A man used to call to my late parents’ house in County Sligo every month for a chat and to deliver some magazines. My parents always spoke to him at the door, fearful that if he were invited in he would attempt to convert them to his religion. Although the man was viewed with trepidation, his cheerful and friendly personality proved his visits difficult to ban. Polite chit-chat about the weather and current affairs were exchanged before the subject turned to God, often signalling the end of the conversation until his next visit. Here was a man with deeply-held Christian beliefs but his interpretation of the Bible was profoundly different to that of my devout Catholic parents. The chasm between his beliefs and those of my parents was so great it could never be reconciled with acceptance. Instead, he was tolerated at best. The man in question was a Jehovah’s Witness.
Jehovah, which means God in Hebrew, is used several times in the Bible and therefore this is the preferred name that Jehovah’s Witnesses use for the creator. The organisation was founded by an avid Bible student and American, Charles Taze Russell, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1870. He published the first Watchtower magazine in 1879 which was to become the cornerstone underpinning the core beliefs and principles required to live life as a Jehovah Witness. A monthly edition is still in circulation today and is widely distributed across the globe. The group also released their own interpretation of the Bible in 1961 entitled The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
Places of worship are known as ‘Kingdom Halls’ in line with their vision that God’s Kingdom is being created here on earth. The halls are usually sparse, devoid of pictures or other religious artefacts. Men are expected to dress smartly in suits and women are not allowed to wear trousers. There are no formal prayers, as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe prayer is a private conversation between a person and God. Instead, heavy emphasis is placed on studying and quoting the Bible.
There are several religions in the world that can be described as cults with bizarre belief systems. Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception and have a belief system that for me at least, resembles a strange fairy-tale when compared to my Catholic faith. Its 8.4 million followers (which include 6,500 members in Ireland and 137,000 in the UK) believe God cast Satan down to earth in 1914 resulting in severely increased famines, earthquakes and wars, beginning with World War 1. At the same time God appointed Jesus as a king to preside over earth until Armageddon occurs, when Jesus will lead God’s angels and destroy all those who oppose God. This will be followed by the day of judgement. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe humans are spiritual beings and therefore no part of us survives death. Neither do they believe in hell. On judgement day God will resurrect Jehovah’s Witnesses and those from other religions who have lived moral and ethical lives. Those who are not resurrected will remain dead in their graves for eternity. After judgement day, the earth will be turned into paradise in line with the biblical quote ‘……on earth as it is in heaven…..’ (Matthew – 6:10). Everlasting life in paradise on earth will comprise of physical bodies devoid of sickness, aging and death. In addition to life being perfect, everybody will be reconciled on earth with their loved ones.
Jesus will govern paradise on earth from his heavenly base along with 144,000 specially chosen helpers with Jehovah’s Witnesses believing these will be specially selected from their community. The Bible will become void and new scrolls opened, offering guidance and wisdom to those lucky enough to be part of paradise on earth.
Blood transfusions are a big issue with Jehovah’s Witnesses with them steadfastly opposed to anybody receiving somebody else’s blood based on their interpretations of two biblical texts (Acts – 15:19-21 and Leviticus – 17:10-14). They are the only religion to extend this ruling. They believe blood is the life source of a person and should never be shared with others, to the point that they would die rather than have a transfusion. Hospitals can legally overrule parental wishes of children under 18 who need a transfusion on the grounds of consent when a blood transfusion is unavoidable.
Jehovah’s Witnesses deem themselves as extremely moral conscious people who advocate strongly against sex before marriage, adultery and homosexuality. If somebody breaks the rules and does not repent, they are disfellowshipped from the organisation, which entails complete ex-communication from family and friends, causing tremendous emotional suffering. If adultery occurs there must be proof of fornication in the form of two witnesses unless the guilty party admits to it. Then the person must repent and undergo regular study to mend their ways and become spiritually free to remarry, or they risk disfellowship.
More recently, the biggest controversy affecting the community are accusations of covering up child sex abuse. The two-witness rule has brought the community into disrepute and claims of poor safeguarding of children. Accusations tend to be dealt with in-house, with the abuser and the abused often taken in for questioning by elders. The general consensus among elders is that Jehovah’s Witnesses are good people who would not do this sort of thing. Men are trusted over women because they are seen as being head of the family. More often than not, the victim does not go to the police fearing that in doing so the community would be brought into disgrace, and they would be disfellowshipped, resulting in them being shunned by family and friends for the remainder of their life. This remains a contentious and unresolved issue and one which needs to be addressed sooner rather than later to avoid further pain and suffering to those abused or who are at risk of being abused.
Article previously published in an Ireland’s Eye Magazine