The full program for the 2016 District Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses is now available, and it may prove to be an extremely memorable event, though perhaps not for the reasons the Organisation intended.
It is important to keep in mind, before we discuss the specifics of the program, that the District Conventions often act very much as a barometer for the overall concerns and general state of health for Watchtower worldwide. In years when there is no specific pressing worldwide need, the convention may be a “general interest” mix of subjects all loosely connected by an overall theme.
But in years when a specific need or concern is affecting the worldwide organisation, we often see the Convention focused upon a specific theme. For example, a convention may focus on the preaching work and full time service, if the Governing Body feel there is a specific need in this area.
This is understandable, as a Convention allows the Governing Body three whole days to focus the minds and hearts of the Witnesses on whatever is considered to be the chief matter of interest at that moment.
So it is fascinating to discover that this year, the entire convention is focused upon one specific theme, and one specific theme only, as this tells us a great deal about the Governing Body’s main concern in 2016.
The theme is loyalty.
With a theme of “Remain Loyal to Jehovah”, the convention appears to focus solely around concerns over the reliability and trustworthiness of the flock. The titles of the talks are striking, and even a little disturbing. One can almost imagine them being stamped on huge Government signs in the kind of Totalitarian state that George Orwell so chillingly envisioned in his novel 1984. Imagine if you will, shuffling along in the rain, in a grey cityscape, whilst above you in neon letters loom commands such as:
Maintain Loyalty in Thought!
Loyal Love is BETTER than Life!
Maintain Loyalty in Word!
Freedom is Slavery!
HATE What Jehovah HATES!
Do Not Imitate DISLOYAL Ones!
Thoughtcrime IS Death!
Jehovah Deserves UNDIVIDED Loyalty!
Okay, hands up, some of those sentences are not talk titles from the convention, they are slogans used by the Totalitarian government in 1984, but if you did not already know this, you might be hard pressed to guess exactly which was which.
This controlling demand for loyalty goes on and on throughout the program, but in some ways, this isn’t even the most disturbing aspect of the planned material.
That privilege is reserved for a Friday afternoon talk that is part of a symposium entitled “Loyally Uphold Jehovah’s Judgements.”
The title of the talk?
“Shun Unrepentant Wrongdoers”
Shunning: Is Watchtower finally coming clean?
Shunning is one of the most controversial practices currently employed by Watchtower. We have covered the policy and its devastating effects many times here on JW Survey, but to cut to the chase for those who may not be familiar with the policy, it boils down to this.
If a baptised Jehovah’s Witness decides to leave the religion for any reason, all other Jehovah’s Witnesses will be required to pretend that person no longer exists. And if they disobey the shunning order, they too will be shunned.
As a result families are split apart, long term friends vanish overnight, grandchildren have never met their grandparents, parents do not speak with their children, and many Witnesses remain as Witnesses not out of devotion to the religion, but because of fear of what will happen if they leave.
Understandably, this practice has horrified many independent observers and experts. For example, The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found the practice (which had been used by Watchtower to throw out and shun child abuse survivors who refused to “forgive” their attackers) to be as follows (bold is mine:)
F70 The Jehovah’s Witness organisation’s policy of requiring its adherents to actively shun those who leave the organisation
a) makes it extremely difficult for someone to leave the organisation
b) is cruel on those who leave and on their friends and family who remain behind
c is particularly cruel on those who have suffered child sexual abuse in the organisation and who wish to leave because they feel that their complaints about it have not been adequately dealt with
d) is not apparently justified by the Scriptures which are cited in support of it
e) is adopted and enforced in order to prevent people from leaving the organisation and thereby to maintain its membership, and
f) is in conflict with the organisation’s professed support for freedom of religious choice and the belief that Jehovah God is a compassionate God who recognises the worth and dignity of all human beings.
Yet crucially, perhaps recognising the policy to be cruel, difficult to defend, and a potential PR disaster, Watchtower frequently tries to misrepresent their shunning practice.
For a start, they usually refer to the practice as Disfellowshipping (for one who is involuntarily removed from the congregation for transgressing upon one of a growing number of Watchtower’s intrusive and controlling edicts) or Disassociation (for one who chooses to remove themselves). By changing the name of the practice, Watchtower is clearly trying to lessen the stigma attached to it, in much the same way that the cult of Scientology refers to their shunning orders as “Disconnection,” and the shunned as “Suppressive Persons.”
Additionally, when directly questioned about the practice, Watchtower officials will often present half truths or even outright lies, portraying the practice as less harsh than it really is, or sometimes even denying that it exists altogether.
Therefore, to see a talk at an international district convention open to the public so blatantly champion the policy, to the extent that they even dispense with the pseudo-terms “disfellowshipping” and “disassociation”, and directly use the word “shun” appears to be a significant step up in rhetoric. The fact that it is then followed by a talk entitled “Be Forgiving” is so incongruous that it demonstrates how those who organised the schedule are either utterly oblivious to taste and decency, or have a very dark sense of humour.
Are the Governing Body threatening Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The overall message of the convention appears to be “You’d better remain loyal if you know what’s good for you,” with the overt brandishing of the cruel and inhumane shunning sanction as a threat of what is in store for the “disloyal.”
It would appear that any Jehovah’s Witness who may have become increasingly concerned that their organisation was not the loving brotherhood they once assumed, but was rather an increasingly controlling, harsh and unloving entity have good reason to be afraid.
Yet it is clear that the Governing Body are also afraid.
They have seen an awful 2015, with sex abuse scandals making the news, Governing Body members grilled before courts and found to be “evasive and unhelpful, Bethels and full time servants slashed, construction projects abandoned, and virtually no-overall growth in the number of Witneses worldwide despite high baptism figures and births.
The bottom line? You don’t get a convention like this when those in charge feel safe. You get a convention like this when those in charge are very afraid.