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Fr. 378

August 26, 2013

Jehovah’s Witnesses abstain from the wider implications of daily life and citizenship in holding that they are not of this world. What sense is to be made of this claim?

While one might first take this to entail a complete disengagement from public life, such impressions are mistaken, for the Witnesses still hold down jobs, educate their children, engage with non-Witnesses in discussion (in efforts to inform others of their beliefs), and lead a life otherwise complete with everyday activities, hobbies and responsibilities. That said, they withdraw from political life; they neither vote nor serve in the military. In sum, their disengagement from public life concerns political society rather than society itself. This necessitates an addendum to the description above: although the Witnesses are not of this world, they are certainly in it.

This raises a further question: is it possible to be in this world without engaging in its political life? Certainly, a large number of citizens, unaffiliated with the Witnesses, abstain from political life in much the same, albeit for entirely different reasons. Yet it seems unlikely that they would consider themselves as not being of this world, which simply indicates that their reasons for withdrawing from this sort of political life do not stem from ontological considerations of the sort. In other words, although one could maintain that these others are both of and in this world, they do not issue an argument to the contrary. Their withdrawal from political life does not follow from a principle imposing itself as an absolute and at the head of the chain leading to that same withdrawal. Rather, over the course of time, their experiences were such that they came to formulate a maxim for themselves such that withdrawal from political life seemed the best course. In short, while this withdrawal holds priority for both Witnesses and the abstainers, it has logical and temporal priority for the former rather than mere logical priority (formed later) as it does for the latter.  It this absolute, temporal priority that makes all the difference in the two cases.

Might there be a way of showing that the Witnesses are indeed of this world, despite their claims? If, practically speaking, their withdrawal amounts to the same thing as that of a political abstainer, would they not then fall into the same category as the latter? It is not entirely clear insofar as the abstainer’s action of withdrawing from political life can still be seen as a (negative) engagement with this life. In other words, the fact of abstaining from political life still amounts to a stance on or a relation to the political. Indeed, whereas the abstainer first has to be engaged in the political in order to withdraw from it and thus stands in a relation to the political whether he or she wills it or no, the Witness cannot be said to have stood in a relation to the political at any point (save for, perhaps, the fact of paying taxes). This is perhaps what the Witnesses mean when they claim not to be of this world: never to have stood in relation to the political rather than merely not being part of it.

The question remains: despite themselves, do the Witnesses stand in a relation to the political, however negative this relation might be? Can one isolate public life and world from political life and world? Can these carry separate (truth) values?

 

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