RELIGION

Witnesses to dissent

Robert Block October 1 1984
RELIGION

Witnesses to dissent

Robert Block October 1 1984

Witnesses to dissent

RELIGION

Robert Block

In a recent issue of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ magazine Awake!, singer Michael Jackson repudiated his bestselling video Thriller, saying: “I realize now it was not a good idea. I’ll never do a video like that again.” As a devout Jehovah’s Witness, Jackson is not supposed to indulge in the occult fantasies that the video depicted. But to a growing number of ex-Witnesses, his renunciation of Thriller was not an innocent change of mind. They see it as one example of what they say is an oppressive church policy that violates members’ civil rights by forcing them to conform under threat of expulsion. They claim that about one million worshippers have either left voluntarily or have been expelled from the church within the past 10 years and that many are now being persecuted and isolated by family and friends. When the church celebrates its centennial at its annual convention in Pittsburgh this October, its officials will have to face an unprecedented demonstration by ex-Witnesses and disaffected church members.

The church, which bases its teachings on a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, has always had difficulty promoting its prohibitions against military service, gambling, abortion, homosexuality, tobacco and blood transfusions. But James Penton, a history and religious studies professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta who has become a

spokesman for expelled and disaffected Witnesses, said that dissatisfaction began to set in after church leaders’ prediction that the world would end in 1975 proved wrong. Said Penton: “When that failed, a lot of people just walked out, and many of us began to question the leadership of the movement.” He said that the church became oppressive and that “disfellowshipped” Witnesses suffered greatly when former friends and relatives would no longer talk to them.

Penton maintained that one-third of Canadian Witnesses have dropped out since 1975. Membership in Canada is about 80,000 (worldwide it is 2.6 million), but, said Penton, “while they are bringing people in the front door, they are going out the back.” Penton himself was expelled in 1981 after he expressed disbelief in church doctrines.

Other disfellowshipped Witnesses also claim that the church ordered their families not to speak to them. The expulsions have prompted ex-Witnesses to organize the International Affiliation and Mutual Network of Ex-Witnesses, which they say has helped 2,600 former Witnesses to deal with the trauma of expulsion over the past three years. Penton is currently petitioning the Canadian and U.S. governments to remove the charitable status of the church to curb its power. Said Penton: “It is no charity.”

Disappointment in the failure of the world to end is a familiar phenomenon in the church. Witness founder Charles

Taze Russell, a Pittsburgh haberdasher, proposed that God, or Jehovah, sent the archangel Michael to earth as Jesus Christ to redeem mankind for the sin of Adam. He predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in 1914, when a select group would survive the ensuing Armageddon and live in a paradise on earth. Although his prediction proved false, the church continued to grow, and its members set the 1975 date for Armageddon, although they denied having done so as the date approached.

The membership of Michael Jackson, who often proselytizes in disguise on street corners, has caused special problems for the strictly fundamentalist church. Ex-Witnesses claim that he was forced to renounce Thriller under threat of disfellowship. An earlier issue of Watchtower (circulation 10.2 million) had denounced “worldly musicians” and discouraged church members from imitating them. And Gary Botting, a professor of English literature at Red Deer 1 College in Alberta and coauthor of The Orwellian World of the Jehovah ’s Witnesses, published in May, 1984, said that many younger church members believe that Jackson is really the archangel Mi! chael, or the embodiment of Christ. Botting said that just before Jackson’s birth in 1958, his mother had attended a giant Witness rally in New York at which Witness leaders proposed that the Messiah would return under the name Michael. One Witness who says she believes in the Jackson cult is Patricia O’Connor, 29, of Sylvan Lake, Alta., and she says that she has many friends in the church who also subscribe to it. She noted that Jackson and Jehovah both begin with a “J” and they both contain seven letters. Said Quinn: “The church was on the right track, but now that the Messiah is here they do not realize he has come.” Spokesmen for Jackson deny all knowledge of the cult.

For their part, church officials refused to comment on Jackson. Robert Balzer, a church spokesman at the Brooklyn headquarters, said further that the protesters “are a few disgruntled people trying to attract a lot of attention.” Walter Graham, a spokesman at Canadian headquarters, said that fewer than 1,000 people a year are expelled from the church, and only one per cent of them for criticizing doctrine. Said Graham: “They have brought the ostracism upon themselves.” But Botting claims that the discontent is more serious. He explained that many Witnesses believe that Oct. 2, 1984, is the final deadline for Armageddon. On Oct. 3, Botting said, the protesters will demand the resignation of the church governing body. Added Botting: “After 1984 you will see a widespread rebellion. You are only seeing the tip of the iceberg now.”£>