He believed. To the end of the world, the mission, the congregation. Then he had two sons – and left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For this, Oliver Wolschke pays a high price. BY SEBASTIAN LEBER – Originally posted on Der Tagesspiegel on July 26, 2017
On a Friday evening at the end of March, he attends yet another service. He sits next to his wife in the penultimate row. They read from the Bible, Jeremiah 13, they sing, a video is shown in which believers from all over the world in perfectly illuminated living rooms explain how weekly Bible teaching changed their lives at home. A girl says, “Through the family study I realized how happy I can be that Jehovah is my God .” A little boy says, “The family study helped me not to spend so much time with secular friends.” Father says, “Even when I’m tired – it is important that family studies always take place.”
Oliver Wolschke finds it difficult to follow the video. This meeting in the south of Berlin, in the region of Steglitz, in an old mansion near the station of Lichterfelde-Ost, is to be the last for him and his wife. As soon as their resignation is announced, the other Jehovah’s Witnesses will break off contact with them, which means: all friends and acquaintances, as well as all the people with whom they spent time.
The principle of the “loving precaution”
Former people should not even be greeted in the street because every greeting could be the beginning of a conversation. Witnesses call this form of isolation a “loving arrangement”. This is intended to facilitate a possible return to the community of witnesses.
Oliver Wolschke positions himself as soon as he can, after the end of the worship service, to say goodbye to as many people as possible in the room, and will not say that it is forever. Perhaps he may make contact with some without being noticed.
Oliver Wolschke, 32, grew up with Jehovah’s Witnesses. His parents parted when he was five, the mother took him to her new apartment in Lankwitz. Soon she met Jehovah’s Witnesses and later she married one. And there he learned that most of the people in the world will be brutally extinguished in the battle of Armageddon, the end of the evil world. And to be spared, he himself must abide strictly by their rules if he wants to experience the longed-for one-thousand-year rule of Christ.
Wolschke’s story is one of the rare opportunities to cast a glance at a group that shuts out the outside world – and leaves little inside.
After various legal proceedings, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany are regarded as a corporation under public law. Sect commissioners have warned that the organization had features of a totalitarian system of compulsion. Children were being denied higher education, and contacts with the outside world were minimized.
The one with the “Watchtower” in his hand
For most Germans, Jehovah’s Witnesses are merely a strange people who are standing at the corner of the street with their “watchtower” – and who ring at stranger’s doors because they want to talk about God. Wolschke began preaching at the age of nine and by 16 he was baptized. Field ministry is important if you want to survive Armageddon. The number of hours per month is recorded by each witness, which they give to the elders who are their leaders in their local groups. Whoever gets appointed in the community must be above average in preaching hours.
Jehovah’s Witnesses stick to themselves for the most part and are expected to get married to partners from among themselves. There are usually points of contact with other believers only in professional life. Wolschke works as a search engine expert at Tagesspiegel-Verlag. The colleagues in his department know why he is never congratulated on his birthday and why he misses out on Christmas parties.
There are more than eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, and 165,000 of them live in Germany. At the head of a strict hierarchy is the “governing body”: seven men who reside in the world headquarters in the US state of New York. They are said to be guided by God. When exactly Armageddon threatens, they do not reveal to their members. In the past, witnesses and their predecessors, the “Earnest Bible Students” (“Ernest Bibelforscher”), have repeatedly named specific dates: 1874, 1914, 1925, 1975. They no longer make this mistake.
The wrong prophecies of the past are not spoken in worship services . And references from non-witnesses are ignored anyway. Wolschke says Jehovah’s Witnesses are very good at not taking seriously the outsiders. Their arguments are considered “coming from Satan the Devil”. Particularly despised are the “apostates,” the former faith brothers, who have broken out of the community. “It’s like a firewall,” says Wolschke. “An extremely strong one that only allows information from within the organization.”
He says you should not misunderstand him. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not monsters but rather, people who want only the best for themselves and their families: Armageddon. Wolschke is certain that one can also have a good life as a Jehovah’s Witness. That he himself can not do it, is connected with his children.
His first son was born in 2011, the second in 2013. Wolschke has meanwhile risen to serve as a ministerial servant, a rank just below “elder”. But now as a young father, he had trouble with fulfilling his field service commitments. Many of the elders exhorted him to talk. If he was not improving, he would no longer be able to serve as a missionary servant. “I cried before them,” says Wolschke. “The demotion would have been a terrible loss of face.” So he started to record more hours in his report than he was actually doing. He thinks: If I have some time again, I will do additional hours and not count it. Jehovah will understand that.
Wolschke also doubts whether he cares for the rules, according to which he grew up, being imposed upon his children. What should he do should one of his sons need a blood transfusion? Jehovah’s Witnesses reject them, they justify it with bible verses. Again and again, people have been killed. A “Watchtower” narrative tells the biographies of some young members who died because they did not receive a blood transfusion. The edition is called “Youths who put God First”.
Wolschke also thinks: What happens, should one of my children be baptized, but then leave? He can not imagine that he could carry out such a “loving arrangement”.
At the beginning of this year, he opened up to his wife. She didn’t want to hear it as she knows what must happen: Oliver would leave the witnesses. She says: “You’ll destroy our family.” Their conversation continues for a few days with an exchange of doubts. They begin to search the internet. As regards those dropping out, they find reports on internal guidelines, of which they themselves had not been aware until then. Oliver Wolschke believes that these days were the days when he somehow managed to turn off his internal “firewall”.
A terrible discovery
“There are other reasons why people leave this organization,” says Wolschke. He himself found it most difficult to understand how his religious community was mishandling cases of child sexual abuse. It was clear to him that it was also going on within the Jehovah’s Witnesses – only the rules were not being applied: among the witnesses, it is common practice not to report cases of child abuse to the authorities. Instead, it is dealt with internally by a small circle of elders. And the two-witness rule applies. This means that apart from the child, at least one other person must confirm that child abuse has occurred.
The Witnesses justify this with a verse in the Gospel of Matthew. If, apart from the victim, no one is able to testify against the abuse, and if the accused disputes the act, nothing will be done against the alleged perpetrator. Or, as is directed in the book “Shepherd the Flock of God,” a a secret manual for the elders, “the matter is left in Jehovah’s hands.”
But what if the victim of abuse, on his own initiative, comes up with the idea of reporting the offender to the police? The book for the elders states: “On request, it should be clearly stated that it is up to everyone whether to reveal the matter or not.” On request.
In a “Watchtower” issue, Wolschke also found advice of how elders are to react when an adult wants to report an earlier abuse: It is recommended that the victim speak first with the alleged offender. “In this way, the defendant can express himself before Jehovah regarding the accusation.” And then again: “It could also be that the accused admits the matter and a reconciliation is forthcoming. What a blessing that would be!”
There are numbers from Australia, where Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to the same rule as everywhere else. A state commission investigated child abuse in various organizations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the final report, it named four figures: Between 1954 and 2014, at least 1800 children were alleged to have been abused, with 1006 alleged perpetrators. 579 of them have confessed their crimes to the internal judicial committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And not one of those confessions was then reported to the authorities.
Wolschke and his wife were stunned when they learned of these figures. And it is clear to them that they must leave the organization.
On that evening a the end of March, when both of them are attending the service in the Kingdom of Steglitz for the last time , Oliver Wolschke spoke to the congregation’s overseer in private and announced that he was giving up his position for private reasons. He knows what is happening now, it is precisely defined in the “Shepherd the Flock of God” book. Three days later, two elders visit him. They want to start the meeting with a prayer, which Wolschke rejects.
There is a calm, respectful conversation. All those present had tears in their eyes. The elders admitted that Oliver Wolschke and his wife were well-informed about the handling of child abuse possibly better than they themselves. Wolschke asked whether the elders can rule out that in their or another Berlin municipality there might be pedophiles not prosecuted on the basis of the two-witness rule. “You cannot rule that out,” was the answer.
At the next Friday meeting, the decision of the two will be read in their absence at the kingdom hall . Reasons are not mentioned. From this moment, it is important to avoid contact. On the same evening, Wolschke watches on his smartphone as the first friends on Whatsapp being to block him. Over the following few days, witnesses belonging to other congregations follow suit. His mother also adheres to the “loving arrangement”. And Oliver Wolschke thinks: How can a God allow such cruelty?
He says his wife and he were lucky. His mother-in-law is not a witness and has been happy about their decision. “Others know no one at all but believers; such ones are completely alone when they leave.” Some have also donated a large part of their assets to the organization. Money is used for buildings, for example. In San Diego, Joseph Rutherford once built a huge mansion where the risen Moses, Noah, Abel, Abraham and Isaac were to live after armageddon , not as spiritual beings but as human beings. As armageddon failed to arrive, Rutherford lived in the mansion until he died.
More abuse cases become public
Wolschke says that in the future, the organization will probably need a lot of money for court trials. He hopes that abuse cases will be made public in more and more countries. And that victim will get lawyers. His thoughts, the results of his researches and the details of the shunning has been written down by Wolschke and published on his blog oliverwolschke.de . He sent the link to 120 of his religious brothers. Two replied that they understood his point of view. The rest have remained silent.
In April, his sons celebrated their first Easter. In the past, they were allowed to paint stones instead of eggs, which did not count. The kindergarten teacher says the older one has been more open-minded towards other children since leaving. “I think we saved our sons,” says Wolschke. “It was so hard to get out of this enslaved way of thinking, it is so hard to imagine that you really believed it all.”
Oliver Wolschke is not sure if there is any God at all. But he says the question is of little importance to him. More importantly, to enjoy life now. He also hopes that his mother will once again take her grandchildren into her arms.