“And he gathered them together into a place called Armageddon.”
– Revelation 16:16
The horrific massacre of Jehovah Witnesses (JW’s) in Germany on March 9, 2023 may give us pause to reflect upon this Christian group’s insistent warnings that we live in the “end times.” They are not alone in this prognostication. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of their Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than ever before, “largely because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.” It is perhaps a rare point on which science and religion agree, though the reasoning is obviously quite different.
To try to see the Kingdom Hall massacre from a JW perspective, may open our eyes to the role that religion is playing in the current breakdown of the international system. Of course, religions have always been used as a “political football,” but the recent “resurrection” of JW’s into the global spotlight suggests that it is being thrown ever more flightily.
Newspaper coverage of the attack on a Kingdom Hall in Hamburg draws our attention to the unborn baby, like the lamb of God, who was amongst the victims; to the “shunned” killer, a fallen angel who claimed to have been through a personal journey to hell, lasting over three years; and to the false prophecy he spewed-forth, “The Truth About God, Jesus Christ and Satan.”
The story is redolent with biblical imagery. The reader wonders whether this was the work of editors eager to conjure such archetypes to play upon their audience’s fears; or, whether it was in fact they who were being played by “Phillip F.” to win the attention he craved.
We might imagine that from the perspective of the JW’s, the Kingdom Hall massacre is not about selling newspapers or childhood trauma, but rather the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They might see further evidence of intensifying persecution as the forces of evil gather their strength for the final battle; or just another skirmish in the larger war between rival “satanic” empires’ fighting for control of mankind.
The current war in Ukraine, in fact, fits neatly into the JW eschatological teachings. Russia’s invasion could be seen to fulfill the prophecy in the Book of Daniel that the “King of the North” will stake everything in a final thrust against “Anglo-American power,” represented by Daniel’s “King of the South.” According to Zoe Knox in an article entitled, The Watch Tower Society and the End of the Cold War, “The book of Daniel describes a major escalation of tension as a harbinger of the end, provoking the King of the North into a final assault that leads to the end times.”
JW biblical exegesis, however, holds that the wars will not be settled by the victory of one or the other earthly kingdom, but rather by heavenly intervention. In the Book of Revelation, the “kings of the earth, the captains and the mighty” will gather to defend against the “Second Coming” of Christ “clothed in a vesture dipped in blood;” but they will be defeated, and not just once.
Over the course of the ensuing millennium Jesus will separate the “sheep from the goats” and lay the foundations for a “New Jerusalem.” At the end of the age Satan shall be loosed again, like the wolf Fenrir, for a “little season.” However, unlike the Norse Ragnarok, when Odin and Thor ride out at the head of the armies of Valhalla to bravely face their doom, Jehovah God will triumph. For those who resist the devil’s last conscription, the historical divisions between heaven and earth will be rent; and God will “dwell with” them; and “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”
This biblical diremption of heaven and earth may be interpreted in Marxist terms as an abstraction of that between classes. Indeed, philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote, “Marx is far more Biblical than Hegel.” But we should not make too much of this or be in danger of falling into the same ideological confusion that pervades the history of this professedly anti-political denomination.
Nevertheless, the correspondence between the “New Jerusalem” and Marx’s vision of a future communist society, is striking. There will be good governance, “and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it;” a return to the garden of Eden where, “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations;” and the sharing of wealth, “to give every man according as his work shall be,” or as Marx wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Program, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Though the JW’s emphasize the hope of a brighter future, it is clear that for the faithful, like the hardened Naxalite-Maoist insurgent on the run in the jungles of India, there is a long struggle ahead. However painful, they would not be surprised to hear of the Kingdom Hall massacre. In view of their political analysis of the “end of times”, the massacre must be seen in the context of a cluster of disturbing events in Europe.
For example, the Russian raid in January on a Jehovah’s Witness “cell” in the Kherson region, as reported by Tass, for “spreading anti-Orthodox ideas, distributing extremist literature and denying the region’s accession to Russia.”
In fact, JW’s have been banned from practicing their religion in Russia since 2017 under new “anti-Extremism” laws. According the JW.org: “In total, since May 2017, 368 believers have been or remain behind bars.”
Of course, recent events in Russia and Germany may be traced back to the Nazi deportations of JW’s, for whom the “mark of the beast” was a “purple triangle” not a yellow star; and Stalinist deportations of JW’s to Siberia as part of “Operation North,” in 1951.
But the “Anglo-American powers” also have been guilty of persecuting JW’s. A WWII period report of the American Civil Liberties Union concluded, “Not since the persecution of the Mormons years ago has any religious minority been so bitterly and generally attacked as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” It catalogued 335 instances of mob violence in forty-four states between May and October 1940, involving 1488 men women and children.”
In another article entitled, Jehovah’s Witnesses as Un-Americans, Knox points out that after Pearl Harbor the focus of mob violence shifted to other groups like Japanese Americans, but the JW’s were not out of the woods entirely: “During the Cold War, and especially during Joseph McCarthy’s era, they were perceived to be communists. This was so widespread that it prompted the society to produce the flyer “Jehovah’s Witnesses: Communists or Christians? The title was answered with another question, “If communists, why outlawed in Russia?”
The JW’s faced a similar fate in Canada. An Order-in-Council was passed in 1940 under the War Measures Act declaring the JW’s an illegal organization. The only other country to have taken such an extreme step against the JW’s was Nazi Germany. Their headquarters were seized, their bank accounts frozen, and their literature was confiscated. Witness children were expelled from schools in Hamilton and London Ontario, and were seized from their parents and placed in juvenile delinquent centers and foster homes.
They were called “enemies of Quebec society,” and “agents of communism,” by Premier Maurice Duplessis, who declared a Lutte sans merci aux temoins de Jehovah. Duplessis claimed that “The communists and the Witnesses of Jehovah have been treated as they deserved,” when he revoked the liquor license of JW restauranteur, Frank Roncarelli, giving rise to the important human rights case, Roncarelli v. Duplessis.
In a strange twist of fate, however, the West has since shifted its stance on JW’s. Indeed, the defense of Jehovah’s Witnesses from persecution under Russia’s anti-Extremism law almost rises to the level of casus belli in Ukraine!
Great concern for JW’s has been shown by “Radio Liberty” (or Radio Free Europe), the propaganda arm of the “Anglo-American powers” in Eastern Europe. The most recent report appeals to our sympathy for the child of Crimean Witnesses, who was handed a deferred sentence of 3.5 years in a penal colony at only eight years of age.
Meanwhile, the Russia Duma is reported to have passed bills to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because it found the Russian decision to ban JW’s violated the rights of believers. Ironically, the only member of the Duma to oppose the Bill was a member of the Communist Party!
The “Anglo-American powers” (in fact, Russian politicians like Putin and Medvedev often equate “the Anglo-Saxons” with the “West” in their derisory rhetoric) have made much of such legal decisions to justify their support for Ukraine. The Government of the UK made the following statement at a recent UN Security Council Meeting:
“We condemn Russia’s campaign of persecution against communities in Ukraine and Russia based on their religion or belief. This includes a ban against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, which the European Court of Human Rights ruled was unlawful.”
A similar statement was issued by the American chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), “on the Anniversary of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine February 24, 2023:”
“We condemn without reservation Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. We note the severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in Russian controlled regions, with the targeting of evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses …”
Now, is the sudden concern for JW’s rights to be understood as progress or politics? In the early years of the 20thcentury the West defined itself in socially conservative terms to justify its aggressions against the communist bloc. Not only were JW’s lumped in with the “communist menace,” so were homosexuals who were barred from working in the Federal Civil Service during the “Lavender Scare,” of the 1950’s. Meanwhile, the “Party of Lenin” broke new ground by decriminalizing homosexual and transgender activity, and embracing multi-culturalism because the “working man has no country.”
Today the situation has reversed itself, and the West now defines itself in “culturally Marxist” terms and, while they use the defense of the Jehovah’s Witness to justify the war, the Russian government attacks them as part of its propaganda against Western “nihilism.” The Russians have seized on American contradictions, and now claim the ground of “family values” for themselves.
What is the significance of this shift in ideological warfare? It hints at the superfluity of ideas in relation to more fundamental geopolitical forces, though the need for legitimacy is persistent. But if you can go from one extreme to another, reverse left and right without batting an eye, does it really matter what your idea is? The shift in the Western approach to the Jehovah’s Witness may raise their suspicion, and that of other marginalized groups in our society, as to the sincerity of the new tolerance.
For now, they are only subject to mild ridicule behind closed doors and in subtle media messaging. For example, the BBC coverage of the Kingdom Hall massacre makes reference to JW membership rules: “Those who leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses are often “disassociated” or cut off by most members of the community; a practice sometimes referred to as “shunning”. Might this be read as a subtle attempt to blame the victim?
In the final analysis, the JW question draws our attention to an intellectual flailing about in contemporary international politics, a slippage into some kind of post-modern parody of justice, where nobody really knows who they are fighting for, or why? Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that the end of history is marked by the triumph of “liberalism,” it might seem that there is instead a confusion of ideas drawing us toward the precipice.
It is just over 100 years since Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, and it seems that we may be in a similar time, when “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.”