By Owei Lamemfa
ALL religion, is belief.Depending on the emphasis, any religion or religious movement can be one of ‘peace’ ‘tolerance’ or ‘extremism’. The most difficult ban is that on religious belief because it is a futility; such a ban is actually a suppression and repression. A human being can be persuaded to change his belief, but cannot be banned from his belief. But this is what the Russian Supreme Court attempted to do on Monday, July 8, 2017 when it banned the Jehovah Witness Christian Movement in the country. In the lead judgment by Justice Yuri Ivanchenko, the Movement was found guilty of “extremist activity” destroying families, controlling the minds of its members and propagating hatred. With this judgment, the Movement forfeits its headquarters and the property of its 395 branches to the Russian government. What was more interesting is that the Russian Orthodox Church had made calls for the ban.
Growing up in Lagos, Jehovah Witnesses were the butt of many jokes. First if one made some incorrect interpretation or misrepresentation of the Bible, the likely question was; are you reading the Jehovah Witness Bible? If you carry an old or worn-out bag, you are told that you appear to be a Jehovah Witness. If you raised critical issues in the Bible, you were scolded for behaving like a Witness.
When I was young, my paternal aunt lived in our house. She was characterised as a ‘stark illiterate’ who cannot distinguish one letter from another. In old age, she returned to the ancestral home in the creeks to spend the rest of her life. One day, I visited her and was shocked to find her reading. I asked her what she was doing and she replied she was studying the Bible. “How did you learn to read and within such a short time?”
She explained that with some other elderly people, she had been converted to a Witnesse but the Movement had told them they cannot be fully integrated or be part of the people who will resurrect, unless they spread the Word of Jehovah which they can only do if they are literate enough to read the Bible and publications of the Movement, and share the word with those to be converted. So with religious zeal, they learnt how to read and write under the adult education classes run by the Movement. That made me take a second look at the Witnesses. Then when my aunt died, the Movement buried her before the extended family held the normal long meetings and levy members; they saved us the costly burial funds. I also learnt from Jehovah Witnesses, the art of mobilisation; when I became a trade unionist, I used their door-to-door evangelism as my template to teach workers the art of persuasion, mobilisation and organisation.
The Jehovah Witnesses who flowed from the Adventists had been founded as the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Its leader, Charles Tace Russell had announced the birth with the first publication of the WATCHTOWER magazine in 1879. Initially known as the Russellites, the Movement had in 1931, adopted the name Jehovah Witness as they proclaim they are witnesses to the Word of God.
They are perhaps the most persecuted religious group in human history; several countries had at one time or the other, banned them. Hitlerite Germany sent many to early graves while thousands of them were beaten or killed in 1967 in Malawi for refusing to pick the membership card of the ruling Malawi Congress Party. Countries like Singapore banned them for refusing the obligatory enlistment into the Army. The Witnesses had fought back tenaciously and in many cases, upturned the ban. This is the second time Witnesses will be banned in Russia as they were proscribed when the country was part of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , USSR.
Following recent repression, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on October 7, 2014 that Georgian authorities were guilty of violating the fundamental human rights of Witnesses.
The primary reason for the repression of the Witnesses are their peculiar doctrines. They do not believe in the existence of Hell. While believing in Heaven, they claim that it is the earth that is heaven which at resurrection, will be restored to its EDENIC nature before Adam and Eve committed the mortal sin. In their belief, the dead are only unconscious and awaiting resurrection. So paradise will be restored on earth and humans will live eternally. Quoting Revelations 14: 1-3, they also claim that only 144,000 human beings will live eternally.
They dismiss Christmas as unscriptural and declare tobacco as ‘unclean’. They do not wholeheartedly accept blood transfusion and organ transplant but leave these to individual discretion.
Perhaps, where they draw the ire of most governments is their near rejection of the state; while they do not object to paying taxes, they see the Biblical “superior authorities” more as heavenly rather than secular. To them, Christians should pay obedience and subject themselves to God and Christ, not countries. So they pay no allegiance to flags, and reject national anthems and Pledges to country. Also, they frown at carrying arms and therefore refuse to join the armed forces or serve in them even if this is obligatory for citizens.
The Witnesses are universalists who believe in one humanity; preaching world-wide; door-to-door with exclusive devotion to God. They are also the most democratic religious group I know; they have no priests or leaders; they are all sheep, with Elders leading the flock. They have no churches nor attend church, rather, they have Kingdom Halls where they go for meetings. Often, they build their Kingdom Halls themselves using internal volunteers. They collect no tithes nor contributions; at the back of their halls they have boxes where the faithful can if he so wishes, drop any contribution.
One of the most famous Witnesses who left to become an officer and politician was Dwight David ‘ike’ Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. Some of the most famous sports people who are Witnesses include Tennis stars, Serena and Venus Williams, and Baseball player, Lou Whittaker. Witnesses who became famous musicians include Michael Jackson and his brothers and sisters, Aaliyah, George Benson, Selena, Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell, Prince of ‘Purple Rain’ and Jill scot while their famous rappers list include Notorious B.I.G and Ja Rule, who left after his mother was excommunicated. Amongst Witnesses who became super models are Naomi Cambell and Coco Rocha, and the showbiz family, the Wayans including Damon.
Religion is a constellation of ideas that need no passport or visa to cross borders; it is like rain that cannot be stopped and need no license to operate; therefore, banning Jehovah Witnesses is an historical futility.