Who’s that knocking on your door? With 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses devoting 1.3 billion hours a year to spreading “the good news,” it could well be a member of what filmmakers Joel P. Engardio and Tom Shepard portray as a misunderstood and often ridiculed religion. After watching their documentary “Knocking,” you might almost be tempted to invite the next Witness who shows up at your home in for a cup of coffee and a chat.
“Knocking” focuses on the lives of two Jehovah’s Witnesses families. Engardio and Shepard also delve into the Witnesses’ impact on society via the church’s reluctant involvement in religious civil rights issues. The film suggests that Jehovah’s Witnesses may be a model for how fundamentalist religions can peacefully co-exist with society as a whole.
I spoke with Engardio about “Knocking” and his childhood experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness. Engardio, 34, a journalist by trade, has lived in San Francisco since 1998 and grew up in Saginaw, Mich. “I spent my childhood just up the road from Flint, Michigan, the hometown of Michael Moore,” he told me. “So I’ve always kind of likened myself as Saginaw’s version of Michael Moore. Thinner, and a little more polite.”
Engardio is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, but he hopes his film will help people to see Witnesses as more than “one-dimensional caricatures.” His other wish is that the film will spark a discussion — one that isn’t framed in terms of “us” and “them” — on how we can balance religious and personal freedoms in America.
I found the part of your film that deals with the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses during World War II particularly interesting. It seems odd that we hear so little about Witnesses imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Why is that, do you think?
I think that’s because there is a general feeling that Witnesses are not relevant. They are kind of tossed aside as a caricature or a joke. And because they aren’t political and they don’t wield any influence or power, they don’t have a seat at the table. So they are often overlooked and ignored.
Why were they put into the concentration camps?
Because they refused the authority of the Nazi state. Their religion had spread to Germany in the early 20th century, and by the time Hitler came into power they had 20 or 30 years of history in Germany. They were technically Aryan Germans, but the Witnesses pledge allegiance only to God. So when Hitler took over, they refused to say “Heil Hitler.” They refused to pledge their allegiance to this Nazi state — and not only did they refuse, they continued to go door-to-door, saying to people of Germany, “You should only pledge your allegiance to God, not this man Hitler.” Hitler didn’t like that.
How many of them were put into camps? And how many of them were killed?
There were about 35,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and Nazi-occupied lands, and of those 13,400 were sent to Nazi prisons and camps and about 2,000 died.
The interesting thing was that, because they were Aryan Germans, Hitler always thought of them as redeemable. So every day he gave them the option to leave the camp. He said: “As long as you just sign this card that renounces your faith, and pledge your allegiance to me, you can walk. You can go. No more torture for you.” And most of the Witnesses refused the offer. They were the only group that was given an offer to leave the camps.
For a religion that eschews political involvement, the Witnesses seem to get involved in politics fairly often — they have had so many skirmishes with governments over the years for refusing to serve in the military, refusing to salute the flag. They have been attacked by mobs for supposed nonpatriotic activities …
They do feel that Jesus commanded Christians to stay out of politics. They say that Christians who are political aren’t true Christians. But the Witnesses’ main objective is to preach door-to-door, to spread that message. So when a political entity restricts that right, then they will resist and fight that in court if they have to.
And what’s not widely known or understood is how Jehovah’s Witnesses have expanded freedom for everyone, because in fighting for their own rights, they have won rights that are applicable for everyone, even the groups they disagree with.
What are the values of a Jehovah’s Witness, as you understand them?
Classic conservatism. No sex outside of marriage. So that means if you are straight and single, no sex. If you are a gay, no sex at all, because there is no provision for gay marriage. Abortion is considered a sin. They do allow contraception, so for married couples sex can be for recreation, not just for procreation, but you have to be married. They allow alcohol. They drink and they dance.
You mentioned that you were sent to the principal’s office for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Not a typical third-grade offense. What was your reason for not saying it?
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t say the Pledge, because they feel it’s an act of worship. Even in the Ten Commandments it says: “No Idolatry. Don’t worship idols.” Right?
Jehovah’s Witnesses do have some profound differences from other Christians. I found it interesting that they don’t celebrate the Christian holidays — because they feel these holidays are actually reconstructed pagan celebrations?
Yes. Any historian will tell you that December 25 has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. I mean, that was originally — I don’t know — a winter solstice pagan holiday that the Romans Christianized. If you really want to celebrate Jesus’ birth, you should probably do it in the autumn. That’s when the shepherds would have been in the fields.
Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays, either, at least according to what I’ve read. Did you celebrate birthdays as a child?
No. I never celebrated my birthday as a kid. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays, because they believe it puts a person on a pedestal and people should be humble. They also point to only two cases in the Bible where people celebrate birthdays, and both were evil men.
Did it bother you not having holidays?
Well, yeah. When you’re in elementary school and a kid has a birthday, they bring cupcakes for everybody, and you have to refrain from eating them. And when there is a Christmas party, you have to go sit in the library. That wasn’t pleasant. But the worst thing is that you have to go through all this and not complain.
Isn’t it also true that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in heaven and hell?
They don’t believe in hell as a fiery place where bad people go. Their concept of hell is a literal one — the translation of it means “grave.” It’s just a place where dead people lie. Witnesses believe that when you are dead, there is no afterlife. You just cease to exist until you are resurrected back on the earth as a physical human in a paradise. Their belief is that God will cleanse the earth in the battle of Armageddon, ridding it of all evil, politics, war and national boundaries, and recreate it as a paradise. At that point people will literally live forever in their human form with no illness, sickness or poverty. There will be no war or crime in this true utopia. Until that point, people just cease to exist. They are in a suspended state of unconsciousness.
And, I take it, for most Jehovah’s Witnesses, what you are describing is not a metaphor. It is literal belief.
Yes. Witnesses also believe that a small number of humans — 144,000 — will go to heaven, kind of as God’s helpers. All of those people have been predetermined by God. So you don’t become a Jehovah’s Witness hoping to get on the list. Anyway, it’s not something Jehovah’s Witnesses vie for. If you figure there are 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses currently, only a small percentage –about six or seven thousand — claim to be on that list.
What makes them think they are on the list?
It’s just a gut feeling, some kind of divine revelation.
Your mother became a Jehovah’s Witness when you were a kid. Why did she convert?
We come from a large Italian Catholic family, and in adulthood my mom just questioned the Catholic faith and was interested in looking at other religions. She had a friend who had become a Jehovah’s Witness, and so that’s how she heard about it.
But you opted not to stay in the religion when you got older. Why?
I guess because the worldview of a Jehovah’s Witness is that all of the things that are wrong are going to be fixed when God’s kingdom comes, when this new paradise is brought onto earth. And so Jehovah’s Witnesses are fulfilled by going door-to-door and telling people this “good news,” as they call it. That’s where their activism ends, because they feel that they don’t need to fix the problems of the world today — they just need to tell people it’s going to be fixed soon.
I felt like I’d be more interested in rolling up my sleeves as much as I could to work on the world’s problems — now. And that’s why I thought being a journalist would be an interesting way to contribute.
You are also openly gay. Did that have anything to do with your decision?
No. My decision not to convert was bigger than my sexuality, but, of course, you can’t be actively gay and be a Jehovah’s Witness, so it wouldn’t have worked out anyway.
How did your mom handle the fact that you are gay?
She is not happy about it, but it’s been long enough that we have a common understanding.
Are you a religious or spiritual person now?
I would say spiritual but not religious.
Spiritual in what sense?
Spiritual in understanding that there is more that makes the world go around than just us as individuals. Related to that is respecting the awesomeness of nature and being able to respect each other as humans.
Do you have any sort of spiritual practice that you follow?
I don’t do Vipassana meditation or whatever else is popular in Northern California these days. But I do a lot of outdoor activities — running and biking — which I guess is a meditative thing.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I’d lived with the story as a child, became a journalist, worked for 10 years and looked around and realized no one had told the story, and I thought, “Hey! It might as well be me.” I was in a unique position to tell it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses supposedly spend eight hours a month knocking on doors. Is that an obligation? Does anyone keep track?
Well, that’s the average. There is no minimum requirement to go door-to-door. You go as much as you can. A full-time minister would spend 70 hours a month door-to-door, but only about 10 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as full-time ministers. And yes, there is a log that people keep of their hours.
What happens if you don’t knock on doors?
If you miss a month or two, nothing. But if you miss four months, six months, you will be labeled as inactive.
Is inactive the same thing as ex-communicated?
No. Inactive is a term for Witnesses who don’t want to be Witnesses anymore and quietly slip away from congregation life without the consequence of shunning. If a Witness openly disavows the religion and its tenets or if they unrepentantly break the religion’s moral code and continue to represent themselves as Witnesses, then they are dis-fellowshiped, or shunned. Each year, 30,000 witnesses are dis-fellowshiped, but a large number return.
You put in your time going door-to-door. What was that like?
It was scary. I mean, just imagine as a child having to knock on strangers’ doors, and the people behind the door aren’t always happy to see you, so you definitely get a thick skin. Now I’m fearless in speaking to anybody.
I imagine some Jehovah’s Witnesses really hate doing it.
One thing to say about Jehovah’s Witnesses — because they are seen as these one-dimensional caricatures who come knocking on your door — they are real people and they have real feelings, and not every Jehovah’s Witness enjoys knocking on your door. They are as scared and shy as you would be. For some Witnesses, it takes every fiber in their body to get up the courage to come knock on your door.
People make fun of the door-to-door proselytizing, but I assume it must be effective or Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t keep doing it?
People make fun and say it’s old-fashioned, but what happened in the last presidential election? There were all these stories about candidates going door-to-door again. I suppose in a media-saturated society, sometimes shoe leather on the sidewalk works wonders.
Do many people who are approached cold by Jehovah’s Witnesses actually convert?
I think the percentage is probably pretty low. But the objective is not to rack up a number of converts. There isn’t a quota. Their motive is to just do what they feel Jesus commanded and just spread the message. That’s enough.
You say in the film that Jehovah’s Witnesses represent a different kind of fundamentalism. What kind is that?
Fundamentalism as a word has been bastardized. It now only has a negative connotation because it relates to people who force their beliefs onto others through legislation or violence. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are classic fundamentalists in that they steadfastly stand by their beliefs, yet at the same time they don’t hurt people by forcing their beliefs on them. So it’s a different kind of fundamentalism. As a rabbi in the film says, “The question of our world today is not whether fundamentalism is bad but what kind of fundamentalism we are going to have.”
And you agree?
Yes. There is nothing bad with having conviction and standing by your conviction. And there is nothing bad about you passionately telling your neighbor about what you believe. That’s just free speech. What’s bad is when you go around and hurt people, because you are trying to force them down a certain path.
What do you hope the response will be to your film?
My hope is that people will see the larger message, which is that we are in a culture war right now. America doesn’t work. We’ve got our blue states and our red states, you know, entrenched, yet we have to reconcile the fact that we have a First Amendment that allows for religious freedom. And freedom [of] religion is to [be able to] believe things that a progressive society might not feel is right.
And so we need to find some kind of common ground where we don’t have to be threatened by each other, where our religion can be strong in its faith and not feel like it has to legislate its beliefs because it feels threatened. Likewise, others need to be able to let religions be without trying to tear them down. I look at Jehovah’s Witnesses as a good example of how it could work.
It’s not a perfect model, but it is an example of how a religious group can retain its freedom to believe what it wants while allowing others outside the religion to take a different path.
That’s how America is supposed to work. A religion should be able to believe what it wants, but people who choose not to be of that religion should be able to live the way they feel is best. And both should be treated equally under the Constitution.
“Knocking” will have its television premiere on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Independent Lens,” hosted by Terrence Howard, on Tuesday, May 22, at 10 p.m. (check local listings).
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