesses view this not as gender inequality but as gender complementarity. They believe that God created Eve not merely as a helper for Adam, but as a “complement of him” (Genesis 2:18). Together, the couple are made complete and can satisfy each other’s emotional and sexual needs. Together, they can fulfil the divine commission to have children and populate the earth.The Jehovah’s Witnesses produce a great deal of literature on the topic of keeping a happy marriage, with advice and guidance from managing money, managing relatives, when children are born, how to cope with tragedies, and more. There is also a great deal of guidance available on raising children and teenagers. Children are expected to obey their parents but emphasis is placed on discussion, with parents encouraged to explain their values and decision-making. Great emphasis is placed on inculcating the ‘right’ values in children, and parents should be the primary role models for this. Children should not be overpraised or overprotected and should be encouraged to help with chores around the home. Parents should practice ‘loving discipline’ which relates to ‘instruction, education and correction’, not punishment.[6]

Stress is placed on worshipping together as a family with most families spending at least one evening a week together in family worship. Spiritual activities should be placed ahead of entertainment and relaxation activities, according to Witness literature.

The moral education of children thus happens primarily in the family context. As mentioned above, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not run organised, segregated children’s education services comparable to Sunday school in other denominations, nor do they have their own schools. Instead Jehovah’s Witness children normally attend ‘mainstream’ schools where they participate in most of the curriculum except for assemblies or lessons which incorporate any element of ‘collective worship’; RE teaching which resembles interfaith work; any celebrations of religious festivals including ‘Christian’ festivals such as Easter and Christmas; and some aspects of sex education. During these lessons, Jehovah’s Witness children are usually taken out of the class. Also they do not usually take part in extra-curricular activities, both because spiritual activities are prioritised and because competitiveness, such as in the majority of sporting activities, is discouraged. Some families may make a personal decision to home school their children.

Whilst importance is placed on the family unit, there are also married Witnesses who choose not to have children in order to ‘give their full attention’ to full-time ministry, either as missionaries or working at Bethel. The belief that we are in the ‘end times’ can add to both a reluctance to bring children into an evil world and a sense of urgency with spreading the Witnesses’ message. Some Witnesses who have decided not to have children, “consider the possibility of bearing children in Jehovah’s righteous new world.”[7]

The majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses do not attend university, but rather take up trades after school or college.

5. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201311/roles-in-marriage/

6. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/wp20140701/how-to-discipline-your-child/

7. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/w20000801/Why-Do-They-Have-No-Children/

Diversity

Jehovah’s Witnesses form a relatively cohesive group, with little diversity within the tradition. As stated above, Jehovah’s Witnesses place great emphasis on being a united community through their shared beliefs, with any racial, ethnic or geographical differences eradicated. Neither is there diversity in worship, with all congregations around the world studying the same Bible passages in their midweek and weekend services. All members are expected to attend the annual Memorial, which takes place on the same day and has the same format worldwide. Members who cannot attend are now encouraged to participate via live links. It is worth quoting Chryssides at some length on this:

There is less scope for creativity than one finds in mainstream denominations, where individuals can express their spirituality in writing and in music, and where congregations decide how to organise their worship and how to introduce variations. The Watch Tower Society, by contrast, seeks a high degree of uniformity by ensuring that talks given at Kingdom Hall meetings conform to outlines transmitted by the organisation, and the Kingdom Hall Bible Study meetings elicit answers that demonstrate comprehension of the relevant Watchtower article under study, and which reinforces its ideas. There is certainly no scope for presenting alternative views or for questioning or critiquing a Watch Tower publication. (2016: 248).

However, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have personal choice around beliefs and practices in line with their own ‘Bible-trained conscience’. Individuals’ views might diverge on more personal matters such as whether children can participate in sports clubs or whether teenagers should attend university.

In terms of relations with other religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they should have no part in interfaith movements. They claim that they respect people’s right to choose other religions and enjoy debating religious issues with those of other faiths, but have no part in worshipping together with those of other faiths. They claim that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul discouraged interfaith, claiming that it could harm the believer’s faith. Jehovah’s Witnesses, like many other religions, teach that they are the one true Church. However they do not teach that only Jehovah’s Witnesses will enjoy everlasting life on earth. During Judgment Day (a period of 1000 years), God will resurrect both the righteous and the unrighteous – both will have the opportunity to be saved through accepting Jehovah. Nevertheless, Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves already “in the truth” (Chryssides 2016: 6) and all other religions, including “nominal Christianity” (the term for all other denominations), are part of “Babylon the Great”. Some Witnesses reject the term ‘religion’ altogether as a way to describe their own faith, reserving the term for other faith groups which are seen as human inventions. Jehovah’s Witnesses hence separate themselves from other religious groups, and from apostates (see Rules and Ethical Guidelines), in order to maintain a sense of religious purity.

Religious Freedom and Persecution

Since Jehovah’s Witness beliefs require abstention from military duty, patriotic behaviour and blood transfusion, as well as participation in public evangelising, they are often test cases for the extent to which religious freedom will be permitted by a particular government. But, according to Richardson (2015) and Chryssides (2016), they are also one of the most litigious religious groups, bringing at least some of the test cases themselves in a bid to strategically use the legal system to set precedents which might ensure their future benefit. According to Chryssides, Jehovah’s Witnesses, based on the actions of the Apostle Paul who appealed to Caesar when he was on trial, seek “to secure the maximum benefits available under the law” (2016: 123). Pauline Côté and James T. Richardson (2001) have described the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ use of the legal system as a form of “disciplined litigation” in which the Watch Tower Society has produced sophisticated materials to educate members about their legal rights and how to be effective plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses in legal actions which defend Jehovah’s Witnesses rights. Jehovah’s Witnesses have thus been happy and willing “to bring their challenges to the courts for legal resolution” (Richardson 2015: 301). In later work, Richardson has described the Witnesses as something of a “partner” to the European Court of Human Rights, both working to “expand European values over the newer members states” in the Council of Europe (largely former-Soviet dominated nations) (2017: 233).

Since their founding, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been involved in numerous legal cases. They have won over 50 cases before the US Supreme Court in the areas of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a right to equal protection under the law (Richardson 2015: 287). Richardson writes that “Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed more religion-related cases than any other religious group before the European Court of Human Rights” (2017: 232). They have filed 256 cases before the Court, as of May 2017, of which they have won 35 cases outright, and have reached “friendly settlement” in another 26 (2017: 234). Richardson states that the majority of these victories have been concerned with conscientious objection but they also involve “issues of registration, taxation, censorship of materials, freedom of expression, child custody, deportation, confidentiality of medical records, neutrality of the State, and meeting disruptions” (Richardson 2015: 299). They have 103 cases pending before the court (again as of May 2017) (Richardson 2017: 234).

Historically Jehovah’s Witnesses have fought cases over their refusal to salute the flag and refusal of military involvement, with success in lands as diverse as the United States, India and the Philippines. In the UK, the ‘Walsh Trial’ of 1953-5 was a test case that the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought to challenge conscription. Douglas Walsh, a Scottish elder, presented the argument that elders and ministerial servants were ministers and as such should be exempt from conscription in line with other religious traditions. The argument was not accepted however with the judge ruling that ministers should have a “distinctively spiritual rather than merely organisational role within the congregation, and must be set apart in some way, with special scholastic attainment” (Chryssides 2016: 121).

Jehovah’s Witnesses still challenge governments world-wide to honour their religious rights/religious freedom, and currently have hundreds of court cases running, ranging from local courts to the European Court of Human Rights, the outcome of which will either broaden or restrict the religious freedom of all citizens of the respective country, not just the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are, in 2018, imprisoned in seven countries worldwide because of their faith: Eritrea; Kazakhstan; Russia; Singapore; South Korea; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.[8] Recent court cases have been fought in Russia and Kazakhstan. In January 2017 in Kazakhstan, Jehovah’s Witness, Teymur Akhmedov, was arrested for discussing his faith with seven young men who were National Security Committee (KNB) secret police informers posing as students. He was charged with illegal religious activity, convicted in May 2017 [9] and sentenced to five years in prison. An appeal was rejected in December 2017. In April 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were an ‘extremist’ religious group, defining this as a group which teaches that its theology is the only way to salvation. The Supreme Court liquidated the Witnesses’ legal entities, banned their activities and confiscated their property.[10] The Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported increasing hostility in Russia, including verbal attacks on school children, physical attacks on adult members, disruption of religious services and arson. An appellate court has upheld a ban of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, in the Russian language as an ‘extremist’ publication and has ruled that the contract on their headquarters near St Petersburg is invalid (the property is owned by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania) and the property can be seized.

8. https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/world/jehovahs-witnesses-in-prison-2/

9. https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/kazakhstan/supreme-court-refusal-20171221/

10. https://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/russia/court-opens-way-20171211/