Declaring that shunning “apostates” is a crime implies accepting the ideology that surrendering our freedom to an organization is always suspicious.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the Webinar “Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shunning, and Religious Liberty: The Ghent Court Decision,” April 9, 2021 [see video of the Webinar].
Update (June 20, 2022): On June 7, 2022, the first degree decision unfavorable to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was overturned by the Court of Appeal of Ghent, which concluded that shunning can be freely taught and practiced in Belgium.
The Ghent decision, defining as illegal the practice by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to teach that current members (with the exception of cohabiting relatives) should shun or ostracize those who have been disfellowshipped or have left their organization, is the culminating point of a process that, if left unchecked, will destroy religious liberty and the very notion of freedom as we know it.
Basically, the Ghent judges affirmed the principle that the freedom of an organization to self-regulate itself as it deems fit is a lesser right when compared to the freedom of the individual within the organization. They also imply that a person should enjoy the same freedoms within the organization that s/he would enjoy in the society in general.
It is not an exaggeration to argue that this deeply subverts concepts about freedom that democratic societies have accepted for centuries.
Many have argued that the basic question of Western political philosophy is why we accept to surrender a part of our liberty to join an organization. Wouldn’t it be better to remain free?
The question is very old, but a classical if misunderstood formulation was proposed around 1550 by a young French law student called Étienne de la Boétie (1530–1563) in his pamphlet Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. La Boétie declared a great mystery the fact that humans surrender their liberty to political rulers, some of them tyrants, and that this happens voluntarily. Coercion alone does not explain submission, as not even the most powerful tyrant would be able to overcome the refuse to obey by all or most of his subjects. He concluded that this is likely part of human nature, and did not propose to rebel against the rulers.
La Boétie died at age 32 without having published anything. He left his writings to his great friend, and great philosopher, Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), who decided not to publish the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, fearing it would be misinterpreted. However, somebody published it clandestinely in 1577, and it has remained in print ever since.
Montaigne was right, and the small book was indeed misinterpreted throughout the centuries. Anarchists and others read it as an indictment of any relations in which we surrender a part of our liberty to a social formation going beyond the individual, from the family to the state. In fact, a careful reading of La Boétie evidences that he distinguished surrendering liberty to tyrants and surrendering a part of our freedom to somebody we trust, as it happens in a philosophical school or as part of friendship. For him, there were both a bad and a good voluntary servitude. After all, it had been Plato who had coined the expression “voluntary servitude” (ethelodouleia, ἐθελοδουλεία) in the Symposium,with reference to friendship, and had used it in a positive sense. Plato would have called ethelodouleia the relationship his disciples in the Academy entered with him, surrendering a part of their liberty as disciples to master.
One of the reasons La Boétie is still discussed in the 21st century is because of the radical interpretation of his voluntary servitude by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), who was enormously influential on postmodernism, particularly in the book Anti-Oedipus that he published in 1972 with psychoanalyst Félix Guattari (1930–1992). One of the arguments of the book is that all forms of voluntary servitude derive from perversions of our desires, created by a psychic repression whose roots are in the very nature of a patriarchal, bourgeois, and capitalist society.
This implies that, if we want to liberate our desires, we should eliminate all forms of voluntary servitude. Vaste programme, as General de Gaulle used to say sarcastically, because the voluntary servitude, i.e., the voluntary surrender of a part of our liberty, is everywhere. If I marry, I surrender my liberty to sleep with other women or men. I can do it physically, but there would be consequences. If I join a political party, I surrender my liberty to promote a rival party, and should submit to my party’s discipline. If I want to play in a professional sport team, I should submit to a number of quite strict rules. As La Boétie knew before Deleuze, even becoming part of the society or citizen or a state implies surrendering a part of my liberty. And joining a religion is also a form of voluntary servitude, as I know I should respect a certain number of rules.
For a Christian, there is nothing wrong about the word “servitude.” Indeed, Jesus taught in Mark 10:43 that “whoever wants to become great among you must become a servant.”
There are as many interpretations of Deleuze as there are followers of Deleuze, but one interesting question is what one scholar has called his “ambiguous relationship” with democracy. La Boétie knew, and Deleuze did not deny, that no matter how much philosophers insist that voluntary servitude is wrong, a significant percentage of human beings will not listen to them, and will continue to surrender a part of their liberty to institutions they find desirable to join, from the family to their preferred political party to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While it has been argued that Deleuze personally “anticipated and resisted a Leninist appropriation of his political theory,” some of his followers didn’t, and the French philosopher himself, before committing suicide in 1995, struggled with the intractable problem how those who insist to enter into relations of voluntary servitude may be stopped and prevented from doing so. The “Leninist” solution is that they should be forcibly prevented from surrendering their liberty to others by the state. In other words, voluntary servitude is not abolished, but a monopoly on it is conferred to the state. We are invited to surrender all our liberty to the state, and the state will protect us from the temptation of surrendering our liberty to somebody else. Those who want to see how it works may just buy a ticket to China.
Western democracies work differently. They ask citizens to surrender a part of their liberty (not all) to the state, and they protect the right of their citizens to voluntarily surrender other portions of their liberty to institutions and organizations they freely decide to join, including the family, associations of all kind, and religions. They tell the citizens that some basic rights cannot be surrendered, such as the right to life and to physical integrity, but this list is kept short. Modern democracies guarantee the right to become a cloistered nun, and some cloistered nuns enter into forms of voluntary servitude where the number of liberties they surrender is highly significant.
Particularly within the field of religion, for which international conventions add specific guarantees, courts of law in democratic countries jealously protected for decades the boundaries within which they are free to regulate themselves. For instance, some may disagree with the fact that the Catholic Church does not ordain women to the priesthood, or refuses to bless same-sex marriages. However, courts have so far protected the rights of the Catholic Church to organize freely its internal affairs. The rights of those who disagree are protected by their liberty not to join the Catholic Church, to leave it, and to establish a different church, one that would ordain women and celebrate same-sex marriages.
Nowhere has this principle being more clearly affirmed than in the consistent international case law about the disfellowshipping and shunning practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Courts in such diverse legal environments as the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, Italy, and even Belgium before the Ghent decision, have consistently concluded that nobody is forced to become a Jehovah’s Witness (even those born in the faith are not automatically counted as members), everybody is free to leave, and there are no legal obstacles for those willing to create new rival religious organizations. But, if one decides to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, s/he does so knowing in advance that certain forms of behavior lead to being disfellowshipped. They also know that being disfellowshipped or leaving the congregation has consequences, including certain forms of shunning and ostracism. They cannot plead ignorance, as the elders make sure they understand the internal rules and discipline before they are baptized.
Enter the postmodernist (and post-Deleuze) approach to voluntary servitude and claims that you do not have the right to surrender your liberty, particularly not to a religious organization, as religions are not popular among the followers of these theories. This is precisely the ideology inspiring the Ghent decision. The paternalistic state knows better, and decides that teaching that Jehovah’s Witnesses should shun certain categories of ex-member is not part of the normal negotiation of what liberties one surrenders when joining a religious organization but is, in fact, a crime.
The implications are far-reaching. In France, a group of senators has proposed an amendment to the law on “separatism” now being discussed, punishing with a five-year jail penalty those teaching that apostasy is a crime. This is different from advocating the use of violence against the apostates, which the amendment considers a different crime, and punishes with a jail penalty of seven years. It is about criminalizing apostasy in words only, and without inciting to violence. By the way, the Catholic Code of Canon Law in force, at Canon 1364, defines apostasy a crime.
By the same postmodernist logic, a priest or other religious leader teaching that a wife is authorized to shun a husband who cheated on her and left her would also commit a crime. The question is not whether this priest or pastor would be right or wrong, but whether giving these instructions to their followers should be sanctioned as a crime. There would be no end.
What we are witnessing goes well beyond Ghent, and beyond the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a perverse re-definition of the notion of liberty, sold to us under the banner of cutting-edge postmodernism but in fact based on the old totalitarian principle that the state knows better than we do what of our personal choices are good or bad for our liberty, and compels us to be free according to its own ideological notion of liberty.