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Coercion? Or Church Discipline? Jehovah's Witnesses, Blood Transfusions, and the Sovereign Indi

The British Columbia Supreme Court has been deliberating over whether the parents of sextuplets can refuse blood transfusions for their children on the basis of the parents’ religious beliefs.

Clearly there are a number of crucial issues at stake here: the proper interest of the state in the well-being (as it sees it) of its citizens, and particularly its most vulnerable ones; the freedom of individual conscience on matters of medical treatment; and the freedom of individuals to act according to their religious beliefs. But there is also the question of the freedom of religious organizations to impose consequences on members who flout their shared convictions.

According to the Vancouver Sun‘s reporter Douglas Todd, “a group of scholars and legal specialists has written a statement declaring the Jehovah’s Witness religion often pressures followers not to follow their individual conscience, including…deciding whether to accept transfusions.”

Todd quotes a particular ex-Witness: “Calgary architectural project manager Lawrence Hughes–the former Jehovah’s Witness whose daughter, Bethany, died four years ago after a high-profile court battle over transfusions–said this week his life fell apart after he was shunned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses when he initially allowed his cancer-ridden daughter to receive blood.

“‘When I signed the consent card (to allow his daughter to have blood), I didn’t have anyone I could phone or talk to,’ Hughes said Friday. ‘I was disfellowshipped, kicked out. For many people who are excommunicated from the Witnesses, they lose their family, their friends and even their jobs, because they’re often working for Witnesses.'”

I firmly disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses on their understanding of blood transfusions. To my mind, they are patently misinterpreting Acts 15:28-29–just another in a long list of hermeneutical disasters in the history of this movement. Yet I can hardly see blaming the Watchtower Society for refusing to let members pick and choose among their tenets and expect to remain in good standing.

Anabaptists–Mennonites, Hutterites, and others–have “banned” members who have transgressed their common code of belief and behaviour. That was their nonviolent way of imposing church discipline, following the clear example of the Apostle Paul himself in I Corinthians 5.

Most other churches, when they had the political power to do so, disciplined their members even more forcibly, with excommunication amounting to loss of citizenship, land, and livelihood.

One can be glad, as I am, that churches in our country do not have such power today. I don’t even endorse the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ strong version of the “ban” or excommunication. (Can’t one remain friendly even with apostates?) But one can also mourn the loss of anything even resembling church discipline nowadays in many communions. And one ought to be alarmed at the threat that a rising tide of individualistic law and social expectation is posing to even the possibility of such discipline.

Churches have been sued for removing people from office for blatant sexual, financial, and theological transgressions. Student groups are being barred from university campuses because they insist on their officers (forget about the rank and file) actually believing and practicing the faith they were formed to promote. Homosexuals, yes, but also people of other denominations and even non-Christians are all insisting on their putative “right” to join and even to lead Christian groups whose fundamental ethos they do not endorse in important particulars.

So now some Jehovah’s Witnesses are complaining that their leaders want them to actually act in accordance with what they said they believed on pain of being dismissed from the group as unfaithful–which is what “not doing what you said you would do” pretty much is, isn’t it?

What do critics of the Watchtower Society expect them to do? Let anyone belong and remain in good standing who wants to do so, no matter their profession or practice? Would it make sense for the Roman Catholic Church to allow members to pray to Krishna or advocate the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism? Would it make sense for Muslims to have to accept a Sikh or a Jew as their imam?

Would it make sense for PETA to have to accept an omnivore as chapter president? Would it make sense for a hockey team to have to keep on the roster four guys who insisted on setting up a bridge table at centre ice?

We must not push individual rights so far as to make group coherence impossible. If individual Jehovah’s Witnesses find that they do not want to follow their religion’s strange teaching about blood transfusions, I say, “Great!” But I don’t expect the Watchtower Society to welcome them back with open arms after this betrayal of one of their salient convictions.

Not everything comes as a smorgasbord to be picked over by the sovereign, consumerist self. Some things come as packages. Most groups, in fact, come that way.

And it is part of being a grown-up, rather than a squalling infant or petulant adolescent, to recognize that you either sign up and follow through, or you get out–or are thrown out.


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