Watchtower’s book Benefit From Theocratic Ministry School Education, which instructs Witnesses on how to discuss their faith with others, features the chapter “Tactful yet Firm.” In the introductory box, “What do you need to do?” it states “Show discretion in what you say as well as how and when you say it, in order to avoid offending others needlessly.”
The first paragraph says, “TACT is the ability to deal with other people without giving needless offense. It involves knowing how and when to say things. This does not imply a compromising of what is right or a distortion of facts.” It also adds, “Tact should not be confused with fear of man. –Prov. 29:25.”
Watchtower videos have increasingly been focusing on the final point in that paragraph; that tact should not be confused with fear of people, instead of the advice about wisely choosing when to say things and how to say them. In Witness terms, this means that Witnesses are being encouraged to not back down from any situation in which they can make known their beliefs, even if the resulting situation will be awkward or offensive.
Along with this focus has come a distinctly propagandist tone when it comes to the subject of homosexuals and those who support their rights. Let’s look at three videos produced by Watchtower in the last two years that illustrate this.
Video One: Training children to harass other children.
First is the video Become Jehovah’s Friend – Lesson 22: One Man, One Woman. This video is aimed at teaching children how to think about marriage and gives an example of how they should deal with a classmate or friend who has gay or lesbian parents.
Sofia, the young protagonist, is reminded by her mother of Watchtower teaching on which genders of people can be married to each other. The teachings would be familiar to any Christian who interprets the bible literally.
The troublesome part, however, is that the mother does not stop at helping her daughter understand what she is supposed to believe on the subject. It is that after Sofia tells her that she wants everyone to get to paradise, the mother responds: “So does Jehovah! And you know what? People can change. That’s why we share his message. So, what can you say to Carrie?” Sofia gleefully decides she will preach to Carrie, her classmate, about the paradise, the animals (that they will be at peace with humans in the paradise), and the resurrection of the dead. The video closes with the mother/daughter combo getting ready to practice Sofia’s preaching routine.
Here’s the key question for witnesses that the video leaves out: What will be the result of Sofia’s preaching to Carrie? Will it “avoid offending other needlessly” as the Benefit book suggests? This is highly doubtful if not impossible. No matter what it is that Sofia uses to get Carrie interested in witness teaching, she’s eventually going to get to the part where she has to tell Carrie that her moms are living in sin and will die at Armageddon unless they change. Taking into account the way in which excited children operate, this upsetting portion of the conversation will probably come up much sooner than later.
The reality is, two married women, especially those have gone to the extra step of having a child, have most likely thought through and solidified their value and belief systems and are not going to be easily shaken by witness teaching. Furthermore, what would the best-case JW scenario for this family really be? The moms would need to get a divorce and live out the rest of their lives until Armageddon (or until they die, depending on your beliefs) as either heterosexual or celibate. What would happen to Carrie in that situation? Which of her beloved moms would she live with? Would she end up needing to adapt to a step-father or even two? Does Carrie have siblings who would also be affected?
In all likelihood, Sofia’s needless preaching to Carrie would probably end up for her the same way my preaching to a fellow first-grader did for me: an angered parent requesting to meet with my parents and my teacher to figure out why her child is being given religious literature and being told that one day his mother will walk again in an earthly paradise that she does not believe in. Encouraging children to broach topics like these, particularly with the goal of preaching at a child they know has parents involved in a non-JW approved lifestyle, is not tactful. It is only going to lead to awkward, upsetting, and offensive confrontations.
Video Two: Training JW’s to harass dinner guests
The second video that bears consideration is Remember The Wife Of Lot, a modern day sitcom-style portrayal of a pioneer witness family struggling along as the mother, Gloria, switches her focus from witness activity to a real estate career. The topic of homosexuality manages to pop up a few times throughout the film and gives us a glimpse of the current Watchtower thinking on the issue.
The first scene in question is in Part 1 at 28:23. Gloria and her mother are at her mother’s home watching a real estate reality show. We only see the program for a few brief moments but two men are pictured giving a high-five to their agent who has just closed on a home for them. Gloria’s mother gives a chuckle and remarks on how funny the men are. Gloria’s response comes back simultaneously scornful and amused,
“Mom!? They’re a gay couple.”
“A year ago that shocked you.”
“Things change, and we need to get used to it.”
Gloria’s mom is spot on. No matter what our personal beliefs are, we do have to get used to the fact that other people do not have to live by those beliefs, nor do they have to hide their lifestyles. As long as others are not breaking the law or infringing on the rights of fellow citizens, none of us have any say over what they do or how they live. Witnesses are indeed going to have to become accustomed to living in a world with gay and lesbian couples being able to live a normal, unimpeded, and unhidden life, just like the life each Witness wants for themselves. This includes homosexuals being able to appear on television with their significant others free of shame and assault.
The most striking part of this scene for me, however, is that Gloria responds to her mother’s comment at all. The normal response to a comment on the comedic quality of someone on TV is “Yes they are,” “No they’re not,” or to simply not respond at all. Why should someone’s sexual orientation, as opposed to other qualities some may place in the moral sphere, affect whether or not one is willing to be entertained by them?
While some witnesses might go to extreme lengths not to watch or listen to anything that has been produced by or involves a sexually active unmarried heterosexual person, a cigarette smoker, or someone who celebrates Christmas, I haven’t met or heard of any such people. Certainly the massive majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly take in entertainment produced by individuals whose morals or lifestyle they would not agree with. Why should it be any different when the point of disagreement is homosexuality?
The second, and now somewhat infamous scene is in Part 2 of the movie at 20:46. Gloria’s daughter Anna arrives home after dinner along with her supervisor, who is also her cousin, Kevin, and her two coworkers in tow. This whole scene is set up by the completely unrealistic scenario that Kevin has volunteered, not only to give everyone a ride home from work, but also to come up to Anna’s family’s apartment to explain to her parents why she’s being working so much overtime lately. Why the two coworkers would choose to come along for this five minute errand instead of just waiting in the car adds another layer of unbelievability, but this is the setup needed to depict the family as being under moral attack.
After, Kevin’s apology for Anna’s overtime and complementing both her work and that of her coworkers, Tess and Eric, Gloria makes the comment that their parents must be proud. Tess apparently sees this as the perfect opportunity to be contentious and bring up the fact that both of her moms are, indeed, very proud of her.
I was raised by two wonderful women. You know…life partners?
Gloria’s husband, Brian, squints suspiciously at Tess while she’s speaking and Gloria, to her partial credit, tries to find common ground by awkwardly whispering that she recently found out her assistant is also gay. This awkward response is apparently what the character of Tess was hoping for and she uses it to combatively question whether or not the family thinks there’s something wrong with homosexuality, leading to protracted and testy conversation on the matter.
Two issues with this scene: For a start, being tactful in this situation would arguably involve not overreacting to what Tess originally said about her moms. She was merely describing the makeup of her familystating what her family makeup was. She didn’t outright challenge anyone and in the 21st century, it would be advisable, not to mention tactful, to avoid making accusatory faces or acting sheepishly and visually uncomfortable when someone or their family member mentions that they are homosexual. There was no need for Brian or Gloria to say anything in this circumstance. The conversation could merely have continued on with the subject at hand, that being the medical research Anna and her team had been working on. This would not have constituted compromise of the family’s beliefs, and wouldn’t have created a needless confrontation.
Secondly, this video marks the beginning of Watchtower’s portrayal of LGBTQ individuals or supporters as militant, confrontational, and opportunistic. Tess is portrayed from the start as ready to stir up trouble with Anna’s family. While argumentative people do exist, they do so in all realms of society. The worry here is that this scene and the next video we will consider are being used to frame witnesses as victimized and under attack. This would seem to be the excuse for tact being set aside. If anyone is acting tactfully throughout this scene, and in fact throughout the entire movie, it is worldly cousin Kevin. He is continually bending over backwards to work with Anna’s needs and works at calming the situation that arises in this scene.
Video 3: Training JW’s to take pointless stands and make needless enemies
Our final video for consideration is the first among the leaked symposium videos for the upcoming 2018 “Be Courageous” Regional Convention program, as first presented on the John Cedars YouTube channel. The video portrays a congregation elders’ meeting in which the brothers are sharing experiences of courage displayed by Witnesses in their service groups.
The first such experience is that of a young witness in her twenties named Sally. Sally is shopping at a boutique that seems to specialize in fresh produce and woven textiles. Sally begins to notice that most if not all of the other shoppers are wearing a rainbow colored wristband. Upon checking out at the first cashier, she is asked if she wants to make a donation to “the marathon.”
At this point no mention has been made of the cause the marathon supports but the audience is expected to understand it has something to do with gay rights. Upon Sally’s sullen but polite refusal, the cashier gives an incredulous eyebrow raise, signaling her supposed disgust that Sally wouldn’t want to contribute to the cause.
Sally’s next interaction at a checkout stand, this time to buy a throw blanket, doesn’t go any better. As she’s checking out, with an ominous cello line coming to a crescendo in the background, she finally sees a poster revealing that the wristband is being given out to support lesbian rights. The polite and smiley cashier holds out one of the rainbow wristbands and asks, “Shall I put it in the bag or do you want to wear it now?” Sally sheepishly but politely refuses the wristband with an “Oh. No thank you.” and that’s when the real ordeal begins.
The woman who has just checked out in front of her, and who had been chatting with the cashier, wearing a wristband all the while, turns to Sally and simmeringly asks, “What’s wrong, honey? You got something against them?” Sally replies that she has nothing against them personally so the woman sets her jaw and, seething, comes back, “So what’s the problem?” Sally again:
“I respect that they have a right to choose their lifestyle, but as a bible reader…”
“Excuse me! I’m a bible reader too! I go to church! And our church is one of the biggest supporters for this marathon! So what are you trying to say?”
After saying a quick prayer and telling herself that displaying courage in this situation will help her display courage in the future, Sally takes a dramatic step forward and explains that she’s one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and believes that sex is for a man and woman who are married. The woman utters her accusatory response, “Intolerant people.” and walks away.
The framing of the scene would move us to believe that having the wristband placed in the bag would be viewed by all as a sign of capitulation to and support of the marriage equality movement. It is as if the employee emphatically stated “Would you like to wear the wristband now, thereby forever and undyingly making known that you, said patron, are and forever will be a supporter of marriage equality? Or shall I solidify the same contract by putting it in the bag for you?”
Having the wristband travel home and to a garbage bin via the shopping bag would not have been a sign of support for the movement. The whole point of the token being a wristband is that it must be worn around the wrist to show solidarity. Sally could have easily asked for it to be put in the bag. This would have avoided any sort of confrontation without her compromising her beliefs.
What Watchtower is doing here is plain. They are using videos like the ones we have just looked at to interpret who they feel are being victimized in today’s society. Rather than recognizing that the LGBTQ community has had to overcome inumerable hardships to have the same basic freedoms of society in general, Watchtower is implying to Jehovah’s Witnesses that they themselves are under attack.
It is also noteworthy that a situation like the one pictured, while not being inconceivable, is certainly rare and more often than not, brought about by an anti-LGBTQ comment made outloud between two or more Witnesses. I can speak from experience that Witnesses can be painfully oblivious to their own volume and to the effect that their statements have on those around them. In other words, a decent number tend not to pay much mind to tact in their daily comings and goings. This is not unique to Witnesses, but it is certainly something that we all have to keep in mind in order to have a peaceful society.
Why is Watchtower abandoning tact?
The conclusion is, instead of preparing JWs for the future, one in which homosexuals and people of all other harmless lifestyles will continue to be an integral part of our global society, Watchtower seems intent on ramping up Witnesses’ sense that they are increasingly under siege by the world at large.
Instead of focusing in on tact and teaching their adherents how to be tactful, respectful, and self-aware, they want them to feel that being surrounded by an increasingly progressive world means that the Great Tribulation will break out at any moment, and that their ability to show courage (read paranoia) will be one of the primary qualities to get them through.
We can only hope that individual Witnesses will see this for what is and find a better way forward.
Kamden Pine is an exJW activist and editor at The Friendly JW Skeptic. He formerly served in Watchtower’s Bethel headquarters in the United States.
You can follow him on twitter @kamdenpine,
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You can also hear him on episode 9 of Watchtower in Focus on the John Cedars Youtube discussing the infamous “pillowgate” videos below.