As a teenager, Joel Engardio broke his mother's heart. He declined to pursue the Witness faith in which he was raised, diving into journalism, which he imagined could change the world now, not later.
As a young man, he broke it again. He declared he was gay. That’s a problem within JW congregations. Scriptures are scriptures and we're not authorized to change them. We don't go on anti-gay rants and witch hunts, like the fundamentalist groups, but to say we "discourage" homosexual practices would be an understatement.
But as an adult, he's done his mama proud.
Mr. Engardio has written, produced and narrated Knocking, probably the best documentary ever about Jehovah's Witnesses. Others think so, too, not just me.
Best Documentary, Jury Award, 2006 USA Film Festival (Dallas)
Best Documentary, Jury Award, 2006 Trenton Film Festival (New Jersey)
Best Documentary, Audience Award, 2006 Indianapolis International Film Festival
Its website, www.Knocking.org, lists 10 other film awards.
Some aspects of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mr. Engardio relates better than the Witnesses themselves do. For example, while it's well known that the U.S. leads the world in protecting basic freedoms from government abuse - freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of expression, of worship - the reason is less well known. It is, in large measure, Jehovah's Witnesses.
Towards the end of ensuring freedoms, Jehovah's Witnesses have tried 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Except for the government itself, no other group has done so more often. The victories they've wrestled trickle down to groups of all stripes, including some with principles quite opposed to those of Jehovah's Witnesses. Such groups owe a large debt to JWs, but instead they take pot shots at our beliefs! Freedoms defined in the U.S. set the standards for other nations as well, particularly emerging ones.
An example of a basic freedom defined:
We all know that there is true patriotism and there is phony patriotism. There is the flag salute that reflects true love of country and the flag salute that is just going through the motions. The symbol means nothing in itself; it’s what the symbol means to a person which is significant. We all know that terrorists, spies, scoundrels, and what-have-you feel no compunction about saluting someone's flag, if only so as to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
All the same, politicians are sometimes satisfied, not with true patriotism, but with the appearance of true patriotism. In the late 1930's, shortly before America's entrance into WWII, "patriots" [real or phony?] thought it a good idea to make all schoolchildren salute the flag. Some communities wrote it into school bylaws. It was to be obeyed upon pain of expulsion. This created a problem for the children of Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not salute any country’s flag. Their reason is religious, not political. It’s based on the Ten Commandments. (1 and 2)
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them… Ex 20:4,5 (NIV) Saluting a flag, for them, violates this command.
Granted, not everyone interprets those verses as we do, yet it is clear that JWs’ not saluting the flag has nothing to do with love of country. It’s a religious stand, based on avoiding "idolatry."
Their motives made no difference to a certain Pennsylvania school board. With World War II threatening to draw in the United States, they wanted patriotism, or at least the appearance thereof. Further, they imagined that forcing students to salute the flag would instill the real variety. Religious conscience was of no concern to them. There was the flag - salute it! Two Witness children, William and Lillian Gobitus, would not. They were 12 and 10 years old, respectively. They stood their ground, and were expelled from public school. Through their father, they took the matter to court.
Early court decisions went in favor of the Gobitus children. Two lower courts ruled in their favor. The second wrote into its decision the words of a certain Colonel Moss, who had authored several WWI training manuals:
"Another form that false patriotism frequently takes is so-called Flag-worship - blind and excessive adulation of the Flag as an emblem or image - super-punctiliousness and meticulosity in displaying and saluting the Flag - without intelligent and sincere understanding and appreciation of the ideals and institutions it symbolizes. This of course is but a form of idolatry - a sort of "glorified idolatry," so to speak. When patriotism assumes this form it is nonsensical and makes the "patriot" ridiculous."
"The court also noted that "there are schools all over the United States in which the pupils have to go through the ceremony of pledging allegiance to the flag every school day. It would be hard to devise a means more effective for dulling patriotic sentiment than that. This routine repetition makes the flag-saluting ceremony perfunctory and so devoid of feeling; and once this feeling has been lost it is hard to recapture it for the "high moments" of life."
Nonetheless, those who wanted the appearance of patriotism appealed each victory. The case reached the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court decisions by an 8:1 vote. [!] "...We live by symbols," the Supreme Court declared. "The flag is the symbol of our national unity..." The school board could indeed compel students to salute the flag. Get over it, they seemed to say to minorities. Religious (or any other) conscience, though it harmed nobody, was stomped upon so as to please the majority. Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, the only one who voted against the decision, wrote the dissenting opinion. Three years later that dissent would become the majority opinion.
The year was 1940, and war fever ran high, a mood hard to imagine today. Any action thought to be snubbing the flag brought public vengeance, and everyone knew by then that Jehovah's Witnesses would not salute it. The Court decision lit a fire of intolerance. Mobs formed, waving the flag and demanding Witnesses salute it. When they would not, they were attacked and beaten, even into unconsciousness. Their homes, automobiles and meeting places were torched or wrecked. In small towns run by the “good ‘ol boys,” some were rounded up and jailed without charge. In four years over 2500 mob-related incidents occurred.
The Solicitor General of the United States took to the NBC airwaves:
“Jehovah's Witnesses have repeatedly been set upon and beaten. They have committed no crime; but the mob adjudged that they had, and meted out punishment The Attorney General has ordered an immediate investigation of these outrages.
“The people must be alert and watchful, and above all, cool and sane. Since mob violence will make the government's task infinitely more difficult, it will not be tolerated. We shall not defeat the Nazi evil by emulating its methods.”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt echoed the plea of the Attorney General. The ACLU also spoke out:
“It is high time we came to our senses regarding this matter of flag-saluting. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disloyal Americans….They are not given to law-breaking in general, but lead decent, orderly lives, contributing their share to the common good.”
Was it this vigilante atmosphere that led three of the justices to declare, in another case, that they believed Gobitus had been wrongly decided? Yet another two justices retired, and they were replaced by ones thought to be more on the side of individual liberty. If compulsory flag salute was presented anew to the Supreme Court, would the decision be the same?
The children of Walter Barnette, Paul Stull and Lucy McLure, in West Virginia were expelled from school for non-salute, and their parents were threatened with prosecution for raising delinquents. In response, they filed suit, just as the Gobitus children had done three years prior. The first court to hear the case, the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia - has this ever happened before? - refused to follow the precedent of the Supreme Court decision and ruled in favor of the Witness children!
Ordinarily we would feel constrained to follow an unreversed decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, whether we agreed with it or not.... the developments with respect to the Gobitus case, however, are such that we do not feel it is incumbent upon us to accept is as binding authority....The tyranny of majorities over the rights of individuals or helpless minorities , has always been recognized as one of the great dangers of popular government. The fathers sought to guard against this danger by writing into the Constitution a bill of rights guaranteeing to every individual certain fundamental liberties....We are clearly of opinion that the regulation of the Board requiring that school children salute the flag is void insofar as it applies to children having conscientious scruples against giving such salute...
The issue was again appealed up to the Supreme Court, and this time that body reversed itself! By at 6:3 majority, the Court ruled that compulsory flag salute was unconstitutional. Their verdict was announced on June 14, 1943 - flag day!
In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Frankfurter grumbled: “As has been true in the past, the Court will from time to time reverse its position. But I believe that never before these Jehovah’s Witnesses cases [there were several more besides those concerning flag salute] …..has this Court overruled decisions so as to restrict the powers of democratic government.”
Yes, that’s how it is with these governments, democratic or not. They want more power. They don’t want to give it up. A certain amount is necessary, of course, so as to maintain public order and safety. We cede it to them willingly and render obedience. But when they grab for yet more - the consciences and souls of their citizens, someone has to call them on it. And that someone has often been Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Knocking concludes with the observation that Jehovah's Witnesses are, at present, litigating 400 human rights cases worldwide.
More on Knocking here