Conflagration and Catastrophe: On Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Doom of COVID-19

Daniel Allen Cox: "Symbolism allows us to avoid thinking about the thing itself."

Jehovah’s Witnesses drive by in SUVs, creeping up and down my block all weekend. I hide behind the blinds, doing them a favor; I’m an apostate, dangerous to their faith. A single word from my mouth could poison their minds and jeopardize their chances of living forever in the new system.

It turns out they don’t care if anyone’s home—they ring anyway. I open the door to an adult and a teen asking me if I know who they are. Do they know who I am? Can they see the mark of the beast on my forehead? The teen, who’s perhaps around the age I was when I stopped going door-to-door, seems removed, and might’ve already mentally checked out of their religion. The pair show me a video on a tablet about the end of the world, as if mine hadn’t already ended many times over. I suffer through it because I’m curious how the JW pitch has evolved over the years. Turns out, while the delivery is different, the message hasn’t changed much.

The Witnesses are experts at making doomsday come alive in their videos, books, and magazines; their Armageddon branding is ridiculously on point. Famine, one of the Four Horsemen in the Book of Revelation, is a gaunt figure that is hunger personified. Tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes rip the earth apart like an orange. Natural disasters were always a sign of the times, but now the literature can use climate devastation to proclaim even more forcefully that the end is near.

Inevitably, a figure emerges from the blood-red sky riding a white horse and brandishing a sword: Jesus, authorized by his father, Jehovah God, topples buildings onto the wicked and they die by the billions. He sweeps the rubble and corpses into a gaping abyss that yawns plumes of sulfur dioxide. He crushes entire militaries with a pinkie. For Witnesses, these are good developments, precursors to a new world; when all this horror takes place, the faithful are supposed to hide in safehouses and wait it out.

The Witnesses have long maintained that pestilence will be a sign of the Last Days. Death, another one of the Four Horsemen, is a skeleton that rides hard, spreading disease and reaping lives. Unsurprisingly, the Witness book Revelation—Its Grand Climax at Hand! finds a way to moralize about virus transmission. “In what was described as ‘the ugly decade’ of the 1980s, a way of life that is lawless by Bible standards added the scourge of AIDS to the ‘deadly plague.’”

This kind of fearmongering couldn’t stop me from leaving the cult when I turned eighteen. By then, I had already—irrevocably—become the kind of sexual outlaw they shun. I joined a queer community who took care of each other during a plague, and who religion had already left for dead.

The teen, who’s perhaps around the age I was when I stopped going door-to-door, seems removed, and might’ve already mentally checked out of their religion.

In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz writes, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” Reveling in the touch and warmth of queer and hated bodies was indeed the first time I felt that a new world was actually possible.

How much of this do I tell the two at my door?

Should I say I’m writing a book about them and the colors of the Armageddon sky?

*

The Watchtower, flagship magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted Armageddon would come in 1925.

That year, Sears, Roebuck & Company started selling the Thompson submachine gun. The Tri-State Tornado killed 695 people. Mussolini gave a speech that would echo far beyond the Italian Chamber of Deputies. The first Surrealist group exhibition opened in Paris on a Friday at midnight—Miró’s work warped the social order while the bourgeoisie slept. Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming  became governor, the first woman to do so, which was surely the end of the world for someone.

In his essay “The Unthinkable Fossil of Hope,” Matt Jones writes, “Prophecy is odd in the way that it happens before it happens. The words are true as soon as they are spoken aloud, even if the foretold future never actually arrives, because, as Maurice Blanchot has noted, more often than not, ‘Prophetic speech announces an impossible future . . . a future one would not know how to live and that must upset all the sure givens of existence.’”

In 1929, Judge Rutherford, then president of the Watch Tower Society, built Beth Sarim, a ten-room villa in San Diego. According to the deed, the house was to be kept “in trust” for the “princes” of the Old Testament, for when they would be resurrected. Rutherford planted trees and shrubs that were native to Bible lands so that these reanimated men could recognize their new home. The house still awaits its intended occupants.

I joined a queer community who took care of each other during a plague, and who religion had already left for dead.

Paul Grundy of JWfacts.com has documented much about the Witnesses’ belief that the end would come in 1975. At a 1967 District Convention in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, attendees were told to “stay alive to seventy-five.” The March 1968 issue of Our Kingdom Ministry says, “Just think, brothers, there are only about ninety months left before 6,000 years of man’s existence on earth is completed. Do you remember what we learned at the assemblies last summer? The majority of people living today will probably be alive when Armageddon breaks out, and there are no resurrection hopes for those who are destroyed then.”

As the deadline approached, the Society grew afraid of the repercussions of getting it wrong again. Every failed prophecy had so far led to a schism in the group’s hierarchy, a hemorrhage in the enrollment numbers, and some form of public shaming. They stopped referring to 1975 overtly, instead resorting to code. At a convention in Los Angeles in February of that year, President Frederick Franz said, “We know it’s a critical year. We know we’re near something. But we’re not saying [what].” The crowd laughed and applauded the inside joke.

Many in that crowd would go on to sell their homes and businesses, pass up job opportunities, cash in life-insurance policies, drop out of school, and start preaching full-time—there was nothing left to lose. But the year passed quietly, and the Society deflected blame. From a July 1976 issue of The Watchtower magazine:

“It may be that some who have been serving God have planned their lives according to a mistaken view of just what was to happen on a certain date or in a certain year. They may have, for this reason, put off or neglected things that they otherwise would have cared for. But they have missed the point of the Bible’s warnings concerning the end of this system of things, thinking that Bible chronology reveals the specific date… If anyone has been disappointed through not following this line of thought, he should now concentrate on adjusting his viewpoint, seeing that it was not the word of God that failed or deceived him and brought disappointment, but that his own understanding was based on wrong premises.”

This text is a master class in gaslighting. Thousands of people left the group or were expelled for lacking faith. The Society stopped talking about 1975 as if it had never happened, and scrubbed references in reprints of older publications. They offered fleeting apologies five years later, but the apologies could not give back the years lost preparing for apocalypse, let alone undo the trauma or sense of dread that can live with a Witness long after they leave.

Whenever the Watch Tower messes up a prediction, they cite Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the righteous is like the bright morning light that grows brighter and brighter until full daylight.”

Because Jehovah reveals the truth in degrees, it’s supposed to be understandable if they get Armageddon’s date wrong a few times.

The Society grew afraid of the repercussions of getting it wrong again. Every failed prophecy had so far led to a schism in the group’s hierarchy, a hemorrhage in the enrollment numbers, and some form of public shaming.

*

When I hear about how quickly the ice shelves are melting, or which cities are becoming unlivable due to heat, or which species will go extinct before we can fully document them, I’m afraid of tuning it all out because I was raised in a group that flagged these as signs of an apocalypse I know not to be true. The problem is that former Jehovah’s Witnesses—and others who’ve left cults or religions—have had to filter out the language of cataclysmic ending when seeking a secular life. We are so inured to the concept that it has become meaningless. In order to avoid climate passivity, we must redefine Armageddon. We must apply the language of Last Days theology to a new apocalypse that is more horrific than the one we were raised to expect.

In 2019, The Guardian updated its style guide to introduce the terms “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” and “climate breakdown.” Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner writes, “The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.” Maybe the more difficult days of nomenclature lie ahead. What do we call our emergencies when we no longer recognize our planet or our place on it?

Matt Jones writes about the need to create environmental warnings for future societies that might use verbal or written patterns unfathomable to us now. “What is interesting about a project designed to communicate ten thousand years in the future is that we think it can be done. That we even try.”

It’s challenging to create new associations for words so that we can restore urgency to them. How do we watch forest fires decimate the Australian Outback or deteriorate air quality for millions in California and the Pacific Northwest, and not compare the situation to hell? Fire becomes an abstract idea; symbolism conveniently allows us to avoid thinking about the thing itself.

Nothing, however, exists in a void. To infuse something with new meaning is not to isolate it further, but rather to enliven its web of complicity. Camille T. Dungy solidifies this idea in her essay, “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” in which she writes about “de-pristining” her environmental imagination using ecopoetics. “Writing takes off for me when I stop separating human experiences from the realities of the greater-than-human world… In a radical and radicalizing way, these fuzzed lines bring me face to face with the fragility of the Holocene—or, more precisely, the destructiveness of the Anthropocene.”

I was at work the day my apartment building caught fire in 2007. My partner Mark woke up in smoke, ran into the street holding our cat, and called me. I could hear through his sobs that our world had just filled with complicity. We spent the next few months sleeping in the living rooms of friends, surrounded by boxes of clothes we had salvaged, wrapped in nitrous oxide and the fine particulates of memory. We had no choice but to reduce fire to its elements—the bare truth—and by extension, to redefine our priorities. What was important anymore? It took us a while to find a new place. We suspected that a few landlords turned us down because we smelled of smoke, but I was still happy in a way I couldn’t explain.

For the next year, I lived in the exothermic—inhaling knowledge about the fire tetrahedron, writing a novel about combustion and queer rights, sniffing books for acceptable levels of smoke damage. I tried to make sense of what had happened, and the miracles of generosity in our friend circle. How had the fire brought me closer to them and transformed my ecosystem? How had it brought me closer to Mark? He made me a mixtape called Things We Lost in the Fire, with a track listing I could swear was an inventory of everything we had found. It was written in the language of starting over.

Fire becomes an abstract idea; symbolism conveniently allows us to avoid thinking about the thing itself.

I had been out of the truth for more than a decade, but it felt as if I were witnessing for the first time. I came to understand fire’s raw, destructive power in a way I could never have otherwise done, developing a personal connection to it, and also a curiosity that extended to the “greater-than-human.” Now, when I hear about conflagration in the Outback, I need to know details about the habitats that are destroyed and the animals that are threatened. I need to know what cats and wombats do to avoid lung damage.Widening my knowledge can only give me new pathways to empathy.

In his widely-criticized essay “What If We Stopped Pretending?”, Jonathan Franzen calls for a narrow vision of complicity:

“If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever.”

Franzen goes on to explain that if we don’t surrender to climate disaster, we can’t focus properly on key elements of adaptation, such as shoring up functional democracies, fair elections, and a free press, or advocating for racial equality and humane immigration policy. Indeed, we will all need to reimagine what these actions look like in the Anthropocene. But it’s insulting and untrue to say people are incapable of doing two things at once, that they can’t adapt to climate crisis while trying to avert it. This insinuation that we humans don’t have enough agency to affect events happening on the biggest scale—an arena normally reserved for the Almighty—is the kind of religious disenfranchisement I’ve been running away from for years.

“As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling,” Franzen says, as if by way of defense. You can indeed do two things at once—such as write novels and articles about climate—as long as you remember they are different things.

*

A new pandemic has come along, resuscitating the Society’s vision of sickness as portent. Stephen Lett, a member of the Governing Body that controls every aspect of Jehovah’s Witness life, told followers about the significance of COVID-19 in a video. “The events unfolding around us are making clear that we’re living in the final part of the Last Days, undoubtedly, the final part of the final part of the Last Days, shortly before the Last Day of the Last Days.” He said this in March 2020.

Now that the pandemic means no more knocking on doors, the Witnesses conduct Bible studies, meetings, and shepherding calls remotely. The Society has adapted their mostly analog methods to new technology and online publishing has replaced much of their print operations. In September 2020, the Society rolled out the JW Box—a glorified router—to areas where followers don’t have reliable internet access. Witnesses can connect to the Box with their phones and download as much “spiritual food” from the doctrine mothership as they like. One user called it “a special gift from Jehovah.”

I had been out of the truth for more than a decade, but it felt as if I were witnessing for the first time. I came to understand fire’s raw, destructive power in a way I could never have otherwise done, developing a personal connection to it, and also a curiosity that extended to the “greater-than-human.”

The Society is asking Witnesses to trust the internet, while simultaneously telling them it’s the most dangerous place to be, playing up fears of apostate hackers and other bad actors. The devil is out there, crashing servers and Zoom meetings, driving the membership deeper into a bunker mentality. It was always understood that sheltering in safe-houses was part of Armageddon, so being stuck in lockdown must feel like the real thing. It must feel like this is it.

Witnesses are reaching out to past members with “we told you so” messages, reexposing them, at an extremely vulnerable moment, to the brainwashing they left behind. In her essay “Prepping for Coronavirus is Just like Prepping for Doomsday,” ex-JW Sarah Courteau writes, “It’s easy to forget how devout I was in my formative years, when I believed that Armageddon could arrive any day. The coronavirus crisis has reawakened feelings I haven’t experienced since.”

I opened the mailbox recently to find a handwritten letter that starts “Dear Neighbor, I hope this letter finds you well and coping with the current crisis we are all facing,” before suggesting I visit JW.org where I can find “comfort from the scriptures.” The letter is written in all caps, but I totally understand—we live in an all-caps era. I can’t get over the irony of the closing line: “Please stay safe.” For many, staying safe means avoiding Jehovah’s Witnesses and their brand of toxicity disguised as kindness. I resisted an initial impulse to shred the letter, and I’m glad I did, because it has since become one of my favorite pandemic mementos, along with an unused gym lock whose combination I can no longer remember, and tickets to concerts that were never meant to be.

If the Witnesses were committed to caring about people in a way that mattered, they would mobilize help for their immediate communities instead of preaching to them about an imaginary Paradise where “sickness will be no more.” They would stop shunning those who have left and whose isolation is compounded by confinement and social distancing related to the pandemic, making the task of finding new communities more difficult than it already is.

The light doesn’t get brighter, but the earth gets hotter.

I picture Moses, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah rising from the dead and walking down the San Diego Freeway to Beth Sarim, past forest fires blanketing the area in a thick haze. They will wonder what hell they were resurrected to, and what they did to deserve the punishment of the California sun.

The Witnesses don’t ring my bell anymore. I will write the rest of this book without their ministrations, but it will still smell of smoke.

__________________________________

From “The Witness is Complicit.” Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Allen Cox. First published in TriQuarterly, January 2021. By permission of TriQuarterly and the author. All rights reserved.

Daniel Allen Cox
Daniel Allen Cox
Daniel Allen Cox's essays have appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, among others. He is the author of four novels published by Arsenal Pulp Press, which have been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award, the Ferro-Grumley Award, and the ReLit Award. Daniel's memoir-in-essays A VOCABULARY FOR APOSTATES is forthcoming from Penguin Canada in spring 2023. Daniel is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency. Website: danielallencox.net Twitter: @danielallencox





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