Many faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses have died obeying the Watchtower stance on neutrality. This article shows the tragedy that occurred when Malawian Witnesses were hypocritically forced to uphold a higher standard than was expected of those in Mexico, or by the Governing Body themselves.
Religion becomes most culpable when its rules lead to the death of its followers. In ancient times this was as blatant as human sacrifice; in modern times it is subtler, such as forbidding medical treatment. Graphic representation of this in Watchtower history has been the devastating torture and murder of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Malawi during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Most disturbing is that the doctrine enforced in Malawi is misguided and was not applied consistently in different countries.
When reading Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, chapter 6 titled “Double Standards” disturbed me more than any other. Here was explained how a Watchtower doctrinal principle that lead to the torture and death of 1000’s of Malawian Witnesses was excused for those in Mexico. Malawian Witnesses suffered unspeakable atrocities due to following the Watchtower’s illogical policy forbidding them to hold a political card in a one party state. During the same period, Witnesses in Mexico were permitted to bribe officials for a Cartilla card in order to escape military service.
This article outlines this blight on Watchtower history. It is one of the most distressing aspects of Watchtower leadership and has led many Witnesses to re-evaluate the wisdom of ascribing spirit direction to the Governing Body and following them without question.
The following Watchtower articles discuss the torture that occurred in Malawi.
“At Lilongwe in central Malawi, 170 homes of these Christians were burned down in three nights. In the Fort Johnston district, slightly to the south, 34 homes and 18 food storage places were burned down toward the end of October. At Mbalame on October 27 the Christians of two congregations all had their homes burned down while they, including the women, were stripped of their clothes and brutally beaten …Since this is the way the witnesses of Jehovah conduct themselves, why, then, all this violent persecution of them in Malawi? One of the main reasons is that the Witnesses refuse to buy membership cards in Malawi’s Congress Party as well as refuse to buy and wear badges with the picture of the President of Malawi, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. Other religious organizations, Catholic, Protestant and Moslem, have all yielded to pressure in these respects, but Jehovah’s witnesses have not. Why? Because of their strictly adhering to the Word of God.” Watchtower 1968 Feb 1 p.71
The sickening accounts of brutal rape, torture and murder of Jehovah’s witnesses is shocking and the people responsible cannot be excused for their actions, but this could have been prevented by purchasing a political card. The reasoning the Watchtower leaders used when setting their brothers up to come in line for such persecution was that Witnesses are to be “no part of the world”.
Jesus Christ said of his followers: “They are no part of the world.” And he told a first-century political ruler: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 17:16; 18:36) Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that joining a political party is wrong for them. They are not being obstinate or unreasonable. They would gladly buy an identification document, or even a card that declares them to be tax-paying citizens of the country. Awake 1976 Aug 8 p.5 Malawi—What’s Happening There Now?
The Watchtower claims the brothers could not compromise what they are told by the “word of God”. However, this is false reasoning, as the “word of God” does not prohibit political involvement. The Bible provides examples of God’s followers being involved in politics, such as Joseph, who was second in charge of the Egyptian government.
Genesis 41:39-43 – “After that Phar´aoh said to Joseph: “Since God has caused you to know all this, there is no one as discreet and wise as you are. You will personally be over my house, and all my people will obey you implicitly. Only as to the throne shall I be greater than you.” And Phar´aoh added to Joseph: “See, I do place you over all the land of Egypt.” With that Phar´aoh removed his signet ring from his own hand and put it upon Joseph’s hand and clothed him with garments of fine linen and placed a necklace of gold about his neck. Moreover, he had him ride in the second chariot of honor that he had, so that they should call out ahead of him, “A·vrékh!” thus putting him over all the land of Egypt.”
The government’s requirement in Malawi was far less than Joseph’s involvement in government; it was simply a law to hold a political membership card.
It is bad enough that the Governing Body misused the “word of God” to set the Malawian brothers up for murder. Worse however is to find out that they applied a different standard to Witnesses in other countries and especially to themselves.
At the same time that Witnesses were forbidden to hold a card in Malawi a comparable situation arose in Mexico, with the Governing Body ruling in the opposite direction for Mexican brothers. In Mexico, military service was compulsory for young men. On completion of service young men would receive a “Cartilla” card, which similar to the card in Malawi, was required for a transactions such as obtaining a passport and drivers license. Young Witness brothers experienced persecution and imprisonment for refusing their obligation to attend military service.
In order to relieve this suffering, the Governing Body ruled that it was acceptable for Mexican brothers to bribe officials to obtain a government Cartilla card that exempted them from military service. This is discussed in the following letter to Mexico Branch Committee dated 2 Jun, 1960. (See jwfacts.com for a scanned copy of the letter.)
“As to those who are relieved of military training by a money transaction with the officials who are involved therewith, this is on par with what is done in other Latin American countries where brothers have paid for their relief through some military official in order to retain their freedom for theocratic activities. If members of the military establishment are willing to accept such an arrangement upon the payment of a fee then that is the responsibility of these representatives of the national organisation. In such a case the money paid does not go to the military establishment, but is appropriated by the individual who undertakes the arrangement. If the consciences of certain brothers allow them to enter into such an arrangement for their continued freedom we have no objection. Of course, if they would get into any difficulties over their course of action then they would have to shoulder such difficulties themselves, and we could not offer them any assistance. But if the arrangement is current down there and is recognized by the inspectors who do not make any inquiries into the veracity of the matter then the matter can be passed by for the accruing advantages. Should a military emergency arise and confront these brothers with their marching card it would oblige them to make a decision by which they could not extricate themselves by a money payment and their mettle would be tested and they would have to demonstrate outright where they stand and prove that they are in favor of Christian neutrality in a determined test.
Faithfully yours in the Kingdom ministry,
Watchtower B.&T. Society of Pensylvania
It is interesting that for Mexico it could be justified that holding a governmental card through bribery is acceptable, since it allowed the brothers to continue in “theocratic activities”, yet obtaining a political card legally in Malawi was not acceptable even though it would have allowed the same freedoms.
In 1969, a second letter was sent from Mexico to the Brooklyn Bethel for further clarification, noting this time that not only was bribery required but that the brothers holding a cartilla card were then recognised to be in the first reserve of the Mexican military, a situation that would normally result in disassociation. Brooklyn confirmed that it was still acceptable to obtain and hold the Cartilla card.
During this period in the 1970’s, the Watchtower forbade non-military service as a substitute, even when governments allowed this compromise.
“An examination of the historical facts shows that not only have Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to put on military uniforms and take up arms but, during the past half century and more, they have also declined to do noncombatant service or to accept other work assignments as a substitute for military service. … Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned because they would not violate their Christian neutrality.” United in Worship of the Only True God p.167
Tens of thousands of young Witness men in the prime of their lives have spent years in jails for refusing civilian service. Others such as some in Mexico chose dishonesty and bribery as a way around this rule. After all the suffering the Watchtower imposed on these brothers, in 1996 the Governing Body decided non-military service was not unchristian and became an acceptable matter of choice.
“What, though, if the State requires a Christian for a period of time to perform civilian service that is a part of national service under a civilian administration? … That is his decision before Jehovah.” Watchtower 1996 May 1 p.20
The Bible furnishes examples of God’s Servants, such as Joseph and Mordecai, being actively involved in political affairs and holding high positions within foreign governments. The Watchtower’s policy on political involvement is based on poor Scriptural reasoning and as a result has been contradictory, illogical and inaccurate. This has resulted in ongoing changes and led to standards being applied differently in Mexico and Malawi and inconsistently between situations.
The Watchtower arbitrarily determines what being “no part of the world” entails. In the case of followers, a membership card in Malawi was considered part of the world. Yet as an organisation, the Watchtower does not consider that its ownership of billions of dollars of property being part of the world. Nor does it consider making use of the Supreme Court, an arm of politics, as being part of the world.
In more recent times the Watchtower has eased up its stance against political involvement, and in doing so shown their stand had scant Scriptural backing in the past. For instance:
- 1991 – The Watchtower Society joined the United Nations
as an affiliate NGO for the claimed purpose of accessing their public library
- 1996 – Non–active military service became a conscience matter – see w96 5/1 p.20
- 1999 – Voting became a conscience matter – see w99 11/1 pp.28-29
- The Watchtower Society continues to actively send delegate to influence political
This renders the suffering and death Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced on an individual basis as pointless. The Governing Body carries the blood-guilt of Malawian Witnesses they led to unnecessary death over this poorly supported stance.