For most of us, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are either the punch line to a joke — like David Letterman’s quip that the U.S. government was going to find Osama Bin Laden by sending JW’s door-to-door in Afghanistan — or the kids we remember from school who couldn’t have birthday cake and didn’t get Christmas presents. Maybe you think of famous ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses like Michael Jackson or Prince.
Knocking, a documentary by Joel P. Engardio and Tom Shepard, allows us a fresh look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses through the lives of two families who are faithful members of the church. Seth Thomas is a 23-year old amateur rock guitarist who lives at home and spends Saturdays walking door-to-door evangelizing in the Dallas suburbs with his father. We learn that Seth has a chronic liver disease and that he will die without a liver transplant. His father has been tested and found to be a suitable donor. He is willing to have part of his liver removed and transplanted into his son. But, since Seth will not accept a blood transfusion, which is forbidden by his church’s teachings, he cannot find a hospital or a surgeon that will take his case. (The church bases its rejection of blood transfusions on three scriptures: Genesis 9:3-4; Leviticus 17:14; Acts 15:29)
The movie looks at some of the many court cases brought by the Witnesses in defense of religious liberty in America.
The search for a hospital able to do a “bloodless” transplant surgery is framed by Seth’s declining health and the family’s concern for him. His mother, father and sister support his rejection of blood transfusions, but they will also support him if he chooses to accept the transfusions and so, save his life. We meet his non-Witness grandmother, who cannot accept a church teaching that would ask her grandson to die rather than disobey. It is an honest and moving look at a family asked to witness to their faith with their very lives.
The Thomas family’s obedience to church teachings is put into context with the story of the second featured family, the Kemplers. Joseph Kempler is a Polish Jew whose boyhood was spent in a succession of Nazi prison camps. His family was killed and he survived. He was strengthened and encouraged by the example of a group of male Witness prisoners in the camp. Each jailed Witness could leave the prison if he signed a document renouncing his faith. As the documentary reveals, very few of the imprisoned Witnesses, throughout the Nazi concentration and prison camp system, chose to renounce the faith. Instead, they helped one another, and others not of their faith, praying together and sharing food and working to keep despair from overtaking places where despair was most at home.
After the war, Kempler married and had a daughter. When his Jewish wife died, he gave the infant to her grandmother to be raised. We meet her in the movie, an observant Jewish woman, married and the mother of two sons. Her path is very different from her father’s, who moved to the United States, and, haunted by the example of the Witnesses he remembered from the camp, joined them and married a woman he met at church. They have two sons, who are also faithful Witnesses.
In the course of the documentary, we see Kempler attempting to forge a closer relationship with his Jewish family, all the while remaining true to his adopted faith.
The two families travel to Poland and follow Kempler as he retraces the steps of his life during the Nazi occupation of Poland. We meet another survivor of the camps, Max Liebster, who recalls being saved from starvation by Witness prisoners. Like Kempler, Liebster was a Jew who became a Witness.
What leads the Jehovah’s Witnesses to suffer rather than submit to governmental authority? The film examines the underlying tenets of the church, which does not recognize any kingdom other than Jehovah’s. This means that members cannot salute the flag or join the army or take part in political campaigns or run for elective office. For a church begun in the US in the late 19th century, these teachings would have profound consequences. In our country, the founder, Joseph F. Rutherford and several leaders of the church were charged with sedition by the government under the Espionage Act of 1917. The Witnesses were to come of age in the bloody twentieth century, in the midst of two world wars. We meet a rabbi who addresses their voluntary stands, often taken at the price of imprisonment and death.
Throughout the world, wherever Witness communities were founded, they were jailed, beaten and killed. The movie looks at some of the many court cases brought by the Witnesses in defense of religious liberty in America.
Catholics have good reason to reject Jehovah Witness theology. They are not Trinitarian and do not believe in homouisius, the one substance or nature, of God the Father and God the Son. They have reclaimed as truth the Arian heresy rejected by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople and by the entire Christian church from the 4th century on.
But no one can, or should, deny the courage and steadfastness with which they have endured great suffering. Catholics would do well to learn, not from Witness theology, but from Witness examples of costly faithfulness.
– Melissa Musick