An anthropologist visits a JW community in Santa María Zapotitlán, Mexico

by OrphanCrow 17 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • OrphanCrow

    Dr. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein is an anthropologist who received her doctorate through UCLA.

    In 2013, Barchas-Lichtenstein submitted the paper "When the dead are resurrected, how are we going to speak to them?": Jehovah's Witnesses and the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Globalizing Textual Community as a partial submission for her doctoral dissertation.

    Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s dissertation is a comprehensive look, from an anthropological view, at the role of the Watch Tower Society in Language Revitalization in rural Mexico.

    a description of the article on her Linked-in page:

    This article explores Jehovah's Witnesses' use of Oaxaca Chontal, an endangered language spoken in Mexico. The Witness religion is highly centralized and standardized: Witnesses obeyed instructions to use Chontal because these instructions bore the authority of the Watch Tower Society institution. This article proposes the concept of the globalizing textual community, which synthesizes understandings of community from throughout social science literature, in order to explain how religious identity can supersede national, ethnic, and linguistic identities. A central mechanism of this community is the discourse of the “pure language,” which renders language choice irrelevant even as it provides a warrant for extensive translation. 

    *all quotes that follow are from the article

    Some of her research methods:

    This project was based on approximately eight months of fieldwork in Santa María Zapotitlán, Oaxaca, Mexico, including short trips with my hosts to stay with family members in nearby Salina Cruz and attend large Jehovah's Witness events there. Additional data come from several visits to a Chontal-language congregation in Oaxaca City over a six month period, as well as short visits to Jehovah's Witness headquarters both for Mexico and worldwide. The Mexico Branch Office is located in Texcoco, just outside Mexico City. The worldwide offices, meanwhile, are located in three cities in New York State: Brooklyn, Patterson, and Wallkill; I was only able to visit the Brooklyn offices.

    The paper is almost 400 pages in length and is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of the JWs in Mexico and/or the study of language and text and cultural studies as well as religious studies. The research she has done in support of this is a valuable contribution to the existing body of knowledge about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower Society, as well as to global indigenous communities who are actively involved in language preservation and revitalization as a vital part of cultural identity politics.

    Although Jehovah's Witnesses have been publishing tracts and magazines in multiple languages for some time, the extension to indigenous languages without a long tradition of literacy is a recent initiative and thus has not yet been widely studied
    (Mubimba 1987; Pharao Hansen 2010).

    The community - with a population of just over 1,000 - that Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein visited was unique in that the majority of this small, rural community were Jehovah’s Witnesses:

    The town population is divided along religious lines. The 2011 agente municipal estimates that between 50 and 60 percent of the population are Jehovah's Witnesses, with the remainder divided between Pentecostals and Catholics. Other individuals have estimated 45 percent Witnesses, 30 percent Pentecostals, and 25 percent Catholics. While the numbers vary, most people seem to agree that Witnesses have a plurality if not a majority, while the numbers of Pentecostals and Catholics are fairly similar.

    Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s paper includes much detail of the history of the Watch Tower Society and she includes well known sources (giving much respect to Penton for his academic research and acknowledging that most other contributions come from ‘apostate' sources) including this information about Mexico:

    By the end of the 19th century, Jehovah's Witnesses were active in parts of Mexico, and
    the Watch Tower magazine became available in Spanish by the end of World War I, while the
    Mexico Branch Office opened in 1929 (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
    1993a: 414, 436). The 1995 Yearbook (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
    1995) presents the history of Jehovah's Witnesses in Mexico as one of persecution, citing laws
    that did not allow Witnesses to go door-to-door or sing in public meetings. However, this and
    other Witness texts do not point out that the organization chose to accept these restrictions. At
    the time of their legal incorporation in Mexico, laws prevented religious organizations from
    holding property, and the Witnesses chose to become a "cultural" organization to circumvent this
    restriction, although doing so curtailed the full expression of religious activities (Penton 1997:
    149-50, 320-22).

    And, from a footnote:

    130 After the U.S. (1,115,786) and Brazil (706,699). Mexico also has a relatively high percentage of Witnesses, with
    one publisher for every 153 people. This is a particularly impressive feat when you realize that only two of the
    countries with a higher percentage of Witnesses have populations significantly larger than 1 million (compared to
    Mexico's 108 million) and in fact, most are island nations. (The countries/territories with a higher percentage of
    Jehovah's Witnesses are: Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Cook Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Guadalupe,
    French Guyana, Hawai'i, Martinique, Niue, New Caledonia, Puerto Rico, Saba, San Marino, St. Martin, Santa Elena,
    Tahiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, and Zambia.)

    I have selected the following bits from Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein’s paper, but, to get full context of what the author means or her intentions, it would be best to read all of her paper.

    She poses critical questions:

    I began, then, with a seemingly simple question: what implications does Jehovah's Witnesses' use of a contracting language – that is, a language that is being used in fewer domains than previously, or one whose speakers are aging – have for the continued maintenance of that language? To carry out their religious mission worldwide, the Witnesses translate their materials into 595 languages,8 although not all publications are available in all languages. Furthermore, this number may not include languages that are used in services but have no written publications.

    The Witnesses constantly add new languages to their repertoire as they see new opportunities for proselytizing, yet many of these languages have few, if any, monolingual speakers. Why, then, do they make the effort to introduce new languages that are otherwise contracting (cf. Pharao Hansen 2010: 130), particularly in communities where the Witnesses have long been active in the dominant language (here Spanish)? Scholars have seen the Witnesses' encouragement as unambiguously positive in terms of language maintenance (Mubimba 1987; Pharao Hansen 2010). However, I would suggest that the Watch Tower Society,9 the institutional arm of Jehovah's Witnesses, is not primarily concerned with the fate of the languages it uses to spread its message; its orientation to these languages is chiefly instrumental.


    And she offers answers, identifying the Jehovah's Witness community as a textual community:

    I argue that the Jehovah's Witnesses produce their moral authority through their use of language, particularly through a globalizing textual community (see Chapter Two) that defines not only legitimate sources of knowledge and ways of understanding that knowledge, but also legitimate speakers. What role does translation play in their textual economy? I argue that translation is deliberately differentiated from authorship to avoid any challenge to the Watch Tower Society's top-down authority.


    She identifies the role of the publishing industry in the link between text and authority/power:

    Textual economies are more limited than linguistic ones in one important dimension: everyone produces some form of language, but not everyone who consumes texts produces them. This creates an asymmetry in which readers' relationships to texts have more everyday importance than writers'. The process of creating a text-artifact such as a printed book authorizes (Bucholtz and Hall 2004) its content. Relatively few people have access to a printing press, and the multiple authenticating steps in between drafting the content and seeing it in print allow us to ascribe authority to the written word even with relatively little knowledge of its author. Print as a 53 form is not inherently authoritative; rather, this authority emerged over time and has more to do with the publishing industry and its controls than with the physical properties of books (Eisenstein 1979; Johns 1998; Adam Shapiro, p.c., 3/8/2012). If editors and publishers are willing to put their reputation at stake to authenticate this text, readers assume it contains something of worth.74

    She describes the transference of authority within the Witness textual community:

    In the Watchtower magazine study, a male congregation member in good standing reads aloud from the magazine, while another man (almost always an elder) reads the questions given in the text and mediates the discussion, calling on congregation members to comment, typically with contributions they have prepared ahead of time. In this type of literacy event, participant roles display a hierarchy: congregation members can only participate as commenters who may talk about the text – and quote from it – but cannot give voice to it, while a select few baptized men can animate the text in full. The even more select group of congregational elders, meanwhile, can participate as mediators who make sure that commenters' remarks appropriately reflect the text and attempt to
    ensure that the community has a shared understanding. The author of the text is the Watch Tower Society as an institution; individual writers never receive credit. Finally, the agent of these texts is also the Watch Tower Society (in etic perspective). For Jehovah's Witnesses, however, the Watch Tower Society is God's instrument on this earth, and so the agent of The Watchtower magazine is Jehovah himself,79in emic perspective.
    The Witness textual community, then, creates an economy of participant roles, which in
    turn creates a class of legitimated speakers who are not legitimate authors. Such a breakdown of roles allows Witnesses to feel they are part of the authority structure yet simultaneously maintains a top-down hierarchy:80.

    Not only does Barchas-Lichenstein take a critical, honest evaluation of the Watch Tower Society and how the organization is structured, operates, and the impact of language on the system of power it represents, she also offers the same approach to her personal interactions with the JW hosts she stayed with – ‘embedded’ somewhat in a Mexican JW family for several months. Her comments are sensitive, honest, and respectful of the people she visited, offering us a intimate view inside a community that is usually closed to ‘the world’. 

  • prologos
    interesting details. with the jws in the simple majority, what good is that if they do not vote, participate in government? follow-up studies on the retarding effect of leaving eberything to kingdom interest and solution the the After-Armageddon world?
  • Coded Logic
    Coded Logic
    Fascinating read.  Thanks for posting and providing quotes.
  • Oubliette
    And the Mormons maintain meticulous genealogical records because of their kooky beliefs.
  • blondie

    I can't find the quote yet, but the WTS has said that the earthly resurrection will start with the first people who died working back in time so there will be people who speak their language and are from their time, family, etc.

    Does any oldtimer remember that unscriptural statement? 

  • roberto avon
    roberto avon

    Very interesting read even if I did not understand it 100% ( English is my 4th language ) and my first reaction is ; " How the hell can she be so smart and skilled and still be a Jw?" I think, though, it is unfair to say so because I was Catholic ( remember Galileo ??)  and still am superstitious ( black cats, ladders aso ). 

    If I could ever meet this lady I would ask her what is behind this mysterial language of the Jehovah's. When my wife told me she was a Jw and invited ( very bad ) me for a dinner with her family for the first time in my life i heard words as ; wordling, elder, overseer, meeting, assembly, pioneer, field service, and bla, bla, bla....

  • cultBgone

    Blondie, I remember hearing that same statement.  Along those lines we were told that it would be much too confusing for those who lived centuries ago to suddenly be thrust into the world with electricity, airplanes and automobiles.  Yet I never saw those things in wt renderings of "paradise" so that didn't make sense.

    Sometimes I think they have new ideas in a few talks to see if they stick.  If not, you don't hear them again, they just try something else that doesn't raise so many questions.

  • notsurewheretogo


    WT 1st July 1998 Page 22/23 Paragraph 16 under the sub heading "An Orderly Resurrection"

    An Orderly Resurrection

    16 Since the heavenly resurrection is orderly, “each one in his own rank,” it is evident that the earthly resurrection will not create a chaotic population explosion. (1 Corinthians 15:23) Understandably, the newly resurrected ones will need to be looked after. (Compare Luke 8:55.) They will need physical sustenance and—more important—spiritual assistance in gaining life-giving knowledge of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ. (John 17:3) If all were to return to life simultaneously, it would be impossible to care for them adequately. It is reasonable to assume that the resurrection will take place progressively. Faithful Christians who died shortly before the end of Satan’s system will likely be among the first ones raised. We can also expect an early resurrection for the faithful men of old who will serve as “princes.”—Psalm 45:16.

  • Still Totally ADD
    Still Totally ADD
    You are right on what you said blondie.  Still Totally ADD
  • OrphanCrow
    interesting details. with the jws in the simple majority, what good is that if they do not vote, participate in government?

    Prologos, you may be asking that question without understanding the structure of their local government or the political climate of the region. The culture and politics of that region are unique and complex. In fact, a town of a majority 'pacifists' could be quite beneficial for some people besides the JW community.

    Barchus-Lichenstein's work was done prior to 2013 but she does give detail on the geo-political characteristics of that region.

    At this moment, the area of Mexico that Dr. B-L was in, Oaxaca, is blocked to the president of Mexico. He is not allowed in. 

    You should read Dr. B-L's account of being in the village when a celebratory day was happening - how the revolutionists were treated by the JW majority when the parade happened. Interesting.

    The president is not allowed in the region right now. I wonder how much free travel the Watch Tower still has through that area?

    roberto: my first reaction is ; " How the hell can she be so smart and skilled and still be a Jw?"

    The author of the paper, Jena Barchus-Lichenstein, is not a JW.

    She self-identifies in her research paper as Jewish. I was so impressed with her depth and broadness of knowledge about the JWs and the WTS, that I searched her out and asked if she had any connection to the JWs in her background. She replied:

    In terms of my own interest, it so happens that I grew up directly across the street from Brooklyn Bethel. In fact, I can see into their gym from my father's apartment. But Bethel coexists with its neighbors largely by *not* engaging in much publishing in the immediate neighborhood, so we received fewer visits than most! I'd received visits in other places that I lived, and of course the literature tables are unavoidable on college campuses and in public transit, but quite honestly I knew very little at the time I started my research.

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