They knock at the door. “Good morning. We’ve come to talk about the state of the world today,” they say when we open it. They’re clutching leaflets that promise to provide the answers to questions that have vexed humanity for centuries. We all know them – the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Except that their reality is actually remote – we don’t know much about them, and after this greeting we usually shut the door on them. As a book written by a former member of this religious group, Robert Rient’s Witness brings its closed community into focus.
Or rather, it does that up to a point, because – as it’s worth stressing from the start – that is not its main theme. “How do you leave your family, your environment, and the values instilled in you in childhood without going mad?” writes Mariusz Szczygieł on the cover. Indeed, the main topic of Witness is actually a fight for personal freedom. It involves a problem that’s typical of the modern world – how do you create yourself, form your own identity, despite what you are told to believe in, which is part of various ideologies imposed from above? To some degree we all struggle with this, but there are reasons why the hero of Witness has a harder time than most. Not only must he create his own “self” but he also has some very specific ingredients to choose from: some of them he tries to accept, and others to reject. Being a Witness, in other words everything to do with belonging to the church, is something he longs to cast off, but on the other hand he wants to accept his own homosexuality, which he is only just discovering.
The story of life among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which in Poland is regarded as a dubious sect, combined with the author’s problems relating to his sexual orientation makes for a strong mixture. One might even suspect the author of cheap sensation – but this is not that sort of book. Robert Rient succeeds in preserving sincerity and authenticity, and the most admirable element of all is his courage. For Witness is his own life story – he has made himself the central character in the book, and describes his own fortunes, doing it in a way that makes Witness hard to classify by genre – it is not exactly a memoir, and not quite personal reportage.
In fact there are two main characters, but they are just one person: Łukasz and Robert, before and after his transformation. Łukasz believes in Armageddon and resurrection, and refuses blood transfusions. He doesn’t recognise flags, emblems or any other state symbols. Every day he goes from door to door delivering the good news. He takes part in the life of the congregation and goes to church retreats. He loves Jehovah. Robert rejects the old teaching, though he doesn’t find it easy to do that, because “the void behind a lack of faith is more terrifying than death”. He has suicidal thoughts, and also discovers his own homosexual tendencies. He tries drugs, completes a degree, starts to live on his own terms, and does his best to cope with the rejection of his family, who cannot forgive him for leaving the community.
Luckily Robert survives. As the author and hero of the book, conscious of the change that has occurred, he manages to produce a convincing account of his difficult fight for his own identity.
– Patrycja Pustkowiak
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I was born on the first day of the last month of 1980. I was meant to be a girl, Marta, or at least a dog, which is what my older brother wanted.
That evening in the bathroom I rehearse. I bring my right hand up to my face, and use my thumb and index finger to block my nose. With my left hand I grip my right forearm. I close my eyes and gently lean backwards. I can’t wait. I’ve been ready for a whole year. During this time I’ve been to meetings with the church elders who have asked me several hundred questions:
“Who is the true God?
When do you find time to pray?
How can we protect ourselves against the influences of Satan and the demons? What is sin? How did we all become sinners?
What is death?
Who will not be resurrected, and why?
What is the only Scriptural basis for divorce that frees one to remarry?
As a Christian, what local food products or medical practices will you henceforth avoid?
What stand should a Christian take if he is told that in order to save his own life or the life of a loved one a blood transfusion would be needed?
In what way do you demonstrate that you love Jehovah with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength?
What is the Christian view of drunkenness?
What does the Bible say about fornication, adultery, sexual relations with another person of the same sex (homosexuality) and other unlawful sexual conduct?
What pressures or enticements have you had to resist in order to come into a good relationship with Jehovah and maintain it?
In God’s arrangement of things, who is the head of the married woman?
Why should you be willing to preach the good news to all kinds of people in your assigned territory?”
All these questions come from a book designed for the internal use of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry, published in 1990. Each answer has to be justified with a verse from the Bible. Examinations of faith are difficult, especially when your dad and granddad are the ones testing your knowledge. The only church elders in this city. I’m becoming proficient at ignoring embarrassment. We meet every few weeks for several hours. I want to tell them about the thorn in my body, Satan’s angel, but this desire is short-lived and it vanishes, taking away the fear it prompted.
I turn around, squint as I’m dazzled by the summer sun, and scan each sector of the stadium in search of my parents. I can see a yellow parasol. I stand up for the songs, then bow my head to pray. About two hundred people do the same beside me. Soon we are all going to be baptised. It doesn’t go the way I’d been hoping.
There are more than ten thousand brothers sitting in the sectors. They’re sheltering from the blazing sunshine under garden tents, sunshades and parasols. Once a year we meet up in about a dozen large Polish cities for a three-day assembly. The baptism is a regular feature. It’s mainly the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses who get baptised, other members of the family and people who are suffering from pain or illness, sometimes injuries, or addiction problems. People who need a system or instructions on what to do to achieve happiness.
The discourse begins. The brother prays for us and reminds us that in a short time we’ll have a clean slate with Jehovah, but at the same moment Satan will discover our existence.
I’m not afraid of Satan, maybe just a little. I’m so excited, so pleased about the clean slate I’ll have to write on that I can’t stand still on the baking hot turf of the stadium. This is the most important day of my life. I am one of the youngest waiting in line for the round garden swimming pool set up in the middle of the stadium. The women and girls in bathing costumes are queuing up for a second pool. Each person has a towel with them. I scan the sectors, gazing at the witnesses of my baptism. I descend the small ladder into the pool, the water comes up to my neck, and I adopt the position I’ve practiced. I think about John the Baptist and Jesus, and about how the heavens opened when he stepped out of the River Jordan. The brother elder supports my back with one hand, and grips my arm with the other. With a swift movement he tips me backwards, and a moment later he pulls me out of the water.
“We welcome our new brother.”
The heavens do not open, and I feel nothing, except for happiness and pride. I know, I’m fully aware that no miracle is meant to happen, and that it’s just a symbol, but I was counting on more than happiness and pride. I want to feel the clean slate, I want to feel Jehovah removing everything that’s bad, removing the thorn.
Soon there are arms embracing me. My family, cousins, several dozen people, brothers and sisters. Congratulations, pats on the back. I’m important, the disappointment vanishes. I am important. From now on I belong to Jehovah. …
I was baptised on 2 July 1994 at the City Stadium in Wałbrzych, when I was almost fourteen. I was quick. My brother wasn’t baptised until he was eighteen. I’d inherited my haste from my parents, that pair of love birds, who had expressed their dislike of idlers in their love letters years ago when my father was in prison. To this day wherever she goes, my mother runs.
On 12 May 1989 the Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially registered as the Religious Union of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poland, represented by the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their activity became legal.
The first Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses was established on an allotment next to a gutted house. Inside there was flooring, chairs bought from a cinema, a podium, a lectern, flowers, and on the wall a single Bible quote, changed each year. No pictures or symbols, no altar, no incense. According to the commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20:3-4). The hall was built by volunteers who came from all over Poland.
For many years in Szklarska Poręba there was just one church elder (Łukasz’s dad) – a role comparable with that of a parish priest in the Catholic church. There were no more than fifty believers in the congregation. They were called brothers and sisters. The whole city could see who walked the streets carrying copies of The Watchtower. They called them a dubious sect. To this day they still gather at the Kingdom Hall, originally twice and now three times a week for their assembly. Entry is free – as well as the regular believers anyone who is interested can come along. […]
Jehovah’s Witnesses live inside their own dictionary.
“The truth” is their religion, but it’s also their way of life. People live “in the truth” or “outside the truth”. This word is used so often, with such natural ease, that after several years in the organization asking about the truth ceases to be necessary. On the other hand there is “the world”, meaning everyone who is outside the truth. There isn’t any no-man’s land.
The truth is God’s, and the world belongs to Satan. In the word live “apostates”, “disfellowshipped persons”, and people of all other denominations. Your work colleagues or neighbours might be nice people, but they will always be “worldly” and “philistine”, persons with whom the “brothers” and “sisters” should not associate. “The Philistines were sworn enemies of the people of Jehovah and today’s Satanic world has adopted a similar attitude. But the Philistines were annihilated as a race, and in the same way Jehovah will soon release his destructive anger on this world and its religious, political and commercial systems.”
The quote is from The Watchtower, 1 July 1995, in other words “literature”. That is the term for all publications issued by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, founded by Pastor Russell. Literature also includes Awake!, a monthly magazine on topics to do with nature, the environment and the economy, and which contains curious facts from the world of science and biblical enigmas.
The May 2015 edition of the monthly publication The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom was published in a print run of 52,946,000 copies in 231 languages, and in the same month Awake! had a print run of 51,788,000 copies in 101 languages. On top of this there is a separate edition of The Watchtower for believers (the study edition), books, brochures, tracts, thematic journals and the Bible published in millions of copies. As a rule, The Watchtower has a print run of over forty-two million, which makes it the periodical with the largest circulation on earth. In second place is Awake!, with an average print run of forty-one million.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to satisfy their need for reading matter with their own literature. There is an informal list of banned books, which includes the book you are reading, any publication that makes negative statements about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all those written by former believers. Admitting to reading them carries the threat of a “pastoral visit”, a rebuke, and in extreme situations, “disfellowship”.
- Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones