Wit and witness

I’ve been reading the book “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler-Bass — a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in religion or religious trends — and among the many things that have struck me so far is the following quote: “…some Christians are very comfortable defining themselves as adherents to a way of life modeled by Jesus rather than adherents to a particular doctrine or creed.”

It brings to my mind something I’ve alluded to previously but never really written about: my time with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it’s something I’m finally ready to start writing about. Despite the many, many issues I take with their theology, I think that there are many things about their religious community — and, more to the point, their way of life — really worth contemplating.

To give a brief bit of background, I encountered a group of JW missionaries during my years in the Dominican Republic. The small pueblo where I spent the first two years of my time there was home to a fledgling JW congregation being developed by a number of missionaries, mainly from the US and Canada, also England, Denmark, and perhaps another European country or two I’m forgetting now. Right off the bat, we found lots of common ground in our respective experience and worldviews and quickly became friends. I was already immersed in a personal study of the Bible and grew particularly close to two young women — one from Canada and another from England — who graciously offered to open their studies to me.

I was fascinated by the things they had to say and by the new perspectives they brought to the study of scripture. They encouraged me to consider scriptural passages and many of the basic ideas of faith I’d absorbed over the years in a very different light. The result was enlightening, unsettling, and even disturbing, and the questions the experience raised have taken me a long while to digest, but ultimately, I think that this sort of uprooting of my faith was beneficial to me, as it freed me to re-pot myself in much more fertile soil.

What most drew me to their community is something for which I still hold them in deep respect; namely, that they embodied precisely what Butler-Bass describes in the quote above: adherence to a way of life modeled by Jesus. (They are, of course, also adherents of a very strict set of doctrines and creeds, to a degree that becomes un-Jesus-like in its implementation. I wish to make clear that I am decidedly not a proponent of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.) What I mean by this is that they take the Gospel very seriously. The message it contains of a new kingdom of love and salvation is one that — if allowed — must necessarily change the way we live and the way we see our place in the world.

The JWs I met had opened themselves fully to the transformative power of Christ’s message and offered themselves unreservedly to a life lived wholly in response to grace. While there are some paid missionaries in the JW organization, most of the folks you meet going door to door, like my friends in the DR, are not. What this meant for my friends was returning to their home countries for a few months a year to work, perhaps 2 or 3 jobs, and save as much money as they possibly could in order to return to the DR for the rest of the year and devote their time to spreading the news of God’s kingdom. What incredible courage and devotion this takes! And what sincere, unwavering faith in God’s promises. I still find myself inspired by their example.

It makes me wonder what the lives of ordinary, mainline church people would look like if we took Jesus this seriously. I’m not at all suggesting we all move abroad and become missionaries. Someone has to witness here. Simply by the way they live, sincerely putting Christ first — “preferring Christ in all things,” to borrow the Benedictine motto — Jehovah’s Witnesses are, well, witnessing to the power of God’s kingdom in our world. It changes everything. We are forgiven, so that we may forgive. We have been given everything, so that we may give. We are loved, so that we may love. We have been redeemed by Christ’s service and ultimate sacrifice, that we may sacrifice our own interests and serve others. It calls to mind the well-known prayer of St. Francis (which I had the opportunity to contemplate over breakfast every morning in Spanish on the wall of my host family’s house):

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

What I think this means for us is to take the messages we hear on Sunday and to let them seep over into the rest of our lives and begin to inform the way we live; the ways we treat others, our planet, and ourselves. It means not being ashamed of the Gospel or of what we believe, and finding the courage to talk openly about our faith with others. Sharing what we believe does not mean seeking to assert our faith or religious preference as the absolute correct one, and does not diminish anyone else or what they believe. It means opening up conversation and expecting to find God there. It means seeing Christ in our encounters with other people, and opening ourselves up to the transformation that can bring.

Try it! It’s dynamite. You might be amazed where it takes you. I know a whole host of folks who can witness to that.

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