Are the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses Biblical
Hope for the end of time Jehovah's Witnesses Between Persecution and Recognition
The Kingdom Hall in Berlin-Spandau is filling up. The newcomers greet each other with a friendly handshake, chat and smile. A so-called assembly - i.e. community - of Jehovah's Witnesses. They meet twice a week in the Kingdom Hall, their place of worship, to worship, sing, pray, and study the Bible.
The room is more like a lecture hall than a house of worship: the only decoration consists of a few small bouquets of flowers that are draped on a kind of stage. Above this on the wall is a verse from the Bible: "Thank Jehovah for he is good." The assembly members, on the other hand, are noticeably dressed up.
"We see the assembly as a worship service, as it were as a sacred service to God. And according to this worship service we also want to dress ourselves appropriately."
Uwe Buchholtz is the coordinator of the Spandau assembly and one of the ten so-called elders, the governing body of the community. According to their own statements, Jehovah's Witnesses have more than 70 such assemblies with 50 to 150 members each in Berlin. There are more than 165,000 members throughout Germany. A small minority, but an integral part of German society for decades. With their magazines "Watchtower" and "Awake" they stand at train stations and pedestrian zones or make a pilgrimage from house to house to share their message: the kingdom that God, whom they call Jehovah, will soon establish on earth. They believe that the end of this world is imminent. In the so-called Battle of Armageddon all those who do not profess God would be destroyed.
“In battle, Jesus Christ, as the God commissioned King, fights with his holy angels against Satan and his demons and against human society that does not want to obey God. The result would be that those people survive who are ready in accordance with to live the will of God. "
Says Armin Pikl. He works in Selters in the Taunus at the headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses as an advisor on religious law. For him, Armageddon is an event that he eagerly awaits. For those who follow Jehovah would be saved and partake of the Millennial Kingdom of Peace. This kingdom of peace will be established after the apocalyptic catastrophe - here on earth. In this "new world" the paradisiacal state will be restored, which according to the Bible prevailed before Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. 144,000 are chosen, so the doctrine, to rule together with Jesus Christ in heaven. All others who believe in Jehovah and will be saved will henceforth lead a heavenly life on earth. Pikl is convinced that this event, the apocalypse, is near. The current global crises are an indication of this.
"The Bible names certain characteristics for the time of the end, which should all be fulfilled together in a period of time. Including global wars, earthquakes, famines. Moral attitudes of people. That they morally deteriorate more and more, that they attack each other more and more , The world is in principle becoming more and more unpeaceful. And on the other hand, the Bible also mentions a development: That there will be such a people of faith who are ready to extend God's invitation to people around the world. "
The people of faith that God's invitation brings to the people are the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves. However, they no longer give an exact date when it will happen. Because several prophecies of the past have not come true. Above all that of the founder of the religious community, Charlez Taze Russel. At the end of the 19th century he founded the group in North America that was then called "Serious Bible Students". He prophesied the end times battle for the year 1914. In that year the First World War broke out, the New World, but paradise on earth did not materialize.
Moving away from the fixation on the end of time
The so-called Watchtower Society, which as the governing body controls the religious community from New York, has therefore later reinterpreted the prophecy. 1914 is now no longer seen as the end of time, but only as the beginning of the period that heralds the end. In a watchtower article it says:
“The Bible calls the time we live in 'the last days' or the 'time of the end'. It began in 1914 when Jesus Christ was instituted as King in heaven. It will end when God does the present evil system of things will annihilate. "
The exact time and hour, so the Jehovah's Witnesses say today, only God himself knows. Presumably in order not to make itself unbelievable with further false prophecies, the religious community seems to move away from its fixation on the end of time. Instead, according to the observation of religious scholars, they concentrate more on the here and now.
A development that at first glance seems paradoxical. After all, for the Jehovah's Witnesses our time, which is characterized by materialistic societies, is identical to that "evil system of things" that is mentioned in the Watchtower article. But there are numerous indications that the community wants to arrive more and more in precisely these materialistic societies. In Germany, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses have been fighting in courts for recognition as a "public corporation" since 1990. Armin Pikl explains why:
"The corporate status has the most effect for the internal organization of the religious community, because it allows the administration of the entire religious community in a very simple way through its own regulations. Whereas we previously existed under association law, so that each local assembly was its own association. One can imagine that this is a huge administrative burden that is now eliminated by corporate law. "
After years of litigation that went as far as the Federal Constitutional Court, the Berlin Senate had to give the Jehovah's Witnesses corporate status. Thirteen other federal states followed. Only Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia are missing. There is currently a dispute about recognition in Bremen - with a foreseeable outcome. The Bremen administration is unlikely to be able to prove a systematic lack of legal compliance to the religious community in order to withhold its corporate status. After all, courts and administrations in the other federal states have not yet found any convincing objections.
The religious community is primarily concerned with legal clarification. In fact, it doesn't change anything for the community whether it is recognized throughout Germany or not. Tax breaks - as they are repeatedly called in connection with corporate status - have long been enjoyed by Jehovah's Witnesses. They don't want religious instruction, church officials or their own church tax at all.
So it's about the principle - and: about social recognition. After all, the religious community was decried as a sect for a long time. Especially in the 1980s and 90s, critics and the sect representatives of the large Christian churches raised a mood against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Intensive investigations were carried out as part of the corporation proceedings. And a commission of inquiry at the beginning of the 1990s also dealt with Jehovah's Witnesses, says the Leipzig religious scholar Raik Zillmann.
"There, scientists, politicians and representatives from society had examined the phenomenon of sects, which in my opinion was brought into politics by the churches, and there were also many allegations made by Jehovah's Witnesses. Mainly the question of blood transfusion, the question the chastisement of children, the treatment of excluded and resigned members. There no indications of any behavior that was really harmful to society could be found. "
Zillmann researched the religious community for 15 years. He does not believe that Jehovah's Witnesses are a sect. Nevertheless, he sees critical points, especially when it comes to children and young people.
"A child, which has had to explain to the outside world again and again since kindergarten, why it does not celebrate a birthday, why it does not celebrate Christmas, is a child that is constantly in the point of friction between the majority society and the religious community. And that is also what many children think and young people do not go out and then leave the community. Others, on the other hand, take it very well and see it as an identification with the religious community and have no problems with it.
Dealing with resigned members hard
The religious scholar sees the dealings with resigned members most critically. These are usually punished with the so-called "disfellowshipping".
"We imagine a child who has had to defend the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses since kindergarten age, who was only able to build friendships and social contacts within Jehovah's Witnesses, and then for whatever reason, perhaps at 30, decides not to want to be Jehovah's Witnesses anymore and now suddenly realizes that his entire family, his entire social group is turning away from him. And the turning away can mean that he is no longer spoken to about religious things, that would be the simplest disfellowshipping. But it can also be that contact with him is avoided, that former friends change the side of the street. And that often leads to these people falling into a deep black hole, because new social contacts cannot be established so quickly and of course you keep asking yourself the question : Is that now my person who is rejected or actually just my decision, no longer a Jehovah's Witness se in wanting. "
But in the course of the recognition process as a corporation, the religious scholar observes numerous easing of the teaching and practice of the religious community. For example with the prohibition of blood, which Jehovah's Witnesses derive from the Bible. Anyone who accepted a blood transfusion, for example, was punished with disfellowshipping until 2000. Cases of Jehovah's Witnesses dying for refusing to give blood transfusions caused a stir. The Watchtower Society is now less rigorous on this issue. Whether a Jehovah's Witness gets involved in cancer therapy using leukocytes, for example, is now left to the individual, his or her individual conscience.
"It is amazing what changes have taken place in the last 20 years. On the one hand, this concerns the blood question that many blood components are now allowed to be taken by Jehovah's Witnesses. This applies to membership in trade unions and company organizations, which are no longer fundamentally prohibited are, in the opinion of the religious community, were never prohibited in principle, but now that is also communicated that way. "
In Watchtower articles the conscientious decision of each individual is now more often emphasized in relation to these and other rules of faith. With this opening, religious scholars believe that Jehovah's Witnesses are developing in a direction that is typical of younger religious communities. After the foundation, a phase of institutionalization follows, which is mostly shaped by dogmatic convictions and radical teachings. In end-time communities like Jehovah's Witnesses, the focus is on apocalyptic expectation. But if the prophecies for the end times do not come true for decades or longer, the community is in danger of becoming implausible. It is precisely on this threshold that the Jehovah's Witnesses seem to have been for some time. A fixation on the end times alone can no longer be maintained.
No meddling in politics
Instead, the community seems to have entered a phase of social establishment. And as a result, their public image is gradually improving. Only in politics does Armin Pikl still not feel properly recognized:
"What is a bit of a shame is that in parts of politics there is a tendency not to actually want to talk to Jehovah's Witnesses, or to want to ignore them or generally to portray them in a bad light. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that the Politicians often seek proximity to the churches because voters can be found there, which is not the case with Jehovah's Witnesses. "
Participation in political elections or their own political activities are viewed critically by the religious community. Jehovah's Witnesses pursue an apolitical life plan. After all, when you are baptized, you choose a divine government, not a human one, says Armin Pikl. The consequence: massive persecution of the religious community, which, however - especially in the German public - was suppressed for a long time. As early as the 1920s, the churches and the nationalist movement used precisely those arguments against the Bible Students of the time that the National Socialists later adopted.
"Faithfully obeying the customs of the communist system, this rabble also lowers everything that is sacred to decent people in terms of traditions; they pollute the institutions of the Catholic Church no less than those of the Protestant Church."
It says in a letter from the "Kampfbund for German Culture". In 1933, when the National Socialists came to power, persecution took on a new quality. The community was banned and soon viewed as an anti-state organization. Arrests and convictions followed, as the religious scholar Raik Zillmann reports.
"Jehovah's Witnesses had their own department in the concentration camps, indicated by the purple triangle, and have lost hundreds, if not even thousands, of members in the concentration camps. Most of the imprisonment was for refusal to do military service, refusal to give orders and refusal to oath. So the Jehovah's Witnesses basically do not have that Oath taken on Adolf Hitler or shown the Hitler salute. "
More than 4,000 Jehovah's Witnesses from the German Reich and the occupied territories were sent to concentration camps. The bearers of the "purple triangle" refused to work for the armaments industry, but because of their strict neutrality did not take part in the political resistance. The death toll is estimated at 1,700.
After the end of the Second World War, the Jehovah's Witnesses rebuilt their organization within a short time. But soon there were new conflicts - this time in the Soviet occupation zone - because the members of the religious community also refused to go to the GDR and did not go to elections. Because they had the popular reputation of being steadfast against the Nazi regime, the communist state did everything in its power to revoke Jehovah's Witnesses of their status as victims of fascism. The GDR press supported this process by defamation.
"The Bible Students were never an anti-fascist organization. They are saboteurs and enemies of our struggle."
Prohibited in the GDR
Only five years after the end of World War II, since 1950, Jehovah's Witnesses were again banned in the territory of the GDR.
"This prohibition was justified mainly by the fact that the Jehovah's Witnesses were an imperialist organization which, controlled from America and New York, was supposed to disrupt socialist development. The 50s and 60s were marked by arrests and convictions of up to 25 years. "
By 1961, more than 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses had been arrested and sentenced in the GDR. In the years that followed, the State Security tended to focus on insecurity and disintegration from within, but it was not very successful. Most recently, the community was de facto tolerated until the last, this time democratically elected GDR government recognized the Jehovah's Witnesses as a religious community.
Although Jehovah's Witnesses are still persecuted in individual countries, the religious community is growing at an estimated two to four percent per year worldwide. According to its own information, it currently has more than eight million members. In Germany, however, the numbers are stagnating, although all members are encouraged to do intensive missionary work at front doors and in public places and often spend a lot of time doing this.
Ralf Friedrich, member of the Spandau assembly and boss of a 90-man company, also fulfills this duty of faith. However, as he emphasizes, it is voluntary:
"Everyone spends as much time as possible on this. One hour is a lot, the other can walk 30 hours a month because he only works part-time. There are also some of our brothers and sisters who go 70 Hours per month and then there are different branches of the service: such as door-to-door service, road service, trolley service, contact service, where you are simply on the move. "
But despite the high personal commitment of each individual Jehovah's Witness: In this country, proselytizing no longer really wants to bear fruit - although the religious community is already far removed from the earlier image of a sect.
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