Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Michael Abrahams | The cruelty of Kingdom Hall

Published:Monday | June 25, 2018 | 12:05 AM

I must confess that I have ambivalent feelings toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. As members of a denomination, I have found them to be the most pleasant and friendly and I feel deep affection for all that I know. But some of their beliefs concern me deeply.

My reasoning with Witnesses began in my late teens. I was a Christian at the time and was baptized in and attended a Missionary church. Back then I knew little about them and was interested in learning about their faith.

So, I would invite them to my verandah, where I would avidly listen to explanations of their doctrines. Some, such as not believing that Jesus Christ is God, not celebrating Christmas and eschewing religious imagery, I absolutely understood, with their arguments prompting me to discard a gold crucifix that I used to proudly wear on a chain around my neck. Some others, such as not celebrating birthdays and abstaining from voting, I found to be irrational. But most disturbing to me were their rejection of blood and blood products and the practice of shunning persons who transgress or leave the faith.

Jehovah’s Witnesses will tell you that the Bible says that you should “abstain from blood”, and their stance against blood transfusion is non-negotiable, despite the fact that the Bible verses they quote refer to the ingestion of blood or its use in rituals.

The utilization of blood, in the form of transfusions, to save the lives of anaemic or haemorrhaging human beings was not on the radar of the biblical writers. Blood transfusions have saved millions of lives. Jehovah’s Witnesses delight in telling us that there are blood substitutes and bloodless surgery techniques. However, there are certain situations where if a person does not get blood, they will die, or suffer permanent damage to organs such as the brain or kidneys.

A colleague of mine, an anaesthetist, related a story to me of an experience she had several years ago that still haunts her. A girl had been rushed into the operating room for emergency surgery after being injured in a motor vehicle accident. She had lost a considerable amount of blood, and despite the use of blood substitutes, monitors indicated that her blood pressure and her oxygen level were falling. A transfusion was necessary to save her life.

Unfortunately, the child was a Jehovah’s Witness. Family and church members turned up at the hospital and congregated outside the operating theatre. Not only did they not consent for the minor to be transfused, they informed my colleague that if the child got any blood, they would have nothing further to do with her. The anaesthetist tried desperately to get a judge to overrule the decision of the gathering, but it was a weekend and she was unsuccessful. She helplessly watched as the child died.

Another practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses that is unsettling and harmful is that of shunning, the fate that would have befallen the child had she been transfused. Members of the organization whose behaviour is deemed to be inappropriate, may not only be dismissed, but shunned as well. Merely deciding to leave the faith can result in shunning. When you are shunned, you are disowned by fellow church members. They will not speak to you. They will not visit you at your house, and you certainly will not be welcome in theirs. It is brutal.

My family recently befriended a woman who is a Jehovah’s Witness. One day, in my kitchen, we had a very interesting and bizarre conversation. She knows that I am not a Christian now, but we are friends. I asked her what would happen to our friendship if I were to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but decide to leave the organization, remain a Christian, and join another denomination. She sternly told me that if that were to happen, we could longer be friends. I asked her if she would still come to my house, and she responded, “Why would I want to do that?” Strange. Very strange.

Shunning a friend is one thing, but Witnesses have shunned family members, some for life. I know a former Witness whose mother did not speak to her for 20 years after she left the organization. I asked my mechanic, a Jehovah’s Witness, about the practice, and remarked how cruel it was. He smiled and said, “It will make them come back”. Not always. Some are guilted into going back, but many suffer severe psychological trauma and spiral into depression. Some become suicidal. Some have attempted it and have been successful.

Relationships are crucial for good health and well-being. Indeed, a 75-year study conducted by Harvard University found that good relationships keep us happier and healthier and are the key to leading fulfilling lives. I do not think that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they are being cruel. They are convinced that they are doing what Jehovah wants them to, and this illustrates why religion can be so dangerous, even evil. Once a person of faith believes that their actions are in accordance with God’s will, no matter how unjust or wicked those actions may be, their conscience is undisturbed. The lives, the health, the well-being of others do not matter to them.

The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of health is “A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." The Jehovah’s Witness faith poses a threat to all the abovementioned components of health. We are often told to respect the religious beliefs of others, but why should I respect a belief system that jeopardizes the health of my fellow human beings?

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.