WRN Interviews The Organization to Reveal What People Know, What They Should Know, and How The Organization Survives
Jehovah’s Witnesses are in a unique position globally. While historically persecuted there has been a recent wave of religious persecution in Russia and European countries allied to them. This has occurred through both draconian laws and looking the other way when individual actors commit violence and destruction against the organization.A Fascinating Look At Misperceptions and Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Looking online, you can find a large amount of highly negative comments about the group and their beliefs. World Religion News was able to sit down with the organization to discuss their international persecution, common misconceptions, the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the community, and how to learn more information.
WRN: What are the common misperceptions of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
JW: Well it depends on where we are talking about. Of course, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, first and foremost, we worship the God and the Bible and endeavor to follow Jesus’s example. In that regard certainly we are Christian, but in some parts of the world that is called into question.
Some detractors feel that to be a Christian they need to accept a certain church dogma. Then the question is “well which one is that?” we just follow what Jesus said “you are my disciples if you do what I am commanding you and if you have love amongst yourselves. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we try to do that and we find in time that dispels the idea that in some way shape or form that we are not Christian. That is sometimes a misconception.
Perhaps some of the more recent things that we have found particularly in places like Russia, you heard the word “extremism”. It seems to be used in such a general sense that anyone with a firm belief in something and it might differ from the majority is being labeled as extremism. And when that is being applied in a legal context it creates a real problem. And it goes hand in hand with the idea with evidence of extremism in the belief that you have the truth, but of course, every religion believes they have the truth or they would have a different religion. And that is even in the choice to not believe to be religious. From the way we look at it, the belief you have the correct view on a subject really isn’t the same as a belief you are superior.
“Anyone with a firm belief in something and it might differ from the majority is being labeled as extremism.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t campaign against anyone who disagrees with them. That is an issue, this idea of extremism, being associated with a person’s firm conviction. We do not believe that disagreeing with that someone else believes is a threat compelling someone to believe a certain way is a threat. There have been times in history where the majority did try to prevent a minority from believing a certain idea. They called it heresy or rebellion and now we see the term extremism and so it is nothing new and we are aware it is happening in certain parts of the world. I don’t think these are unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
WRN: Given the history of persecution that Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced in Russia were those laws created specifically designed to target Jehovah’s Witnesses or were the rules made generally and then specifically applied because of a certain situation that created a perceived threat?
JW: It is a very difficult question to answer in terms of what the intent was behind the laws that were enacted. Other experts and observers we have spoken have reached their own conclusions as to who is being targeted by certain laws. There are certain aspects of the law that exist that would really impact the nature and work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in those countries there is no question about that.
We try to not get into that mode to try to interpret what the particular intention was. We are just kind of faced with the reality of what it has to lead to. We are trying to make sure that a clear understanding of our who we are and what our work is will help move things in a different direction.
WRN: Do you think with the confirmation of Sam Brownback as Religious Freedom Ambassador things will become more hopeful and there will be more outspokenness about the Russia ban?
JW: That is another difficult question. When it comes to government and what they do in connection to freedom of religion and upholding human rights, Jehovah’s Witnesses are in a unique position. We do not lobby, we do not pursue our objectives with political ends. We do not try to compel any government official to enact laws for that reason. However, we try to keep them informed. We try to help them understand aspects of our organizations that perhaps they have been misinformed about. We hope that they will use their position and authority to open up freedoms for us and of course that will have a positive effect on everyone who values human rights. I guess time will tell those that are in a position of authority will use that trust to protect and examine those human rights.
WRN: Is there an example, either historical or contemporary, where you have found communication with either a country or organization that has led to a positive mutual understanding that has been able to overcome misperceptions?
JW: That is a very good question because there are many instances in history, some further in the past and others more recent where governments have mistakenly viewed Jehovah’s Witnesses and other organizations as a threat. Of course, that was the case in places like Germany during World War 2, which ended up resulting in because of the collapse of the existing Nazi regime when Jehovah’s Witnesses finally found relief, but in many cases, that is not the course things take.
As governments and officials and people in the community get to know Jehovah’s Witnesses on a personal level that is what breaks down the prejudices. We have seen that in many cases where essentially efforts to inform in an appropriate way does lead to a greater understanding. Usually it is the case that in many parts of the world where Jehovah’s Witnesses are not well known and of course they like to share their faith with others, I think there is a lot of misconceptions that develop for various reasons and of course it takes time for a community to become familiar personally with our work instead of basing judgement on what others say. And that takes times. We understand that.
“As governments and officials and people in the community get to know Jehovah’s Witnesses on a personal level that is what breaks down the prejudices.”
We hope that by engaging the right people that we can prevent misunderstandings from developing in the first place. But realistically that might not always be possible. So, we just continue to pursue the course of informing others trying to set a good example doing what we can to be obedient to whatever laws there are that govern and at the same time still holding true to our convictions. We found generally even in locations in the world where we have seen some of the worse treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses we have found even in those locations there is a softening, a greater tolerance and in time has seen a complete reversal of conditions.
Jehovah’s Witnesses become more known in the USA that might be the prime example, there is a part of the last century when there was a high component of nationalism during World War 2. Jehovah’s Witnesses became more known and as time passed people recognized they were not a threat and they were not an opposition group of any kind, and we have seen of course seen some real issue in that regard. Canada went through similar experiences. So, it is not entirely surprising in areas where Jehovah’s Witnesses are not well known there has been a certain decline and misunderstanding that had to be overcome in time.
WRN: Who are the best allies that you have found and just communicating with these organizations, different denominations of faith? Human rights organizations? Or a mix of organizations and it is about opening that dialogue?
JW: It’s sort of a mixed and it’s really just based on giving information and being able to open that dialogue. Usually the best allies for any campaign to inform the individuals themselves who get to know Jehovah’s Witnesses was on a personal level, whoever that might be. Sometimes that happens when we have a chance to interact with the media. Sometimes individuals in the media who actually get personally familiar with our work realize the real nature of it and are not as inclined to repeat information that really, they haven’t been able to confirm and of course, on a government level there are organizations that you mentioned who are personally familiar with us because of their research and their academic approach to our organization. And sometimes what they have said is helpful in opening up a greater awareness. So probably what you said is correct to a large extent.
It’s a combination of all these factors. And of course, as you know, Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves are very active, on an individual level in their own communities. Sometimes there are projects that involve the community, a cooperation such as when a new kingdom hall is built, those in the community get familiar with it. They realized that we are there to benefit the community and we try and take into consideration their needs. So, all those situations also present opportunities that kind of informed people and gradually their understanding improves of who we are.
So, I would say all those examples as a large pallet of, of people and organizations involved, it would be difficult to point to any single one as being the most important other than the individuals actually are able to interact with us on a personal level. That’s probably the most important element because you can say anything you want and even if you’re trying to defend yourself, you can speak words, but it’s your actions, what you do that tend to influence people’s opinion of you the most.
“You can speak words, but it’s your actions, what you do that tend to influence people’s opinion of you the most.”
WRN: Have you gotten a lot of media attention? Have people been reaching out to you from mainstream media to try and get more information about this?
JW: To an extent, yes. A lot depends on what the event is that is the trigger for the interest. Of course, when things happened in Russia if it is the supreme court level or there’s an official ban or liquidation of the organization in Russia that of course initiated a lot of media interest. So that, of course, is positive. The interest that was shown, that’s provided some opportunities. There are other strategic milestones have happened since then. There’s also been some level of sustained interest and we are happy for that.
Of course, there are a lot of things going on in the world and people are concerned about a lot of issues. So sometimes what Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing fade into the background and maybe not take the level of prominence that perhaps more popular topics are taking right now. We hope that as time goes on, the seriousness of the situation can sink in. Because in reality, the neglecting of small groups and the rights of small groups often lead to the collapse of freedoms for everyone.
It is difficult to convey that sometimes because there can be a tendency to view Jehovah’s Witnesses as somehow different and maybe it is because in certain parts of the world they may not be popular because of their view on certain things. So, there can be a tendency to not advocate for their rights and we hope that it will improve beyond the recognition or acknowledgment we’ve seen so far.
WRN: Are there other areas either geographically or issue-based that might not be getting as much attention, but are also important for people to recognize?
JW: There have been very positive developments in some parts of the world that hopefully will continue to grow in a positive direction that people can be aware of. For example, in places like Korea where Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned as conscientious objectors. I think, at any given time, there are hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were actually in prison for long periods of time there when they reach an age where they would be drafted into the military. That situation has been going on for some years. We are starting to see some positive movement on that front that Jehovah’s Witnesses could be offered alternative civilian service in place of obligation towards military service. We are hoping that continues to grow in a positive direction. That doesn’t get very much attention in the media outside of Korea. But that’s a pretty fundamental matter.
There are other parts of the world where the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses is also pretty severe. Hopefully in time there’ll be more of an awareness of that and there’s been some progress in some of these areas, but certainly, there are some locations where it’s very difficult. In every country of the world, there’s varying levels of religious freedom or free speech. So, of course, there are some isolated incidences involving Jehovah’s Witnesses too. But those are some of the larger ones that we see happening and uh, you know, as governments change, as new people come into the, onto the scene, they may not always have the history behind the fight, uh, to worship the Jehovah’s Witnesses have waged over the years. And so sometimes there’s a re-education of that and at times some of those rights can slip a little bit and we do our best to make sure that those rights are secured for everyone.
WRN: And in a situation like Russia where police are spying on private meetings, private worship is being completely eliminated, and the organization is banned. What do you do at that point? What advice do you give? What steps do you give to people that are in these desperate times?
JW: Jehovah’s Witnesses try to be an educated people. Bible education is a priority. So as a person comes to understand the benefits of living by Bible principles and the importance of putting God and the doing of His will first in their life they pretty much allow their conscience to guide them as to how they react to laws or commands that require them to violate their conscience.
We trust that they will do what’s necessary to fulfill their dedication to God and which involves a meeting together, it involves encouraging one another and helping other people by sharing their faith. Witnesses who live in places like Russia do their honest best to fulfill those important obligations that they feel they have to God and their fellow man. Sometimes that puts them at risk we realize that, and of course, we want our fellow witnesses around the world to use good judgment to do what they can to always show respect for government authorities and to the extent that they can follow the laws.
“Witnesses who live in places like Russia do their honest best to fulfill those important obligations that they feel they have to God and their fellow man. Sometimes that puts them at risk.”
But where there is a conflict, each Christian has to make a personal decision. As Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” So, each Christian has to determine how is he going to fill that commandment.
WRN: Speaking of the Bible and Jesus, are there particular passages in scripture or figures that you think inspire strength and you believe that witnesses to look for or is that a personal spiritual meditation that people need to do to inspire their own strength from?
JW: That is a very good question. Actually, there are very specific Bible examples that many Jehovah’s Witnesses are very well aware of. One of those examples is where the Apostles were told by the Jewish leaders of their day not to keep speaking on the basis of Jesus’s name and Peter and the Apostles response was “well, whether we should obey God as ruler rather than men decide for yourselves. But as for us, we cannot stop speaking about the things we’ve heard.” So that example is a good one because the Apostles were very respectful, but yet they said things like it was. It did take courage. But, but ultimately, they were, they were successful in acts chapter five and verse Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Nine, and every one of Jehovah’s Witnesses knows it.
There are other statements like when Jesus gave the assignment to preach and to teach to his disciples, he was aware that they would not always be received well. So, he said that to be both cautious as serpents and innocent as doves. So that’s another principle that Jehovah’s Witnesses tries to follow. To make sure that they don’t unnecessarily agitate people with their work and at the same time remain innocent from any legitimate accusation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses who were found in a situation where they’re being targeted they tried to be careful not to do anything that would bring a legitimate accusation against them. And so, they are faithful in paying their taxes and following through with whatever other requirements that the government may have, even though it may not be easy, but at the same time they also need to follow, as previously mentioned Jesus Command to, to get back God’s things to God. So that’s another example.
A final one too that I think builds courage is that maybe not always be that our life is on the line for our dedication to the Creator but it could be. Sometimes it has been. An example is the three Hebrews who were in Babylon. They were in a situation where they were in the minority: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They had to face the reality of their situation when the king at that time, who was the world leader essentially, required them to perform an act that violated their conscience. And so, their reply to that king of his day was similar to the Apostle Peter’s and, they were firm in their resolve to obey God’s command. So those examples give Jehovah’s Witnesses the courage they need in order to make good decisions about how are they going to respect and honor the authorities while at the same time fulfilling their obligations to their Creator.
WRN: You mentioned about finding out information is a key way to create an open dialogue. Where can people go to get information?
JW: First of all, the easiest thing that I personally could do to get accurate information is to go to the source. So, if people want to know what we really believe on certain matters or position, we do have a website, jw.org and this website is available in hundreds of languages. So, no matter where a person is in the world, chances are that you’ll find that it’s in his language and that has information about Jehovah’s Witnesses, what we believe as opposed to what maybe they think we believe.
There is also a newsroom page that gives updates on what’s going on with JW worldwide. So that’s one thing that a person who’s going to be fairly easy to do and we prefer that they get information from there before accepting something they might read somewhere else.
Another thing, of course, wherever Jehovah’s Witnesses are, they meet together and as long as the government allows them to, they try and have public places of worship and these are truly public. Anyone is invited to come. They’re not obligated to give a donation. In fact, there is no passing of donation plates in kingdom halls. We want to make sure people feel welcome and, anyone can come to the kingdom hall at any time they like and simply hear what’s being said at the meetings. Nothing secret. And that is another way that people can get to know personally about your JW, what they believe, what they teach. Of course, our office is always available to, for the media that we can be contacted if they have specific questions on, have legitimate needs to get information about our organization.