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I love my daughter more than words can describe. From the day she was born, when she cried after her first bath and I rubbed her tiny feet to soothe her, to today, the day she moved out of our home, at the age of (nearly) twenty-two, I have never stopped loving her.

There have been inevitable trials — teenage uncertainties — the first boyfriend — that boyfriend who as a parent I could just read and know was trouble — and so much more. I have always done my best to guide, comfort, provide and at some of the most frustrating of times, when no amount of parental insight was going to be heard, or heeded, just wait patiently for things to turn around. Through all of it, I have loved her unfailingly. I may have failed in many other things in my life, but never that.

So it hurts more than words can describe to have my oldest child take this bittersweet next step towards her inevitable independence, without even the barest of hugs or a backward glance of affection.

Why? Apparently there can be no affection shown towards a disfellowshipped parent. Is this something that is taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses? Not directly, at least as far as I know, but it is obviously how she’s been made to feel, and to act. I half-teasingly asked her to at least get in touch and let me know about any really big things in her life — if she moves to Uganda, say — or gets married — or has children. She, not teasingly at all said to me: “I’m sorry, but you know I can’t.”

Well, I am very sorry, but I know no such thing. I fear that the people I love — Jehovah’s people — have crossed a dangerous line. In the name of unity, they have developed some customs and practices which, though scripturally-based in spirit at the core, have in practice pushed well past Bible teaching into the realm of man-made customs and rules.

Does it make me what they call an “apostate” to point this out? Many Witnesses would likely unitedly cry out that it does, without regard even to what that term actually means, or whether there is any basis in fact to my observation.

The Bible term apostasy means a turning away from the true God and true worship. I want nothing more than to worship Jehovah in truth. I believe that’s what the overwhelming majority of brothers and sisters who call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses also want. I point out what I do, not to tear anyone down, or to take away from all the good work that the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has done and continues to do, but because from all the evidence I can see, there is something seriously wrong right here, with these particular matters, not from my own point of view, but from Jehovah’s as best as I can discern it from the scriptures — and I point it out in this forum because, again apparently in the name of “unity”, no brother or sister will speak about this (or anything else for that matter) with me.

With respect to someone who is bent on carrying on gross practices that Jehovah clearly hates, the scriptures make the admonition to stop associating with that person, to the point of not even taking a meal with them. This certainly makes sense! If I am serious about my love for Jehovah, and you want to basically thumb your nose at my God and reject what He as the foremost judge says is good, why would I ever want to “hang out” with you, or give you even tacit approval? I wouldn’t! Now if that person is a family member, or other loved one, who has taken a seriously wrong turn in their lives, that’s going to be even more painful, but still, the admonition applies. But does that mean no affection can ever be expressed? There’s to be no talking at all? (The scriptures do make a separate distinction concerning one who would “bring a different teaching” counter to the truth of God’s Word into the congregation, that one should not even “say a greeting” to that person. To me, this plainly speaks of a very particular type of offense, essentially outspoken apostasy; however Jehovah’s Witnesses, by custom, seem to also apply this as a blanket rule concerning anyone removed from the congregation for any reason.)

At the age of 19, I found out that my beloved daughter had become addicted to heroin. I am very happy to say that with some firm, persistent help, in time, she turned things completely around, is completely clean, and unlikely to fall into such a snare ever again. However, what if, instead of simply being firm for what I believed was right, while continually reassuring her of my love, I had taken that sort of drastically hands-off approach with her? I seriously doubt things would have turned out so well. Yet, if my daughter were a young baptized witness living on her own at the time of her falling into that sort of trouble, and was disfellowshipped for it, that is exactly the approach the Watchtower would appear to recommend. It’s been suggested in print that it “might be possible to have almost no dealings at all” with a disfellowshipped family member, and that this drastic approach may be the best way to make them see the seriousness of things, and return to Jehovah.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the Watchtower making that point. It indeed might be possible — and depending on the individual, what they actually were engaged in, and their attitude, it might even be absolutely the right approach to help that person. Tough love, so to speak. The problem only arises when that suggestion rises to the level of a prevailing custom as the one and only allowable way to ever deal with disfellowshipped family members, and then is given weight equal to that of scripture itself. In the name of “unity” all Jehovah’s Witnesses are to treat all disfellowshipped persons the same way all the time. Period. Those who are seen to do otherwise could be subject to suspicious scrutiny themselves, and may even find themselves in front of a judicial committee at risk of being put out of the congregation. To go that far does not have a basis that I can find in scripture, nor does the notion of “one-size-fits-all” treatment mesh at all with the sense I get of the insightful compassion behind Jehovah’s and Jesus’ dealings with people, as recorded in the Bible.

I understand that there may be difficult lines to discern here. Not everyone can know everyone else’s circumstances. For example, if we know a person was removed from the congregation by a judicial committee, and we don’t know any of the details, we probably are not in a great position to make any assumptions about that person’s attitude, etc. A faithful brother or sister will want to assume that the judicial committee acted appropriately, that the person was removed with good reason, and until shown otherwise, is therefore at the very least not a “good associate”. Even if we do know more — as we are most likely to with family members — we still wouldn’t want to treat things lightly. Do these considerations, however, mean that the disfellowshipped person ought to always be treated as if they were invisible or do not even exist? Because that tends to be more or less the prevailing custom if a disfellowshipped individual attends congregation meetings, for example, or is simply even encountered in public. It is the rare — but very welcome — witness who will afford such a one even an honest glance, or a warm smile that reminds them they are still cared for, or even rarer still, a much-needed word of encouragement. Yet it does not appear to me to be the scriptures that prohibit such potentially helpful and compassionate actions — only the prevailing custom.

The society suggests in its published materials that it is the congregation elders, and they alone, who are in a position to exercise proper discernment in these matters, and thus apparently they alone who are in a position to know how and when to express compassion, if warranted. I suppose that keeps things simple from an organizational perspective, but I cannot see where such a restriction has its basis in scripture, nor does it always work. And even there, it appears, there are more organizational (as opposed to scriptural) rules in place. The brother overseeing my judicial committee expressed to me afterward that he could, if I wanted, provide me with some additional scriptural instruction with respect to my situation — namely being transgendered — but that he couldn’t discuss it with me. I could only say whether the material helped or did not. I said, quite honestly, that I didn’t see how he was going to be able to help me all that much if I couldn’t express to him what parts of which things I was having trouble with — but sure — I’d still look through whatever he had in mind to share with me. After that I never received a thing. It’s been about a year so far. Far, far more insightful compassion is needed.

There is no question that it is a far simpler thing to have rules and customs that can be applied in a blanket way. Far simpler, but not nearly as Christlike. But to “open the gates” to all brothers and sisters exercising Christlike discernment in their dealings will absolutely require more work. And so it seems, for now, no hugs for me.