Andrew Walker: Epistles of Straw

July 2000
A to-die-for sort of faith
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I recently read A.N. Wilson's quirky piece in the Sunday Telegraph bemoaning the fact that in New York the ruling body of the Jehovah's Witnesses has changed one of its distinctive and cardinal beliefs. Henceforth, it will no longer be considered unbiblical (and hence wrong) to receive blood transfusions.

Wilson was not supporting the belief that it was wrong to give blood transfusions. He is biblically literate enough to know that for years the JW's have confused Jewish kosher laws which forbid the drinking of animal blood (Leviticus 7:26) with the medical practice of human blood transfusions. What Wilson was regretting is that the JW's eventually sold out by putting medical expertise before religious principle.

Not many people will sympathise with Wilson's viewpoint. For years JW's have been vilified for allowing their members to die rather than compromise their beliefs. This condemnation was justified, many reasonable people believed, because it was felt that JW's sacrificed common sense and familial love on the altar of religious bigotry.

Wilson's article appeared exactly a week after Ruby Wax's American Pie was shown on BBC television. The programme was about a small Pentecostal sect – Wax did not name the church, but as they are from West Virginia it was almost certainly the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following. This church, like the JW's, have also based one of their cardinal beliefs on a misreading of scripture. In the contentious "long ending" of Mark's Gospel we read, "they will pick up snakes in their hands... it will not hurt them" (Mark 16:18).

This promise of Christ to his disciples is interpreted by the West Virginian sect to mean that they are commanded to pick up snakes (usually rattlers) so that they can put their faith to the test. Over the years, many believers have died and many more have been disfigured by the venom, usually losing digits from their fingers or sections of their arms and hands.

Of course, we are naturally likely to think, "how mad", "how bizarre". We may simply demystify such signs as the demented thinking of uneducated hillbillies cut off from the mainstream of American culture and Christian orthodoxy. The trouble with the BBC show, however, was that Ruby Wax did not invite us to pity them, or admire their misplaced faith, but to laugh at them.

To be sure, that knowing smirk was kept somewhat in check, but like Louis Theroux's American "Wild Weekends", we were enticed to leer at the oddity of alternative religious culture. As voyeurs of the rationally challenged, we found it all too easy to despise them from the cheery but cowardly comfort of our armchairs.

Whether we laugh at cultic movements like Dolly Pond, or shrink from them as we do the JW's, the effect is the same: we hold them in contempt. But while there may be something off key about their commitments, the very tenacity of their faith brings many of us in the mainline churches to shame.

Wilson reminds us of this in his article when he points out that the JW's were virtually exterminated by the Nazis in concentration camps, primarily because of their principled pacifism. Contrast this with the official Lutheran Church, which collaborated with the Nazi authorities, or the Vatican, which signed a concordat with Hitler promising not to interfere in German domestic politics as long as Church property was guaranteed. What price principles?

I once heard Colin Gunton of King's College, London, describe fundamentalists as "people who believe more than we do". Certainly it seems to be the case that often the people we think of as extremists are those who are prepared to die for their faith. Perhaps all martyrs are extremists by definition.

It may be that we think those in cults are cranks and the things they think worth dying for – or are even prepared to let others die for – are in fact not worth dying for. So for those of us still in the mainline churches perhaps the challenge is not so much to examine the soundness of our beliefs but rather to ask if we would be prepared to die for them.

Would we go to the stake for the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, the real presence in the eucharist, baptism by immersion, or a high doctrine of scripture? Or is it perhaps the case that the strongest evidence of our reason and sanity is that we would not die for anything?

While we ponder these things, spare some time for the JWs who call at your door – usually in twos, often male and female and from different races – for they are inevitably going to suffer for a while. Some of them will have lost loved ones on the principle of no blood at any cost – only now to be told that the principle no longer holds.

Others will be confused as to how once such strongly-held beliefs can bend in the wind of expediency. (Mormons must have felt the same when polygamy was put on the shelf). Perhaps in exchange for the Witnesses' proselytism, itself born out of fierce loyalty to perceived truth, we could put aside our contempt, show a little humanity, and invite them in for a cup of tea.

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