Siberian Mennonite pastor defends Jehovah's Witnesses


by Evgeny Spiridonov

Svidetel Berdsk, 7 April 2016


The Berdsk (Novosibirsk province) religious congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses is being checked out by the prosecutor's office these days.


It is said that literature of extremist contents was discovered there. A great diversity of rumors circulate about this religious organization, and often in news media it is called a totalitarian sect. However it is not only they. So what kind of thing are totalitarian sects and destructive cults and how real and dangerous are they? About this we had a conversation with Andrei Peters, a minister of the Novosibirsk congregation of Mennonite Christians and a specialist in the area of comparative theology.


--Andrei Vasilevich, just what is a "sect" in a scientific or theological sense?


--In ancient Rome, the word "sect" meant "party," "school," "fraction," and did not have a negative connotation. Sects usually are groups that have separated from already existing religious communities and have begun an independent life. This term also served for designating such religious groups that have maintained their own identity without breaking communications with the religious community to which they belonged before their separation from it.


--That's rather abstruse and gaudy. Tell us more simply: which of the currently existing confessions can be considered sects?


--Different churches and church communities attribute to this definition different meanings and each of them has its own understanding of what kind of thing a sect is. From the point of view of Orthodoxy, for example, all Christian confessions outside the bounds of the Orthodox church are sects. And we, Mennonites, with our centuries-long history and tradition are a sect in the eyes of the Orthodox. Well that would seem to be okay: call it a pot but don't put it in the oven. But for some time now more negative definitions have appeared: "totalitarian sect," "destructive cult." These definitions do not have any legal force. They are outside the legal field, but they have received extremely widespread use in our country.


--And where did that come from? I recall that in soviet times, with all the orgy of state atheism, such labels still were not hung on anybody?


--They were not. Because they did not exist. These labels appeared in the early 1990s, and they were dreamed up by a single person, a certain Alexander Dvorkin. Back in the soviet era he married an American, emigrated to the USA, and received citizenship of that country. In the early 90s he returned to Russia and proclaimed himself a mighty specialist on sects. As such he occupied a definite niche in the apparatus of the Moscow patriarchate. He dreamed up a separate theological discipline that nobody had ever heard of earlier—"sect studies." And he also dreamed up the aforementioned terms: "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults." Somebody in the patriarchate liked them and so this bogeyman began roaming Russia.


--But perhaps this Dvorkin really is a major specialist in the area of sect studies?


--I have read his works; I have listened to his speeches. I can say one thing: the lion's share of what he has written and spoken are fabrications, lies, and slander. So he and his followers, for example, assign Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and charismatics to the category of destructive cults. And they maintain that among the representatives of these confessions, supposedly there is an enormous percentage of suicides and insanity. But at the same time they do not produce concrete cases. Because they do not exist. For many years I personally have been engaged in comparative theology and I am acquainted with Pentecostals, charismatics, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and with many others. I have studied their literature and attended their worship services. On the basis of personal experience I can affirm: none of these are destructive cults, but they are ordinary protestant communities. And of course I have not observed there any mass suicides or lunatics. These are all fabrications.


--Nevertheless, there is in society an extremely negative attitude toward these Jehovah's Witnesses. In particular, people do not like their overly intrusive witnessing.


--I also do not like it. But after all that still is no basis for calling them a totalitarian sect or destructive cult. On the contrary, I see that representatives of this religious organization have many positive traits, and other protestant confessions perhaps are overly insistent in trying to draw people into their faith. They do not smoke or use alcohol, they do not curse obscenely or steal and lie, and they do not swap wives and husbands. Sure they approach people on the streets and knock on the doors of their homes. But they do not handcuff anybody or drag anybody by force to their congregation. They politely invited you to visit a service and you politely refused—what kind of problem is that?


--And the idea that they persuade their devotees to sign over their apartments for the benefit of the congregation—is that so?


--Well, have people often come to your newspaper's office who have signed over their apartment for some religious organization and then come to their senses and regretted this? Or is there a pile of statements from these people in the prosecutor's office? Of course it happens that an elderly and single parishioner from some religious community, for whom it is the whole sense of her life, bequeaths her apartment to this community. Such things happen both in Orthodox parishes and in other confessions. And sure it happens that single old women sign over their residences to municipalities. But there is such a selective attitude of society to such cases: if they signed it over to the municipality, that is good, and if it was to some protestant community, it is bad.


--You suggest that no destructive cults exist at all. Then what about the White Brotherhood, the Vissarion society, the society of the god Kuzya, and many other such organizations?


--Sure, they exist, and there are more of them every year. But such organizations do not have anything to do with Christianity nor with any other religion. Under the cover of pseudo-religious demagogy, their creators conceal an extremely mundane desire to live at the expense of their devotees—nothing more. Possibly somewhere the alienation of apartments for the benefit of leaders is practiced. I cannot say for sure; I have not encountered such incidents myself. But I admit that in those groups one may expect anything from such, so to speak, pastors. But I repeat, that does not have anything to do with religion.


--But how can an ordinary person who does not have a theological education distinguish such a pseudo-religion and clearly dangerous organization from a regular protestant community?


--In my view, there is a single criterion: the length of time of the existence of one or another community. If it turns out that the history of a specific religious organization has only a few years or decades, one should shy away from such an organization. Because theological disagreements and the search for truth have remained the cause of religious divisions in past centuries, but in the twentieth century all new religious movements, without exception, have arisen for purely mercenary reasons. Even such massive ones as the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church of Rev. Moon. Most likely they do not want to subject you there to psychological experiments or neuro-linguistic programming (here is another of those pseudoscientific terms that appeared simultaneously with "totalitarian sects" and "destructive cults")—but they will certainly empty your wallet.


--And are these sects?


--In past centuries, they called those groups sects that had separated themselves from already existing religious communities. But these did not even separate from anybody but they arose exclusively by the efforts of specific people with leadership instincts. Scientology does not have any roots; but it is the fruit of the imagination of one man, the science fiction writer Ron Hubbard. But this is not even a sect but something else, worse. Incidentally, to this same Hubbard is attributed the saying: "If you want to make a billion, create a new religion." So that is what he wanted and he created. And I remind you of one last thing, that according to the constitution our state is secular, where all religions are equal. By law, we do not have a state religion and consequently there are no sects. Sure, there are pseudo-religious groups, sometimes created even by psychologically abnormal people, and it is horrible even to imagine what can happen in such a group. However the identification of such organizations and the struggle with them is the task of law enforcement agencies and not by any means of home-grown "sectologists." (tr. by PDS, posted 13 April 2016)

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