A talk by a Watchtower representative urging the shunning of relatives is sending shockwaves through the online JW community.
Recorded at one of the 2013 “God’s Word Is Truth” District Conventions in California, the speaker instructs Witnesses to shun family members, even children, as an act of loyalty.
In his Saturday-afternoon talk entitled “The Truth Brings ‘Not Peace, But a Sword’,” Wallkill Bethel representative Steven Bell laid the blame for the heartache of shunning squarely at the feet of those who are disfellowshipped.
“Resist self-blame,” Bell told an audience of thousands of Witnesses. “We may think that we’re at fault somehow. Remember that Jehovah holds sinners responsible for their actions. Each person has to have a personal relationship with Jehovah. Even young ones that are disfellowshipped, it’s because their relationship with Jehovah was weak.”
Since being uploaded less than 24 hours ago, the video has already received thousands of views and has provoked an angry backlash on JW forums and Facebook groups – especially among those who are currently being shunned.
Video transcript available on this link.
Ironically, even though the above talk openly encourages divisions between families on religious grounds, the official handbill circulated by Jehovah’s Witnesses to promote the convention posed the following question on its front cover…
Bell’s talk, which was based on an outline provided for him by the Teaching Committee of the Governing Body, draws on Christ’s words in Matthew 10:34,35 to suggest that Witnesses should expect their beliefs to cause family divisions.
In using this scripture, the Governing Body are implying that all who are disfellowshipped from Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose God and Jesus and should therefore be shunned. Failure to shun family members who are former Witnesses is to be considered an act of disloyalty against God.
“What does Jehovah expect out of us, even if the situation is so painful that we have a family member who is disfellowshipped? What does he want?” asks Bell. “Loyalty, that’s what Jehovah wants. Jehovah knows that this is a difficult time in our life, but he wants loyalty.”
Loyalty to the Watch Tower Society is thus to be considered equal to loyalty to God.
Emotional blackmail admitted
Those who oppose Watchtower’s practice of shunning former members point to the fact that it essentially constitutes emotional blackmail. The purpose of disfellowshipping is, they say, not to restore the person’s relationship with God, but to blackmail the person into returning to the organization by holding his family hostage. Interestingly, this is precisely how disfellowshipping is presented in Bell’s talk.
“When someone is disfellowshipped,” explains Bell, “one of the reasons they want to come back into Jehovah’s organization is to associate with the brothers and sisters in the congregation and likely to associate with their family. So if we associate with them when they’re disfellowshipped, we could actually be taking away from them a motivating factor for wanting to be reinstated.”
Bell then attempts to drive his point home with a bizarre hypothetical scenario in which a disfellowshipped person is finally reinstated and promptly criticizes his family for not shunning him fully. Many have already commented on how unlikely this scenario would be.
“Just imagine now if we didn’t remain loyal and we talk to them [the disfellowshipped person] and associate with them,” suggests Bell. “Could you imagine the feeling we would have the night they were reinstated, and they walked up to us and said: ‘Why weren’t you loyal to Jehovah when I was disfellowshipped?’ That would cut us at our heart! But what joy you would have if they walked up and said, ‘Thank you for being loyal to Jehovah! Your example motivated me to return to serve Jehovah!’ Remember, in all cases, being loyal to Jehovah is the most important thing.”
Misrepresentation to the outside world
The recording of the shunning talk was just one of a series of audio files that were made available to JWsurvey.org. Interestingly, an announcement was read out at the start of the convention, which stated: “Any recordings of this program should be for your personal use or for the benefit of those unable to be present. Recordings should not be made available for general circulation, or distribution.”
Anyone who listens to the shunning talk will understand the Society’s concern in wanting to keep a lid on what instructions are given to Witnesses behind closed doors. Like many religious organizations, Watchtower is acutely image conscious, and wants to make sure it can control the facade it presents to the outside world – even if this involves using deception.
For example, in 2011 a journalist for the Independent quizzed Watchtower representative Rick Fenton on whether the Society ostracizes (or shuns) so-called apostates. Fenton replied by describing ostracization as a “personal matter for each individual to decide for himself.” Then, in early 2013, another Watchtower representative by the name of Vincent Toole described shunning as a “myth” when questioned by an Australian reporter. (click here for article)
Even the Society’s official website, JW.org, goes to considerable lengths to conceal the extent of its shunning practices. In its FAQ section under the question “Do You Shun Former Members of Your Religion?” an evasive answer is given that leaves the reader bewildered and none the wiser. The four-paragraph ‘answer’ can be summarized as follows:
- Paragraph 1: talks about how inactive Witnesses are not shunned, even though the question specifically refers to “former members.”
- Paragraph 2: ignores the fact that the question is about shunning entirely and discusses the judicial process, mentioning that not everyone who sins is disfellowshipped.
- Paragraph 3: mentions that family heads are not subject to shunning – one of only two loopholes that is provided (the other being children that are too young to leave home).
- Paragraph 4: sums up by explaining that disfellowshipped persons are invited to meetings, ignoring the fact that nobody will be allowed to speak to them, including their family members, which is shunning.
But the Society hasn’t just lied about its practice of shunning and shied away from discussing it on its official website. This new YouTube video highlights a quote from a 2009 Awake! magazine that lambasted other religions for causing family divisions, thus implying that those who choose to become Witnesses will never face this predicament.
“No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family.” – g7/09 p.29
If only Watchtower could itself live up to the standards it expects from other faiths.
The backlash begins
Predictably, many current and former Witnesses who have seen the video have been saddened and outraged by it. Those who are themselves on the receiving end of shunning have especially expressed their dismay that this is the sort of propaganda their Witness family members are being pummelled with.
Of course, there is nothing unusual in the actual instructions conveyed in the talk. Those who are familiar with the Witness faith know about the extent to which shunning is enforced, and that it is principally intended as emotional blackmail. What makes the talk unusual is the manner in which the speaker brazenly and forcefully spells out that shunning is something Witnesses are compelled to do, even to children, in total contradiction of the image Watchtower seeks to portray to outsiders.
Now the talk is being circulated on YouTube, it is hoped that more non-JWs will be made aware of the enormous pressure Witnesses are under to inflict misery and heartache on their disfellowshipped loved ones – all in the name of “loyalty.”
It is also hoped that Steven Bell, who so passionately and enthusiastically defended the harmful policies of his Governing Body masters, does not rise any higher up the Watchtower leadership chain. If he were to ever become a Governing Body member himself, based on this talk, I shudder to think how further radicalized the organization might become in the future.
- PDF transcript of Steven Bell’s talk: English | Portuguese
- JWsurvey articles on shunning
- JWfacts article on disfellowshipping and shunning
- An Open Letter to Jehovah’s Witnesses, by Robert Crompton
- Stephanie Hammond’s blog article “Shunning the Shunners”
- Patheos.com article