The invasion of 70,000 neatly-dressed, well-mannered Jehovah’s Witnesses on Melbourne streets and public transport this weekend for their international convention will be hard to miss.
For anyone woken by them from Saturday morning slumber, Jehovah’s Witnesses are just one of life’s annoyances. They have an answer for everything and rarely take “no” for an answer.
But for most householders, they remain a mystery: why do they keep this up? What drives them to keep going week after week for the same curt dismissal?
As someone who spent too long inside this stifling, doom-obsessed religion, I can tell you the answer lies in two powerful forces that control the lives of each of the world’s eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses: a conviction that God will soon destroy “wicked mankind” on a global and bloody scale, (sparing, naturally, just them) and also the unquestioning acceptance of the religion’s New York leadership.
Those leaders require that all Witnesses, from children to the frail aged, devote their lives to proselytising in the hope of gathering millions more into their fold before the divine hammer blow of Armageddon.
But the command is not only to “preach” (usually a forlorn offer of a magazine or leaflet); they must also hand in monthly reports detailing the hours they spent “in the field” and how many calls they made.
The message at their meetings is relentless and laden with guilt and fear: keep on preaching or you, too, will die at Armageddon.
Since the 1920s — when hard-headed Watch Tower Society president Joseph F. Rutherford whipped a once quaint Adventist religion into a regimented, tightly disciplined publishing and recruiting organisation — the church’s belief has always been that the best way to keep members from straying is to keep them busy.
More meetings! More campaigns! More conventions!
But here’s the contradiction. Back then when my heart was in it, my Saturday mornings were often all about perfecting the soft knock, half-hoping no one would hear me.
And I was not alone. For most of those I paired up with on Saturdays, an unopened door was a good door.
When it did swing open, revealing a clearly irritated resident, I felt like saying, “Hey, I hate this as much as you do!”
We were instructed to call at every home and return later if they were out. If they weren’t warned about the coming cataclysm, their blood would be on our hands. But it was plainly futile.
No one wanted us to call and no one believed the world was about to end.
When I joined in the mid-1980s, in those worrying days of imminent nuclear war between Reagan and Gorbachev, Jehovah’s Witnesses offered a positive, secure future.
It was a religion that sneered at the sentimentality, mysticism and tolerant forgiveness of orthodox religion and offered instead a rational, numerical analysis of Bible chronology that proved the world was in the last days.
I was curious, ventured in, got smothered by the “love bomb” … and stayed.
But back then (and this is how I console myself now) there was no internet and given a prohibition on delving into “apostate” literature that questioned their beliefs, there was no easy way for me to learn that the religion had a long history of building up hopes, then rewriting the past when the promised conflagration failed to arrive.
They were masters of the Orwellian art of making inconvenient history vanish.
But as time went on, the false alarms, the demands on my time and the expectation of credulity and obedience became tiresome, worrying.
Not that you could say anything. To doubt the Governing Body, we were told, was to doubt God; just a whisper of criticism could lead to a summons to the dreaded Judicial Committee, with organised shunning to follow.
So I plodded on, did my service to God and man. Everything was about counting hours.
Not the hours to the Apocalypse, but the hours I wrote on my monthly report.
Clever JWs would “do a door” on the way to the meetings where witnessing territory was assigned, just to start the clock and take them closer to their quota.
Two hours out knocking on doors on a Saturday morning was barely adequate and earned snide comments. Three hours was better. That shut them up.
As a consequence we all dragged our feet, congregating on footpaths to chat, always an eye on the clock.
We’d linger at doors when there was clearly no one home before dawdling out to the street again. God wanted us to give our time.
He didn’t seem to mind how much of it we wasted while we were out there.
When my family and I finally quit, our eyes opened and feeling foolish about having stayed so long, family and former “friends” cut us off. What the hell. We were just glad to get our lives back.
When I see those thousands of Witnesses trudging towards Etihad Stadium this weekend, I’ll feel a trace of sadness for them. But I’ll know where they are. This weekend at least, I know they won’t be knocking on my door.
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