Legal Seminar: South Africa Bethel
Last year today (February 28, 2015) I was still one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m not soon to forget this day for two distinct reasons. Firstly, a Witness friend of mine damn near died in what proved to be an unfortunate car accident. I recall eventually seeing this giant of a man lying in the hospital bed, intubated, comatose. Gave me existential thoughts. Secondly, I was attending a legal seminar at the local bethel branch in Krugersdorp, South Africa, a seminar that I found myself invited to via an official letter.
The Legal Seminar
The seminar was a full day event held at the “residence hall.” I had come with my wheelchair-bound friend, from the same congregation. We were a few minutes late, so, as we rolled in into the foyer, we got handed our seminar pack, our bottled water, and lapel badges by two pretty ladies (hell yeah, I still remember that). This was the same residence hall that I had shook Anthony Morris’ hand in a few weeks ago, that is, prior to his official Branch Visit talk in South Africa on Sunday, January 11, 2015, accompanied by his “sidekick” Anthony Griffin.
The seminar was split between matters that were strictly legal and those that were more tax related; of course, there was an obvious overlap between the two as can be expected. The key speakers were select members of the Branch Committee, in-house legal counsel, and those from the accounts department. A lot was said about Europe, Africa, the U.S., Hayden Covington, child custody, divorces, Advance Medical Directives (“blood cards”), alternative service, Road Accident Fund, legal battles here, legal battles there, tax etc. The bottom-line was this: There’s a lot going down, and we’d appreciate your assistance in these affairs.
It should be noted, however, that “these affairs” require tertiary qualifications… higher education.
The Real Issue
Now, in a previous article that I wrote (“The Organisation Sponsored My Higher Education“), I went to great lengths explaining the issue behind Watchtower’s higher education stance. The important thing when it comes to dissecting this subject is that you have to put it in context. It’s only in context that you can fully appreciate what the big hoo-ha is all about. As one former bethelite Elder put it, “You have to put in a time-line.” Trace and analyse the comments of the Governing Body throughout the years – whose criticism of higher education is the stuff of legend – understand what the predominant teachings and beliefs were, and you’ll see all the “insider-trading-esque” tactics.
As regards the day-long seminar, one thing was particularly conspicuous, that is, conspicuous by its absence. The words “higher education” were never uttered. Not a whiff. It’s almost like there was some kind of memo given to all the speakers specifically instructing them not to utter those two loaded words. Not once were they mentioned. Instead, references to higher education were couched in euphemistic terms like: “your worldly gifts” or “your gifts in this world” or “worldly means.” The ultimate point, of course, being: use these “worldly gifts” to serve Jehovah, blah blah blah.
The irony, huh. Now they’re “worldly gifts,” not “worldly pursuits.” The difference in expression may be negligible, but only a seasoned Witness would appreciate the nuance. In politics they call this “spinning.” They evade the words “higher education.” Why? Because those words pack a wallop, they’ve been immersed in so much negativity that just the mere sound of them puts you in a bad mood. Higher education. Des longs études. Educación superior. Trigger words. Abracadabra!
Now, this seminar took place February 28, 2015; people flew from as far as Cape Town, others Lesotho, and I understand Namibia, to attend this seminar. An important event, to be sure. All attendees paid their own fare and accommodation expenses, save for the bottled water, tea & biscuits, lunch, and supper (if they chose to remain for the latter).
Now, can anyone remember what the January 2015 JW Broadcasting video was all about? It was anchored by the erstwhile Vietnam War soldier, Governing Body member, Anthony Morris III. The topic of discussion was – you guessed it – higher education. After cherry-picking an assortment of tragic stories relating to Witnesses who attended university and consequently left “the truth,” he then showed an interview of a bethelite, Philip Brumley, who was serving as a lawyer for the organisation at the world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York (which lawyer, as irony would have it, “secretly” obtained his law degree through the “discreet” sponsorship of the organisation). In the interview, Brumley proceeds to mention how university affected his character for the worse, what he calls “the venom of self-importance.”
Being a law student myself, I must admit that I understand what he’s alluding to here, although I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as “the venom of self-importance.” As a law student, you value your time. You know what you can achieve in one hour. Give me one hour and a textbook and I will convert that time into magnificence. And to get good marks in law school requires discipline, dedication and perseverance, more so, in fact, than just mere knack for academia (I learnt that the hard way). Such being the case, you don’t appreciate people who waste your time. You don’t take kindly to people who trifle with your time, who treat it with contempt. And this, quite frankly, is what used to tick me off in my last congregation. The Elders would tell me how I was the most active person in the congregation, that I was doing the most field service (allegedly more so than the “registered” pioneers) at the time. But, then, they’d systematically dismantle me with statements like: “Yes, you’re the most active person in the congregation, but…”, “Yes, you do the most field service, Frère Mabunda, but…” But but but but but… Someone, give me a Glock 17 so I can murder these fools.
Anyways, I digress.
If valuing my time is a symptom of “the venom of self-importance” (if that’s what Brumley in part meant), then, dawg, I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I ain’t gots the time for no Mickey Mouse business in this here life, yo. You feel me? I suspect this Jehovah don’t appreciate his time being wasted neither. This is not a higher education thing, it’s a life thing.
So anyways, here was a legal seminar being held in bethel itself, a seminar that was taking place right after the anti-higher education JW Broadcasting monthly video, in a video where Morris emphatically stated: “In addition to promoting divine education, what secular skills will we be promoting? […] We need construction skills around the world right now. And think about this, we will not need doctors and lawyers after Armageddon, but we will need carpenters and plumbers and similar construction trades.”
I’ll come back to that otherwise prima facie innocuous statement, but suffice is to say at this stage that they (the Governing Body) don’t want – in fact, discourage – young Jehovah’s Witnesses from pursing higher education. For now, however, let’s take a detour to Australia to contextually add more dimension to this particular subject.
I’ve always said that to appreciate something, sometimes you have to find a parallel to compare it with. Now, it is common knowledge within the circles of erstwhile Witnesses that a commission took place in Australia that investigated the Australian branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, that is, as to how they dealt with reports of child abuse cases in their ranks, what their policies and procedures were. This was Case Study 29. This commission was a matter of general application; so it wasn’t some, you know, unique “attack” on “Jehovah’s people” by “Satan’s system.” Other institutions, religious or otherwise, were subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
It is, however, interesting – for me anyways – that the Senior Counsel assisting in Case Study 29 was a South African, Angus Stewart SC. Brilliant fella that. Calm. Collected. You get machinegun-type lawyers, but he – he was the sniper-type. Only one bullet. Clean execution. No drama. To the point. Even Geoffrey Jackson, of the Governing Body, had his work cut out with Stewart.
The short version of the outcome of Case Study 29 was that the Australian branch had some 1006 cases of child abuse reports that it was privy to, but which – and this is the point – it had failed to disclose to the local authorities, to the detriment of a not so few people. The overarching defence championed by the organisation was this whole “priest-penitent privilege,” but, under the circumstances, and in the context of the organisation’s modus operandi, I submit that this argument is untenable. In any event, the branch was found wanting by the Australian Royal Commission. Additionally, some of the Big Guns from the Australian branch, who were interviewed at the commission, displayed such contempt at the questionings; I’m surprised that these select “company men” didn’t see fit to mount the table and start doing the Haka in protest. This commission began in July 27, 2015 and ended in August 14, 2015, with Jackson being the, in my opinion, “lacklustre” pièce de résistance.
Interestingly, however, less than three months after the end of that commission’s inquiry, the Australian branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses sent out a letter, dated November 18, 2015, to all Service Committees throughout the congregations of Australian. The letter was “confidentially” seeking baptised members of the congregation who were “qualified as solicitors, barristers, certified practising accountants or chartered accountants.” But, note, all of this exploration was to be done discreetly, “without consulting the publisher” (I suppose this is how they canvass for potential seminar candidates).
Now, let’s juxtapose these two events, the South African seminar and the Australian request letter, and contextualise them.
The organisation tells folks not to pursue higher education. In fact – little though this is known – if you are an appointed person (Elder, Ministerial Servant, pioneer etc.) and you decide to attend university, your (spiritual) qualifications automatically come under review. What does this immediately tell you? That the organisation has a default disdain for higher education. But then, mirabile dictu, the organisation secretly sponsors select bethelites to obtain these very “worldly” qualifications, using funds donated by some of the simplest and unsuspecting Witnesses, many of whom complied with the “mandamus” from the “Faithful and Discreet Slave” not to pursue higher education. But, then, ironically, per chance that you didn’t comply with this mandamus, and remain a devout Witness, they then implore you to use your “worldly gifts” in service to God (“the organisation”) and, to a large extent, for free. (How am I not laughing right now?)
What’s wrong with this picture?
And if you take the global downsizing that the organisation has been conducting lately its enough to make a thinking person wonder, where veteran bethelites are sent home and special pioneers being essentially sent up the creek without a paddle. Why? Because it’s now becoming too expensive to accommodate them. A burden. And, yet, many of these bethelites faithfully forfeited higher education in order to pursue full-time service at your insistence, now you’re telling them to hamba kahle (“go well”)?
C’mon, man, c’mon… What is wrong with this picture, people?
If, alternatively, the organisation was cool about the subject and it was like, you know, “Go to university, don’t go to university, that your decision to make, as long as you are aware of the inherent challenges and as long as you remain faithful to God.” That would be one thing. But what we’re seeing here is the constant badgering badgering badgering of higher education. They’ve dealt higher education so many head-shots, they’ve bloodied and bruised it; there just has to be some kind of accountability on their part now. You can’t enjoy the assets of other people’s labour without taking ownership and responsibility of the liabilities peculiar with that asset. It’s immoral. This whole thing is just patently duplicitous. Scandalous. Why all these backdoor “transactions?” You say one thing on stage, but, then, em’va kwethu you do something different. Hai wethu, you must never.
Brimstone and humour aside, I personally don’t have a problem with the organisation seeking professional assistance from willing qualified Witnesses per se. That isn’t the problem. It is the duplicity that irks me. It is the selfishness of their approach that vexes me. It is the ruination of people’s lives that ticks me off. It is the unconscionableness of their methods that pisses me off; treating genuine people as expendables and collateral damage for their own selfish gains, gains which they conveniently clothe as “sacred service,” service to Jehovah. That really ticks me off.
The Governing Body needs to pipe down on higher education, and to resist this laughable attempt at gaining some kind of moral high ground on this subject, at other people’s expense no less. Enough of the self-serving sensationalism.
 It was more fully a legal and tax seminar.
 I say “found myself invited to” because I don’t believe I was originally meant to have been invited; it was “fortuitous” that I found myself invited.
 Anthony Morris III, member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, since 2005.
 Hayden Covington has been described as “among the most overworked and under-appreciated attorneys in American history.” He was a Jehovah’s Witness and served primarily as the legal counsel for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society; he was a swashbuckler in court who broke many archaic precedents. After Joseph Rutherford’s death, Covington served briefly as vice-president to Rutherford’s successor, Nathan Knorr. Covington single-handedly paved the way for many religious freedoms and civil liberties in the U.S. He is the author of the booklet Defending and Legally Establishing the Good News (1950). In 1966 he represented heavy-weight champion, Muhammed Ali, assisting him gain draft exemption from the Vietnam War. Covington was disfellowshipped for a time, during which he was dogged with rumours of excessive drinking. He was eventually re-instated, shortly prior to his death in November 21, 1978.
 (Background story here)