by Hope Ferguson Morgan
Out of all of the heinous things that happen in this world, there are two things I find almost unbearable: the abuse of children and animals. These two categories of beings are the most helpless, powerless, and the most dependent on our protection. When I see commercials about child and animal abuse on TV (which always seem inordinately long) I have to look away, change the channel or mute the television.
My colleague and friend Chris Stevenson, who owns this blog, asked me to comment on a very disturbing article from The Saturday Paper in Great Britain. It initially was published in 2015, and is about a Royal Commission looking into child sexual abuse among the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I am not overly familiar with the group. I know only that they began as an offshoot of The Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination that believes in worship on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, and which has unusually healthy eating habits. It is, otherwise, considered a legitimate orthodox (with a small “o”) Christian denomination.
Sometime in the 19th century, the Jehovah Witnesses broke away from the Adventists due to their pronounced emphasis on the second coming. They believed the second coming, or advent, was to happen in their lifetime, and their leader would set ever-changing dates each time his followers were disappointed, despite the fact that Jesus says in the New Testament that no one knows the day nor hour, not even the angels in heaven or Son of Man. They also couldn’t bring themselves to believe in the doctrine of hell; therefore they focus on Biblical scriptures that speak to people falling asleep after death, to rise only at the Resurrection.
This was the beginning of a rift between the group and other Protestant denominations that put less of an emphasis on the exact day and hour of Christ’s returning. Decades ago, as part of my job as a local religion reporter, I accompanied a “JW” as they are commonly known, on her house visits. Most people are familiar with the JWs who make rounds of neighborhoods, armed only with Watchtower magazines, and a desire to talk of eschatological events.
One thing I found interesting, as a praying and believing Christian, is that my door-knocking partner, accompanied by her young daughter, did not seem to have the same belief as me in the power of prayer, nor have any examples of answered prayer, like I did. She described herself as a former Catholic who felt that her questions about sin and suffering were insufficiently answered by the Catholic faith. She was drawn to JWs because she believed they had more solid answers to her questions.
Nobody was rude to us as we made our rounds, but no one took time to talk with us either, with the exception of one woman. One of our last visits was to a woman who was seriously ill. I believe, but am not sure, it was cancer. She was a younger woman, perhaps in her late 30s to early 40s. She was home ridden, obviously lonely, and overjoyed to be visited that day. She was fussed over (not prayed over) and we spent a fairly long time visiting her.
I recall my JW companion telling me, as we wheeled away in her compact car, how “You never know if you’ll meet the lady or the tiger,” behind the doors she knocked on.
I also have heard how the Jehovah Witnesses are a closed group, and if you, as a member of one of their congregations, begin to question doctrine or authority, or if you do something they find sinful, they will “disfellowship” you, which means that you are banished from the group and as good as dead.
The article about the child sexual abuse case, though particularly about the JWs, could apply to any strict, hierarchical group that discourages independent thinking and values conformity. In such an atmosphere, it is understandable that the men – for it is usually men – who are in control, could abuse their absolute authority over their members. I believe in the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. One of the young victims is quoted as saying, “I was initially scared of the police because I had grown up being taught that everyone outside of the Jehovah’s Witness Church was to be feared. But the officer in charge of my case, Natalie Bennett, had an awesome manner and she was very supportive.”
In any organization where there is power concentrated at the top, and a lack of accountability and transparency, abuse can, and in more times that we’d hope, does, occur. The same is true of the Catholic church with its pedophilia scandal, and similar abuse has occurred in Protestant churches, strikingly in many youth groups, as well. Pedophiles will be drawn to places where they can have contact with children. The trust, and in some cases, blind allegiance to a person or organization can be a toxic brew, given human nature.
I pray for light and transparency for all organizations who have the sacred trust of caring for children (and animals). There is no higher calling than to care for the powerless. In the book of Genesis, God gives Adam and Eve dominion over his entire creation. In some people’s minds, that gives them license to rape, pillage and abuse. But really, it is a call to husband, shepherd, to care for and nurture everything we have such a dangerous power over.
Hope E. Ferguson is senior writer for the State University of New York’s Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The great-granddaughter and granddaughter of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers, she grew up hearing about social justice issues from her father, a human rights attorney, and mother, an artist, who were active in the civil rights movement. She blogs about faith, culture and politics at Morning Joy.