Malawi, Mexico, Oath of Allegiance
Many faithful Jehovah's Witnesses have died obeying the Watchtower stance on neutrality. This article shows the tragedy that occurred when Malawian Witnesses were hypocritically forced to uphold a higher standard than was expected of those in Mexico, or by the Governing Body themselves.
Religion is most culpable when its rules lead to unnecessary death of its followers. Graphic representation of this in Watchtower history is the torture and murder of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Malawi between 1964 and 1994. Most disturbing is that Watchtower leaders enforced a stance in Malawi that was misguided and applied inconsistently in other countries.
When reading Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, chapter 6 titled “Double Standards” disturbed me more than any other. Franz explained how a Watchtower principle that lead to the torture and death of thousands of Witnesses in Malawian was excused for Witnesses in Mexico. Malawian Witnesses suffered unspeakable atrocities because Watchtower leaders forbade them holding a political card, yet they allowed Witnesses in Mexico to bribe officials for a Cartilla card in order to escape military service.
This article outlines this blight on Watchtower history, along with its hypocritical stance regarding the Oath of Allegiance and displaying the National Flag in Chile. It is one of the most distressing aspects of Watchtower leadership and has led many Witnesses to re-evaluate the wisdom of ascribing spirit direction to the Governing Body and following them without question.
The following Watchtower articles discuss the torture that occurred in Malawi.
“At Lilongwe in central Malawi, 170 homes of these Christians were burned down in three nights. In the Fort Johnston district, slightly to the south, 34 homes and 18 food storage places were burned down toward the end of October. At Mbalame on October 27 the Christians of two congregations all had their homes burned down while they, including the women, were stripped of their clothes and brutally beaten ... Since this is the way the witnesses of Jehovah conduct themselves, why, then, all this violent persecution of them in Malawi? One of the main reasons is that the Witnesses refuse to buy membership cards in Malawi’s Congress Party as well as refuse to buy and wear badges with the picture of the President of Malawi, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda. Other religious organizations, Catholic, Protestant and Moslem, have all yielded to pressure in these respects, but Jehovah’s witnesses have not. Why? Because of their strictly adhering to the Word of God.” Watchtower 1968 Feb 1 p.71
“It is because Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to buy the Malawi Congress Party card. This card declares the holder to be a member of the ruling political party of Malawi. But for Jehovah’s Witnesses to buy a political card and thus join a political party would be an open denial of what they believe and stand for.” Awake! 1976 Aug 8 p.5
“For some of our dear sisters, the persecution was especially harrowing. Many were the reports of rape, mutilation, and beating of Christian women. The sadistic attackers spared nobody. The elderly, the young, and even some pregnant sisters were put through such cruel ordeals. Some suffered miscarriages as a result. Once again, thousands were forced to flee their villages. Many found refuge in the bush. Others went into temporary exile in neighboring Mozambique. By the end of November 1967, the brutal wave of attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses had claimed at least five more lives. … The vicious attacks claimed many lives. In Cape Maclear, at the southern end of Lake Malawi, bundles of grass were tied around Zelphat Mbaiko. Petrol was poured on the grass and set alight. He was literally burned to death! Sisters also suffered terribly. Following their refusal to buy party cards, many were repeatedly raped by party officials. In Lilongwe, Sister Magola, along with many others, tried to flee the trouble. However, she was pregnant and could not run very fast. A mob, acting like a pack of wild dogs, caught up with her and beat her to death. At the campus of Bunda College of Agriculture, just outside of Lilongwe, six brothers and one sister were murdered and their bodies were horribly mutilated.” Yearbook 1999 pp.182,189
This sickening account of brutal rape, torture and murder of Jehovah’s witnesses is shocking and the people responsible cannot be excused for their actions, but this could have been prevented by purchasing a political card. The reasoning the Watchtower leaders used when setting their brothers up to come in line for such persecution was that Witnesses are to be “no part of the world”.
“However, because Jesus Christ said that his followers would be “no part of the world,” Jehovah’s Witnesses also maintain a position of strict neutrality as to the wars of the nations and their political affairs.” Yearbook 1999 p.171 Malawi
Jesus Christ said of his followers: “They are no part of the world.” And he told a first-century political ruler: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 17:16; 18:36) Therefore, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that joining a political party is wrong for them. They are not being obstinate or unreasonable. They would gladly buy an identification document, or even a card that declares them to be tax-paying citizens of the country. Awake! 1976 Aug 8 p.5 Malawi—What’s Happening There Now?
The Watchtower claims the brothers could not compromise what they are told by the “word of God”. However, this is false reasoning, as the “word of God” does not prohibit political involvement. The Bible provides examples of God’s followers being involved in politics, such as Joseph, who was second in charge of the Egyptian government.
Genesis 41:39-43 - "After that Phar´aoh said to Joseph: “Since God has caused you to know all this, there is no one as discreet and wise as you are. You will personally be over my house, and all my people will obey you implicitly. Only as to the throne shall I be greater than you.” And Phar´aoh added to Joseph: “See, I do place you over all the land of Egypt.” With that Phar´aoh removed his signet ring from his own hand and put it upon Joseph’s hand and clothed him with garments of fine linen and placed a necklace of gold about his neck. Moreover, he had him ride in the second chariot of honor that he had, so that they should call out ahead of him, “A·vrékh!” thus putting him over all the land of Egypt."
The government’s requirement in Malawi was far less than Joseph’s involvement in government; it was simply a law to hold a political membership card.
It is bad enough that the Governing Body misused the “word of God” to set the Malawian brothers up for murder. Worse however is to find out that they applied a different standard to Witnesses in other countries and especially to themselves.
At the same time that Witnesses were forbidden to hold a card in Malawi a comparable situation arose in Mexico, with the Governing Body ruling in the opposite direction for Mexican brothers. In Mexico, military service was compulsory for young men. On completion of service young men would receive a “Cartilla” card, which similar to the card in Malawi, was required for a transactions such as obtaining a passport and drivers license. Young Witness brothers experienced persecution and imprisonment for refusing their obligation to attend military service.
In order to relieve this suffering, the Governing Body ruled that it was acceptable for Mexican brothers to bribe officials to obtain a government Cartilla card that exempted them from military service. This is discussed in the following letter to Mexico Branch Committee dated June 2, 1960.
“As to those who are relieved of military training by a money transaction with the officials who are involved therewith, this is on par with what is done in other Latin American countries where brothers have paid for their relief through some military official in order to retain their freedom for theocratic activities. If members of the military establishment are willing to accept such an arrangement upon the payment of a fee then that is the responsibility of these representatives of the national organisation. In such a case the money paid does not go to the military establishment, but is appropriated by the individual who undertakes the arrangement. If the consciences of certain brothers allow them to enter into such an arrangement for their continued freedom we have no objection. Of course, if they would get into any difficulties over their course of action then they would have to shoulder such difficulties themselves, and we could not offer them any assistance. But if the arrangement is current down there and is recognized by the inspectors who do not make any inquiries into the veracity of the matter then the matter can be passed by for the accruing advantages. Should a military emergency arise and confront these brothers with their marching card it would oblige them to make a decision by which they could not extricate themselves by a money payment and their mettle would be tested and they would have to demonstrate outright where they stand and prove that they are in favor of Christian neutrality in a determined test.
Faithfully yours in the Kingdom ministry,
Watchtower B.&T. Society
It is interesting that for Mexico it could be justified that holding a governmental card through bribery is acceptable, since it allowed the brothers to continue in “theocratic activities”, yet obtaining a political card legally in Malawi was not acceptable even though it would have allowed the same freedoms.
In 1969, a second letter was sent from Mexico to the Brooklyn Bethel for further clarification, noting this time that not only was bribery required but that the brothers holding a cartilla card were then recognised to be in the first reserve of the Mexican military, a situation that would normally result in disassociation. Brooklyn confirmed that it was still acceptable to obtain and hold the Cartilla card.
During this period in the 1970’s, the Watchtower forbade non-military service as a substitute, even when governments allowed this compromise.
"An examination of the historical facts shows that not only have Jehovah's Witnesses refused to put on military uniforms and take up arms but, during the past half century and more, they have also declined to do noncombatant service or to accept other work assignments as a substitute for military service. … Many of Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned because they would not violate their Christian neutrality." United in Worship of the Only True God p.167
Tens of thousands of young Witness men in the prime of their lives have spent years in jails for refusing civilian service. Others such as some in Mexico chose dishonesty and bribery as a way around this rule. After all the suffering the Watchtower imposed on these brothers, in 1996 the Governing Body decided non-military service was not unchristian and became an acceptable matter of choice.
"What, though, if the State requires a Christian for a period of time to perform civilian service that is a part of national service under a civilian administration? … That is his decision before Jehovah. Watchtower 1996 May 1 p.20
Jehovah’s Witnesses have endured persecution over refusal to salute the flag or pledge allegiance, on the basis that it was a violation of neutrality. Followers have lost jobs for refusal to sign the oath. Particularly have children been affected, being humiliated, bullied and for decades even expelled from school upholding this stance.
“In North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been cruelly persecuted because of their nonparticipation, even though they stand respectfully during flag-salute or similar ceremonies. Children have been beaten; many have been expelled from school. Numerous court cases have been fought.” Proclaimers p.197
Revelation – It’s Grand Climax at Hand p.196
I personally remember the humiliation as a seven year old being forced by my mother to sit in a stadium in March 1977 during the national anthem for the Queen's silver jubilee. People around me told me that I was being disrespectful and should stand up and no good was achieved by me remaining seated, as no one knew the reason I could not stand respectfully for the Queen.
Watchtower equates saluting the flag to being an act of worship, as the flag is considered a sacred object of worship for Nationalism.
"Of course, many people do not consider the flag sacred or that saluting it is an act of worship. However, consider what secular authrities say about this:
"The flag, like the cross is sacred ..." The Encylopedia Americana ...
"Nationalism's chief symbol of faith and central object or worship is the flag ..." What Americans Believe and How They Worship"
School and Jehovah's Witnesses p.14
For such reasons, I was shocked to learn that in Chile some Kingdom Halls display the Chilean flag in order to avoid a small fine, with the approval of the Governing Body.
In Chile, it is mandatory on the 18th of September to display the national flag to mark the beginning of independence of Chile in 1810 - see Fiestas Patrias Chile. The maximum fine for failure to do so is less than $US80 as of 2014.
In response to a 2014 enquiry requesting an explanation of why this is acceptable, Watchtower provided the following response.
"What about cases in which a government requires that all buildings, public and private, display the flag on a certain date each year, as is the case in Chile? Again, if no ceremony accompanies this requirement, each Christian (or family head) would follow the dictates of his Bible-trained conscience. (1 Peter 3:16) Some may view the matter as simply complying with what "Caesar" requires, since no acts or expressions of worship are involved."
Correspondence Guidelines provides similar advice.
"If individuals are required by law to own or even to display a national flag over certain buildings, each one can decide what to do according to his conscience. What is of primary consequence is, not whether an individual possesses a flag, but how he acts toward it, whether he shares in idolatry toward it. If Caesar’s law requires displaying a flag at a building such as the Branch Office, an Assembly Hall, a missionary home, or a Kingdom Hall, the Branch Committee or other responsible brothers involved should make a decision in harmony with their collective conscience." Correspondence Guidelines (2007 - revised Feb 2011) pp.57-58
Much suffering and death could have been avoided if the Governing Body held this stance consistently over the last century.
Oath or Pledge of Allegiance
The oath of allegiance is another area where Watchtower regulations vary inconsistently, depending on the situation. This has resulted in suffering for some followers that has been avoided by others, most noticeably the Governing Body.
United States Oath of Allegiance
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation, or purpose of evasion; So help me God.”
Watchtower publications continue advise against pledging allegiance to any government other than God’s Kingdom.
“The Joliet, Illinois, “Herald-News” quotes a local spokesman for one group affected by the law as saying: “Jehovah’s Witnesses, not only in this country but throughout the world, always take a neutral stand towards the government. It’s not that we don’t have respect for this country. It’s just that you won’t find Jehovah’s Witnesses saying a pledge of allegiance to any country.”” Watchtower 1980 Feb 15 p.30
“Yes, Jesus preached and gave his allegiance to "the kingdom of the heavens," "the kingdom of God." Following Jesus’ footsteps as sincerely dedicated Christians, Jehovah’s witnesses have no alternative but to keep separate, "without spot from the world." Since they can give their allegiance only to Jehovah God and his kingdom, they feel obligated to refrain from participating in any action that gives such devotion to political leaders.” Watchtower 1968 Feb 1 p.73
The oath has been described as from the Devil and a religious expression.
“Furthering his deceptive schemes to over- reach the people where democracies are supposed to exist, the Devil brings forth other idolatrous schemes setting the state above God, and brings into operation compulsory flag-saluting, oaths of allegiance to be taken by those who are native citizens of the state, bestowing honor upon men, and particularly magnifying politics and religion and religious leaders.” Watchtower 1939 Jun 15 p.185
“The courage of some schoolchildren is tested when they are called upon to recite a pledge of allegiance to the country or to the flag. Since such a pledge is virtually a religious expression, Christian children have boldly resolved to act in a way that pleases God, and their fine record has been heartwarming.” Watchtower 2003 Mar 1 p.9
“… oaths of allegiance are all religions”. Golden Age 1932 Aug 31 p.745
The following Watchtower articles include quotes that liken swearing allegiance to the flag to a religious act.
““The Christians, however, strong in their faith, would take no such oath of loyalty. And because they did not swear allegiance to what we would to-day consider as analogous to the Flag, they were considered politically dangerous.”…Yet national emblems bear such likenesses, and they are viewed as sacred, which means that saluting them takes on a religious significance.” Watchtower 1962 Nov 15 p.700
“Christians refused to . . . sacrifice to the emperor’s genius—roughly equivalent today to refusing to salute the flag or repeat the oath of allegiance.” Watchtower 1975 Aug 15 p. 497
Since Witnesses globally have suffered following this Watchtower interpretation of neutrality, it is worth enquiring what the Governing Body decreed for situations that affected themselves personally. Regarding gaining citizenship or applying for a passport they decreed that pledging the oath was considered to be acceptable.
“Because Christians can be loyal both to God and to earthly governments they can take oaths of allegiance to defend the Constitution, as is required of citizens in some countries in order to get a passport.” Watchtower 1964 Sep 15 p.551
“We see no reason why one desiring to assume citizenship in this country should not take the oath of allegiance.” Informant 1938 Special Jul p.4
Prior to the early 1970s, American citizens seeking passports were required to pledge the oath of allegiance. In the matter of applying for a passport, Governing Body members created a separate ruling regarding the pledge, avoiding inconvenience. Included are scans of Governing Body President Nathan Knorr’s signature below the Oath of Allegiance on his passport application.
If the Governing Body reasoned that signing the oath to receive a passport was for the greater good, allowing them to travel and advance the kingdom work, could they not have reasoned the same for the sake of saving humiliation of their followers at school and lives in Malawi?
The Bible furnishes examples of God’s Servants, such as Joseph and Mordecai, being actively involved in political affairs and holding high positions within foreign governments. Watchtower’s policy on political involvement is based on poor Scriptural reasoning and as a result has been contradictory, illogical and inaccurate. This has resulted in ongoing changes and led to standards being applied differently in Mexico and Malawi and inconsistently between situations.
The JW Broadcasting April 2022 video includes Baston Nyirenda relating his experience as one of Jehovah's Witnesses in Malawi. He explains his appreciation for Jehovah saving him.
"True - the words at Isaiah 54:17 came true, which says: "No weapon formed against you will have any success." As a family, Violet and I have endured government persecutions, refugee camps, prisons, beatings, lack of food and shelter, the death of loved ones, and a times thinking we would die ourselves. Yet we are never beyond the reach of Jehovah's loving hand." JW Broadcasting April 2022
Watchtower portrays the survival of Baston Nyirenda as an example of Jehovah's help, despite Nyirenda suffering torture and the death of his loved ones. This experience ignores completely that Nyirenda could have avoided much of the suffering he went through if Watchtower had applied the same political standard in Malawi as it did in Mexico.
Watchtower arbitrarily determines what being “no part of the world” entails. In the case of followers, a membership card in Malawi was considered part of the world. Yet as an organisation, the Watchtower does not consider that its ownership of billions of dollars of property being part of the world. Nor does it consider making use of the Supreme Court, an arm of politics, as being part of the world.
In more recent times Watchtower has eased up its stance against political involvement, and in doing so shown their stand had scant Scriptural backing in the past. For instance:
- 1991 - Watchtower joined the United Nations as an affiliate NGO for the claimed purpose of accessing their public library
- 1996 - Non–active military service became a conscience matter – see w96 5/1 p.20
- 1999 - Voting became a conscience matter - see w99 11/1 pp.28-29
- Watchtower continues to actively send delegate to influence political bodies globally
This renders the suffering and death Jehovah’s Witnesses experienced on an individual basis as pointless. The Governing Body carries the bloodguilt of Malawian Witnesses they led to unnecessary death over this poorly supported stance.
1 For more detailed information on the Watchtower stance on the pledge and oath of allegiance, see Jehovah’s Witnesses and National Oaths of Allegiance, Marvin Shilmer (2008) – as of July 5th 2010 see watchtowerdocuments.com
2 From 1972, the oath was no longer required for passport applications. The Awake 1972 October 8 p.29 stated; “United States passport applicants will be interested in the following statement from the August 3, 1972, Postal Bulletin: “On the basis of recent court action and until further notice, the requirement that an oath of allegiance be sworn to or affirmed is no longer a part of the passport application process.””
See also Grenna Kaiya's 2013 thesis The role of the churches in human rights advocacy: The Case of Malawian members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, their accounts of stories and memories as victims of religious persecution from 1964 to 1994
Written Jul 2010. Latest update Apr 2022.
Paul Grundy 2005 - 2022