Jehovah's Witnesses and the Concept of Conscientious Objection
- by Scully
The concept of conscientious objection is one that has existed for centuries and has been recognized under the principles of free exercise of religious beliefs in both American and Canadian law. An individual, as a result of deeply held convictions, can respectfully refuse to participate in activities - usually patriotic in nature - with the understanding that their respectful non-support of such activities demonstrates their firmly held beliefs and values.
The Bible itself speaks to the issue of conscientious objection. An account in the book of Daniel (chapter 3) describes three Hebrews - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego - refusing to bow down and perform an act of worship to a golden image set up by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. For their refusal, they were subjected to the decreed punishment: being thrown into a fiery furnace, from which, according to the account, they were rescued by the god of the Hebrews.
Jehovah's Witnesses have become well known for their pacifistic views. During the Second World War, they steadfastly refused to enlist for military service, often with the result that they were imprisoned for their conscientious decision to abstain from killing their fellowman in warfare. They also refused to perform alternative non-combatant service, believing that supporting the war effort in any way would be an act of rebellion against the "heavenly government" they believe was established by their god, Jehovah.
Over the last 50 years, however, Jehovah's Witness doctrine - as published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in bi-weekly magazines such as The Watchtower and Awake! and numerous books - the viewpoint regarding alternate military service has been "refined" such that JWs can, in some instances and countries, remain members of their church in good standing and still perform alternate service in lieu of military service. The decision to do so is left to the individual JW's conscience.
As well, JWs have refined their point of view regarding blood transfusions over the past two and a half decades. Currently, JWs are permitted to accept practically any fractionated blood product, including immune globulins, clotting factors, albumin, and even products like Hemopure which is a hemoglobin extract derived from bovine erythrocytes. The decision is dependent on the individual JW's conscience. They cannot, however, accept infusions of packed red cell concentrate, plasma, or platelets without judicial action being taken against them by their church leaders. Consider also that up until 1980, Jehovah's Witnesses were forbidden to accept tissue and organ transplants, and then suddenly the issue became a "matter of conscience" for individual JWs.
The dilemma, it appears, is that while conscientious decisions by definition are firmly held convictions based on an individual's thought processes interacting with their belief system, Jehovah's Witnesses' "conscientious decisions" are the result of whatever happens to be the 'doctrine du jour' as published in the Watchtower Society's literature, meaning that someone who steadfastly refused to accept blood fractions or organ transplants one day because "Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept" them, will read "new light" in an up-to-date issue of the Watchtower and suddenly realize that they no longer need to refuse these treatments, because they will no longer be punished by their church for accepting them. So the question becomes, Are these "conscientious decisions" really the result of firmly held convictions? If they can so easily be cast aside, upon the reading of a sentence or two in a periodical, without any other thought process in the matter, it would appear that the concept of "firm convictions" and "deeply held beliefs" is over-ruled by convenience and the removal of any negative spiritual or social result for the person claiming the decision.
What happens, though, when one of Jehovah's Witnesses finds something deeply disturbing to his or her personal value system occurring under the auspices of their church? Do they have the option to "conscientiously object" to such things within the church? What happens when they try?
Consider the problem of child molestation and pedophilia among Jehovah's Witnesses. It has been established through investigative journalism and personal accounts of many Jehovah's Witnesses that incidents of child sexual abuse have been covered up by the church. Known child molesters among Jehovah's Witnesses have been allowed to remain JWs in good standing, and some have even progressed up the ranks to positions of authority. These people are expected to lead their congregations in worship, in group Bible study, and in the house-to-house ministry, while they carry on their lewd practices in secret. Even members of their own family may have no idea that these people have been sexually assaulting children, and this knowledge is kept from vulnerable members of the congregations and from the public in general.
To a rational person, this behaviour is highly offensive. Yet, when individual Jehovah's Witnesses make conscientious objections to these practices, either within their congregations or to the public, they are often subject to punishments by their church leaders which are designed to keep the individual silent by ostracizing them in their tight-knit closed community. Even victims themselves are silenced and ostracized for "bringing reproach on Jehovah" and "slandering their brother" should they exercise their "absolute right" (according to the WTS's media website) to report incidents of child sexual abuse to the authorities.
True conscientious objection to these kinds of activities are openly discouraged by JW leadership. " [L]oyal Christians refuse to believe just any statement made about their brothers, and they certainly do not allow bad publicity" - as opposed to false publicity - "to cause them to miss Christian meetings, to slow down in the field ministry, or to waver in their faith." (Watchtower, 03/01/2003, p. 9, par. 6) Conscientious objection to the sheltering of pedophiles from due process according to the local law enforcement statutes could possibly include the very forms of protest that the Watchtower Society discourages. It is only through boycotting meeting attendance, the door-to-door ministry and/or continued financial support of the Watchtower, that individual members can send their message of disapproval to the leadership. These are practically the only things that the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses understand as indicators of non-support for their policies. Yet in so doing, individual JWs will be subject to the ostracism of their friends and family. Should a person's conscience move them to take further action - for example - writing to their elected officials to demand an investigation into these practices by the church, their very real and very personal conscientious objection would be regarded by the church itself as an act of rebellion, disloyalty and apostasy.
Even in the reading of scripture, a Jehovah's Witness could conceivably come to the conclusion that sheltering sexual abusers of children within their organization constitutes a serious deviation from God's will. In addressing the tribe of Judah, who fell away from the true worship of Jehovah and began to worship Ba'al, which included practices such as temple prostitution and even child sacrifices, Jeremiah writes:
"'For the sons of Judah have done what is bad in my eyes,' is the utterance of Jehovah. 'They have set up their disgusting things in the house upon which my name has been called, in order to defile it. And they have built the high places of To'pheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart.'" - Jeremiah 7:30, 31.
"And you must say, 'Hear the word of Jehovah, O you kings of Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem. This is what Jehovah of armies, the God of Israel, has said: "Here I am bringing a calamity upon this place, of which when anyone hears, his ears will tingle; for the reason that they have left me and have proceeded to make sacrificial smoke in it to other gods whom they had not known, they and their forefathers and the kings of Judah; and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent ones. And they built the high places of the Ba'al in order to burn their sons in the fire as whole burnt offerings to the Ba'al, something that I had not commanded or spoken of, and that had not come up into my heart."'" - Jeremiah 19:3-5.
If the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings to false gods was something that hurts Jehovah so deeply that it would cause him to devote Judah to destruction, how is it possible that He is not grieved when those who claim to be "a people for his name" today aid and abet - by way of flawed policy and procedure - the sacrifice of children in their midst to the lewd and perverse desires of child molesters and child rapists?
Anyone who dares to challenge the policies and procedures of the Watchtower Society automatically becomes suspect of apostasy, even if their conscience compels them to stand up for the safety and protection of children inside and outside the organization. The same thing happens to parents of minor children who permit life-saving blood transfusions, despite the public statements to government officials (i.e., Bulgaria, 1996) to the effect that no sanctions will be put in effect against a JW parent who permits blood transfusions for their minor child. The concept of conscientious objection is not permitted in these instances, because the Watchtower Society has decreed that whatever is written in its publications constitutes "present truth", and also
Approved association with Jehovah's Witnesses requires accepting the entire range of true teachings of the Bible, including those Scriptural beliefs that are unique to Jehovah's Witnesses. - Watchtower, April 1, 1986
Thus, by its claim that the "two eyewitness rule" in child sexual abuse cases is "Bible-based", for one of Jehovah's Witnesses to conscientiously object to the policy and the procedure of subjecting a sexually abused child to an internal interrogation by a committee, and having to face their abuser in so doing, it constitutes an act of disloyalty and apostasy as far as the organization is concerned.
It has been said that civilized societies have an obligation to protect those vulnerable members of society who cannot protect themselves. It has also been said that one should be able to discern the motives of organizations by the way they treat the most vulnerable members of its group. By the way it aids and abets in the sexual abuse of children, by the way it ostracizes members whose consciences compel them to stand up for what is right on behalf of the vulnerable members of society, the Watchtower Society proves itself to be barbaric, without moral fibre, and has complete disregard for the concept of true conscientious objection.
Edited for spelling, grammar, and format.
Edited by - Scully on 6 February 2003 15:34:19