I experienced an awkward moment at a PTA meeting I attended recently. This was something above and beyond the normal awkwardness I feel in a room full of people I do not know and whose only connection to me is having children who attend the same school as my child, as I struggle to form some cruel parody of conversation. “So, I hear your kid likes Justin Bieber?”
The moment came at the beginning of the meeting, when the PTA president insisted we all rise and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Once I heard this, I was gripped by a childlike but very real panic. I hadn’t been asked to do this seriously* since high school, and for a terrifying split second I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself.
*I include the adverb seriously here because the live Pee-Wee Herman Show I saw with my daughter opened with Pee-Wee reciting the Pledge along with the audience, which I don’t think counts, really.
The reason I wasn’t sure what to do is because I spent a good chunk of my childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Witnesses refuse the say the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t do a lot of things, due to their selectively literal interpretation of the Bible (or their translation thereof; it’s a very long story, the more you hear of the less you truly know). Being a Witness is almost like keeping kosher, but instead of worrying about what you eat, you have to worry about everything else.
There are a few reasons why Witnesses don’t recite the Pledge. For one, they consider it a form of idolatry, ascribing magical powers to an inanimate object, which has been expressly forbidden since the Golden Calf days. Witnesses are particularly wary of cultural touchstones that have Pagan Origins, since they fear those are the shiny entryways for the devil and his henchmen. This is the reason they don’t celebrate most holidays, since nearly all of them originate from some ancient fertility rite or human sacrifice festival.And if you think about it, saluting and declaring your fealty to a piece of fabric definitely has some overtones of prehistorical witchcraft.
But above all, Witnesses don’t like the “under God” part of the whole Pledge thing. They believe that if you’re going to pledge allegiance to anyone, God’s the guy, and that believing God looks after any specific nation more than any other–yes, even America–runs counter to pretty much everything Jesus ever said.
I was a Witness because my mom became one at some point in my youth, but I wasn’t just along for the ride. I really, truly, and thoroughly believed in it. I dutifully highlighted my Watchtower every week and raised my hand at meetings to answer questions and gave talks and read every Society* publication cover to cover. I had these little pleather binders with Watchtower and Awake imprinted in gold leaf inlay where I kept back issues so I could refer to them again in the future, and I often did. Witnesses refer to their religion as simply The Truth, and I too believed it to be The Truth.
* “The Society” was the name often used to refer to the larger Witness organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. I used the phrase “The Society” as a byword for an organization in the novel I just completed, and not until I wrote this post did I realize why it had such a resonance for me.
But for all my belief, I didn’t want to be found out at school. I believed completely and unequivocally that I shouldn’t say The Pledge, but I didn’t want other kids to notice me not doing it and ask questions. So for much of my school years, during the morning Pledge I would stand and I would put my hand on my heart and I would mouth the words, but I wouldn’t say them, hoping that God and I had a tacit understanding. This is the best I can do right now, God, because I’m ten years old.
I’d gotten a cue to this from my mother, who also seemed reticent to abandon everything she was told to. We stopped celebrating most holidays, but Christmas remained, in a way. We didn’t put up a tree anymore, and we didn’t exchange presents. But when my grandparents who lived next door to us hosted the extended family Christmas , we would show up and drink egg nog and play dumb games and even sing carols. We would basically do everything Christmas-y except the gift giving. My mom could give up presents, but giving up her family on Christmas was too much to bear.
I’d been told that as a Witness, I was supposed to stand out. I was supposed to relish the scorn of the Outside World (which comprised anything beyond the small universe of Witnessdom). The Watchtower would always contain a tale of an apostle who was stoned to death, or some believers in a country in Asia or Africa or someplace who were machine-gunned to death because they wouldn’t renounce their faith. If they could endure that, The Watchtower said, you can endure not celebrating your own birthday.
If you truly believe in something, this concept can be soothing. Enduring hardship for what you believe in just reinforces how right you are. But the idea of this and the deed of carrying it out are two very different things. Especially if you must live in the world of Kid-dom, where every slight difference is identified, tagged, and ridiculed.
There was no help for you as a Witness kid. Your parents weren’t going to come into the school and tell your teachers the score, as if you had a peanut allergy to jack o’lanterns and birthday cake. You, the kid, had to do all the telling yourself. I’d already been tasked with informing every teacher why I couldn’t/wouldn’t participate in every holiday-related art project. Though I trusted these teachers would be understanding–and they invariably were–even this effort crushed me. I dreaded Halloween, dreaded Thanksgiving, dreaded that first sheepish approach to a teacher’s desk in early fall to have The Talk with them.
When it came to any activity involving other kids, I skirted the Witness issue as much as possible. If I got a birthday invitation, I’d say I couldn’t go, giving no additional explanation. Eventually, I stopped getting those invitations period and the problem solved itself. If anyone asked me why I didn’t draw a Christmas tree or an Easter bunny for my seasonal project, I’d say I didn’t feel like it. In weaker moments, I’d do half-assed holiday work for cover, then make sure to throw it out once it was handed back to me.
I used to go proselytizing door to door, though I found it terrifying. I don’t have the personality to knock on a stranger’s door and sell them anything, be it vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, or Jesus. I was lucky that our congregation was a good 20 miles outside of my school district, and so the likelihood of running into someone I knew was slim. Still, I had the constant fear that I’d ring a doorbell, and some kid would answer and it would be someone from my school. I knew that if that ever happened, I’d completely lose it.
That never came to pass, but the fear that it might never faded, the thought that behind every stranger’s door lay the possibility My Dark Secret would be uncovered. The only thing that made this feeling fade was the thought that well, we’re in the End Times anyway, so any kind of embarrassment I experience will be fleeting, for the Apocalypse is nigh. Which is definitely a healthy thing for a preteen to think.
As I got older, I got a little more daring. Eventually I worked up the courage to simply stand during the Pledge but not put my hand or over my heart and not say anything. (This was the Witnesses’ prescribed reaction, a show of respect but no allegiance.) I started doing this in junior high, when I noticed that the other kids could care less about the Pledge. They cracked jokes, made fart noises, and snapped bras during the morning Pledge, ironically showing a lot less reverence to the ritual than I was. I caught plenty of grief during junior high, but none of it was Witness-related.
Through high school, my intellectual curiosity and natural bent toward Weird Stuff slowly pushed Witnessing to the periphery of my beliefs. By freshman year of college, I abandoned it altogether. This coincided with my mother sloughing it off as well, and so I was spared any angry confrontations. Everyone independently, quietly decided this chapter in our lives was over and that was that. I don’t know what caused my mom to leave the faith because to this day we’ve never had a conversation about it. And though we often reminisce about growing up, anything Witness-related is rarely mentioned, if ever.
I’ve held on to certain aspects of what Witnessing gave me. My political outlook is shaped by the idea that God doesn’t really care about imaginary borders on a map, and that believing otherwise has gotten a lot of people killed during the course of human history. I think that the world works best when we’re all not trying to elbow our way to the top, that a little more equity and recognition of each other’s humanity would make the world a better place.
What I don’t believe anymore is that this world is nearing the end of its run, which just seems a convenient excuse to let it go to hell and do nothing for your fellow human beings. I suspect that all millennial sects (Witnesses included) actually want to see this world end to fulfill some perverted revenge fantasy on everyone they dislike. That they hate the bulk of humanity so much that they want God to smite everyone and bring them up to a cloud somewhere so they can laugh as the whole thing burns down.
For most of my adult life, I only occasionally had to confront the strangeness a childhood of Witnessing imposed on me. But since having a kid of my own, the rush of strangeness and discomfort washes over me far more often than it used to. Because kids want to celebrate every holiday, and I’ve kind of forgotten how. By osmosis, she’s come to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and their brethren, and it’s very difficult for me to handle sometimes. Even birthdays still seem strange to me. I have to walk myself through all the motions of things that other people do by rote. It’s like I suffered head trauma and am reteaching myself how to tie my shoes.
So when I was asked to stand and recite the Pledge, I rose through my panic. For a moment I thought to myself, Even though I’m not a Witness anymore, this Pledge thing is still pretty weird and kind of stupid, actually. But before I even realized what I was doing, I put my hand over my heart and found myself not saying the words, but mouthing them. The action came so suddenly and so thoughtlessly that I never considered for a second I could stop it.
I soon sat down and felt like a child, in the worst ways. Powerless, nervous, fearing monsters under my bed.