Local newspapers are already lining up to write articles lauding the influx of Witnesses at sports venues and convention centers. Conventions are typically a big money-spinner for local businesses, so journalists are often compelled to write favorably about these events.
“It’s a weekend to learn. In that sense, each day is less like a church service and more like an educational symposium,” opines Chelsea Davis at the Missoulian.
“The city has estimated that each of the three conventions can generate as much as $1.5 million worth of economic activity in Cornwall and area,” enthuses Todd Hambleton for the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses strive to adhere to the form of Christianity that Jesus taught and that his apostles practiced,” gushes a commendably-unnamed correspondent at South Coast Today.
Every year, flattering pieces like this overlook the more sinister underpinnings of Witness conventions, which amount to little more than indoctrination rallies orchestrated by the New York-based Watch Tower Society and its Governing Body leadership.
Usually the coercive element of these gatherings is harder to spot for an undiscerning local journalist who simply wants to push out a favorable review that will sail past his editor and keep the pay-checks rolling in. But this year, there really are no excuses.
Firstly, it’s difficult to imagine a theme that is more Orwellian: “Remain Loyal to Jehovah.” Precisely how is anyone supposed to relate to this circle-the-wagons rhetoric who hasn’t been indoctrinated into equating Watchtower with God’s one true organization on earth today? How do you “remain loyal” to something to which you haven’t pledged allegiance?
Secondly, and most crucially, any remotely switched-on journalist who sits through one or more of the string of highly-manipulative videos being shown at this year’s convention should be struck by the blatant coercion and fear-mongering as though they’ve been clobbered in the face by a wet halibut.
And for the most disturbing example of this jaw-dropping video propaganda, we need look no further than a series of three appalling videos that should come with a parental warning and be titled: “How to shun your daughter for 15 years just for sleeping with someone to whom she isn’t married.”
(Below is my video rebuttal to the shunning videos, as well as one of the convention talks of the symposium in which they are shown…)
We are introduced to Sonja, a girl raised by devout Witness parents, who reaches a crossroads in her teenage years when a childhood of indoctrination begins to conflict with her burgeoning individuality. Feelings of uncertainty about her beliefs are suppressed, as she goes through the motions simply to satisfy her parents – something many raised as Witnesses will relate to.
Since even masturbation is off the menu for Jehovah’s Witnesses (despite not a single scripture in the bible supporting this prohibition) it’s no real surprise when years of sexual repression climax in a night of carnal abandon involving Sonja and a work colleague in a hotel room. Sonja initially experiences pangs of guilt, but later correctly accepts that sex is something that happens when two people are in love.
At this point, Sonja’s boyfriend Eric is jettisoned from further participation in the drama. All we know is that he was kind and attentive to Sonja, and that her love for him was reciprocated.
As far as Watchtower is concerned, Eric is an imposter who was instrumental in a Witness youth falling from grace. Any good intentions he may have had toward Sonja are irrelevant in the eyes of the filmmakers. What matters is that he is NOT a Jehovah’s Witness, and therefore should have no place in Sonja’s life. De-humanized, and with his work done, Eric exits stage left so that Sonja’s story can continue.
How Sonja’s elders come to learn of her forbidden romance is not depicted. Instead, we are taken straight to the meeting where Sonja is announced as disfellowshipped. Immediately the focus is on Sonja’s parents, and how her actions have “crushed” them. Sonja is further cast as the villain when she is shown acting obstinately, arms folded, when her father delivers the news that she needs to leave home.
A more accurate depiction of the scenario would show an errant teenager, traumatized by his or her impending estrangement from the family, pleading with their indoctrinated father or mother to show mercy and reconnect with their parental instincts. But to fit with Watchtower’s “blame the victim” message, Sonja must be a scowling, defiant brat who anyone would be glad to see the back of.
With Sonja ejected from the family home, her ‘victims’ gather on the sofa to read an Old Testament account that will make them feel better about abandoning their child. The bible passage describes Aaron being instructed, on pain of death, to not mourn his sons Nadab and Abihu who have been executed by God with fire from heaven. Sonja’s parents resolve to use this account as a blueprint for purging their emotions and pretending Sonja is dead.
This is not the first time the Nadab and Abihu story has been invoked by Watchtower to order parents not to grieve the loss of their shunned children, as should be evident from the following quote from the July 15, 2011 Watchtower study edition (the same magazine issue in which apostates are described as “mentally diseased”)…
It isn’t long before Sonja’s parents get the chance to put their instructions into practice. Sonja is shown calling her parents’ cellphone, which begins ringing on the kitchen worktop. Her mother checks to see who is calling. On noticing Sonja’s number, she refuses to pick up.
For all we know, Sonja could have been stranded by the roadside, or in the process of being attacked, robbed, raped or murdered – but paramount in her parents’ minds is the need to show loyalty to Watchtower by pretending she no longer exists.
Sonja tells the audience that her parents did the right thing by refusing to pick up, and quotes almost verbatim from an experience printed in a 2013 Watchtower in which a once-disfellowshipped man named Robert praises his parents for not giving him the “small dose” of contact he needed that might have delayed his decision to return. Family contact, apparently, is some kind of illicit drug, and depriving disfellowshipped children of it is the humane, loving thing to do.
Watchtower is virtually holding its hands up and saying: “We expect parents to emotionally blackmail their disfellowshipped kids. If they end up returning just to end the shunning rather than because they genuinely believe the religion, at least the ends justify the means.”
In the final instalment of the shunning trilogy, after 15 years of being shunned (a punishment apparently entirely deserved after sleeping with someone), Sonja is depicted getting reinstated. Finally reunited with her family, Sonja is engulfed in a tide of post-meeting love-bombing by congregation members who now shower her with conditional love.
Not shown are the months of humiliating attendance of meetings at which she is required to sit in disgrace on the last rows of the seats while literally an entire congregation shuns her. Only by doing this can disfellowshipped Witnesses get back into Watchtower’s good books, and even then it isn’t always that simple.
In my rebuttal video (above), I give one tragic example in which a disfellowshipped Witness named Kaatje was repeatedly refused reinstatement due to her chronic depression. Her brother Bjorn is convinced that this treatment by elders directly contributed to her eventual suicide. (My interview with him will feature in a future video on the “John Cedars” YouTube channel.)
Sadly, Kaatje is just one of many who have paid the ultimate price for Watchtower’s extreme shunning policy, which its own literature once described as “altogether foreign to bible teachings.”
The media black-out
Even more tragic is the grim reality that there is no end in sight to this abhorrent treatment, at least while the media in general resolutely refuses to give Watchtower’s brand of shunning the scrutiny and criticism it deserves. True, Rawstory has wasted little time in describing one of the shunning videos as “disturbing,” but so far it is a lone voice.
Rather than the inevitable avalanche of puff pieces heralding the “Remain Loyal To Jehovah” convention as a commercial success, we should be seeing Sonja’s face in multiple newspapers, magazines and blogs as her foul treatment at the behest of a cruel cult is rightly condemned. It should be made perfectly clear that, in the 21st Century, such blatant manipulation and coercion by religious leaders aimed at breaking up families is intolerable, and certainly should not be endorsed through tax exemptions and even charitable status.
Perhaps the only way we can ever live to see public opinion close the gap on Watchtower is by doing what we can to give this dreadful material the exposure it deserves in whatever way possible. For that reason, I would urge all of you to share this video and article on social media (if you are able), as well as the videos and articles that will follow in this #worstconventionever series.
It may be that our efforts to get the media to take notice amount to little more than a phone call that goes unanswered, but at least by trying we honour the memory of those like Kaatje who paid the ultimate price for Watchtower’s barbarity. I can think of few better reasons to share a hashtag.
This is the first in a series of six articles examining various features of the Remain Loyal to Jehovah convention of 2016. To read leaked transcripts and videos from the convention, please click here.