Typical Watchtower illustration of loyal Jehovah’s Witnesses joyfully escaping the destruction of mankind — especially former Witnesses — at Armageddon.

9 Black Lives Matter Tactics Cult Survivors Can Use Too

Black Lives Matter is changing the way activism gets done. Serving a culture that’s more autonomous than it was in the civil rights era of the 1960s, its leadership stays in the background and allows a profusion of voices to carry its message and stage its activities. On Twitter, Facebook and in real life, it’s waging an ongoing “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

The movement is creating a new set of of “best practices” for all marginalized and oppressed groups to reframe the conversation and make their voice heard. As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I feel can learn a thing or two as I raise my voice against abuses within that cult.

If you aren’t familiar with the Witnesses, that C-bomb might come as a surprise. Here’s one reason why it’s justified—and why it’s a good idea to look to Black Lives Matter for guidance. In a practice known as disfellowshipping, members who fail to toe the doctrinal line are called before secretive judicial committees to confess and repent. If the committee, using guidelines from a private handbook (ordinary members aren’t allowed to see it, let alone read it), determines that the accused is not sincerely repentant, it will then exile that person from the community—for good. Reinstatement is possible, but it can take years of humiliating effort.

Here, a young Witness woman — let’s call her Bridget — flaunts her rebellious attitude toward church elders by displaying a hemp bracelet and pink streak in her hair. Also, just look at that disrespectful attitude. — Photo: “God’s Word for Us Through Jeremiah,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2010
Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that leaving the religion leads inevitably to a life of despair and dissolution. In this photo, Bridget has shacked up with a ne’er-do-well. She smokes menthols and feeds her illegitimate baby formula — not breast milk — as she yearns for better days with her Jehovah’s Witness friends. See also: M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” — Photo: “God’s Word for Us Through Jeremiah,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2010

Globally, an estimated 70,000 members are thus shunned each year.

The damage from such character assassination can last a lifetime. Friends and even family members are forbidden to as much as greet these individuals on the street—or they can face the same fate. Since they’re scapegoated as “mentally diseased” and worse, most Witnesses willingly shun them. Such fearmongering deters church members from voicing any disagreement over doctrine or leadership decisions.

Disfellowshipping strips people of their dignity and stigmatizes its victims. It destroys friendships and marriages and alienates parents from their own children. Not surprisingly, the aftermath includes anxiety, depression and, at times, suicide. This religious abuse needs to stop.

As with minority and queer movements that have borrowed ideas from the Black liberation movement, this trauma demands an “ideological and political intervention.” How is Black Lives Matter going about their struggle—and what can we learn from them?

  1. Speak your truth, without apology. Black Lives Matter’s guiding principles state: “We are unapologetically Black in our positioning…. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.” Disfellowshipping didn’t strip you of your voice. It actually freed you say what you’ve bottled up, probably for years. Speaking up for ourselves restores our humanity and value.
  2. Stand up for those who have been especially othered. Black Lives Matter has a special place in its ranks for Black people who suffer doubly from homophobia, sexism and other stigmas. By caring for its most wounded members, its strongest members are made invincible. Many ex-Witnesses are likewise LGBTQ or members of other marginalized minorities. Even though they might no longer believe in Watchtower teachings, the residual religious shame can run deep. Let’s stand up for them.
  3. Be loving. Another line from their guiding principles: “We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people.” Good marching orders for ex-Witnesses.
  4. Be angry. It’s fairly impossible to be Black in America (or be White, with an ounce of compassion) and have a pulse and not be angry. Similarly (though admittedly to a lesser extent), the Witnesses’ religious abuse is outrageous. From that, it follows that the only sane response is outrage. Let’s own it.
  5. Realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. What James Baldwin famously wrote about race in America is also true for us: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
  6. Understand that those who have shunned you will probably never change their position, but their kids might. As Black Lives Matter founder Patrice Cullers said recently, “It is very easy when you’re fighting big systems that crush whole communities to ask, “what’s the point?” And I think the point isn’t… necessarily [seeking a] victory, the point is building the power of our communities…. If it’s about something bigger than us, then we’re going to stay in it for the long haul—because the hope is that in 100 or 200 years from now… we will have left this place better off.” I’d love to see The Watchtower Society put completely out of business. But that probably won’t happen in my lifetime. Let’s take the long view and realize that even our biggest efforts will still be just a small contribution. That’s what real heroism is, anyway. Which brings up:
  7. Don’t try to be the next MLK. Part of Black Lives Matter’s momentum derives from the fact that it avoids hierarchy and centralized leadership. Likewise, the world doesn’t need another hotshot “apostate leader.” People left the cult because they were tired of being “shepherded.” So if you’re an organizer of a Meetup or other support group, stay chill and in the background.
  8. Be willing to be disruptive. In order to jump-start conversation about race that leads to change, Black lives activists have ruffled a lot of feathers in very public — yet legal — ways. Logically, If we allow ourselves to be silenced, it makes us complicit in the Witnesses’ shunning. It suggests that we haven’t fully left the cult. (Are you offended by that statement? Good!) So go to a meeting and raise your hand. Partake at the Memorial. Approach Witnesses on the street with their silly magazine racks and talk to them. If you see a Witness who was once your friend, go say hello. Force them to confront what shunning really means. It isn’t easy. I’ve given the Witnesses the power to shun me more times than I want to think about. But, rather than just deciding to be more confrontational, maybe we can just decide to be willing to be more vocal about our lives when we encounter Jehovah’s Witnesses. That tiny change is doable—and I think it can work miracles.
  9. Hone your message. Black Lives Matter has one message that’s so simple and refined it’s got its own hashtag. What is the one thing you want people to remember about your particular form of activism? Boil that down, think it through and maybe you’ll do your part to help #stopshunning.

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