As it was easy to predict, anti-cultists shamelessly exploited even the March 9 massacre in Germany to attack the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
by Massimo Introvigne
On March 9, 2023, a man called Phillip Fusz entered through a window a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Hamburg, Germany, and opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun, killing seven Jehovah’s Witnesses and an unborn child, and injuring eight others. When the police arrived on the scene and asked him to surrender, Fusz shot himself.
While the police was initially very conservative in giving information to the media, except by informing them that the assassin was an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, once the name of the shooter was known, reporters and some German scholars of religion quickly found out that he had on sale on Amazon a self-published book of more than 300 pages.
He presented there revelations he claimed to have received from angels, God, Jesus Christ, and Satan, resulting in an idiosyncratic form of Christianity critical of all existing religious organizations. Fusz was obsessed by the problem of prostitution, and believed the current war was God’s punishment to Ukraine for having sent its sex workers abroad, including to the Holy Land.
Fusz also had a web site where he offered theological and management consultancy for Euro 250,000 per day, promising both financial and spiritual rewards proportionate to the exorbitant fees clients were asked to pay to him.
While scholars of religion have long known that speculating on the mental health of deceased persons based on religious texts they wrote is futile—we have no way of knowing post factum why they created their works, in what context, and for what intended audience—, what is clear is that Fusz’ ideas as presented in the book were incompatible with remaining a Jehovah’s Witness—or a member of any other Christian church or organization. The information that he had left the Jehovah’s Witnesses “in no good terms,” as some media wrote, came thus as no surprise.
On the other hand, the mental health question is relevant for the issue whether he should have been allowed to legally own and carry a deadly semi-automatic weapon. According to German media, Fusz had a gun license, and “had only recently been visited by the Weapons Authority. In January, the authorities received an anonymous tip about a possible mental illness of Phillip F. He therefore received a surprise visit in early February  by two officers from the Weapons Authority,” who concluded that there were no reasons to deprive him of his gun. It was, to say the least, a mistake.
While gun control was clearly the main political question after the Hamburg shooting, some so-called “experts of cults” (“sekten” in German, a word that should however be translated into English as “cults” rather than “sects”) tried to blame the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This was highly predictable, and corresponds to a scheme we have seen at work in other cases. To mention just two (but there have been more), in the South Korean Jeongeup murder case of June 16, 2022, a man murdered his wife, a member of the new religious movement Shincheonji, and her sister-in-law, before telling the police he was motivated by his hate of the Shincheonji “cult.” Anti-cultists, who had excited the murderer in the first place as it later came out, promptly called a press conference. They blamed Shincheonji from the tragedy, with the twisted argument that if the wife had never joined Shincheonji she and her sister-in-law would never have been killed.
More internationally well-known is the assassination on July 8, 2022, of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His assassin claimed he wanted to punish Abe for having attended events of an organization connected with the Unification Church (now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification). He said he hated the movement, he said, because in 2002 his mother, who is still a member, went bankrupt after excessive donations to the church.
Rather than blaming the assassin—and, again, the anti-cultists he had demonstrably been in contact with before the crime, who certainly did not suggest that he killed Abe but further excited his hate of the Unification Church—the media criticized the “cults.”
Media campaigns persuaded the Parliament and the government to pass laws and enact regulations limiting donations to religious organizations, and “protecting” second-generation members of new religious movements, such as the Abe’s assassin, from “religious abuse” allegedly derived from being socialized into controversial religious organizations. Indeed, these provisions also target the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who clearly had nothing to do with Abe or his assassination.
These are all cases of blaming the victims. After the Hamburg shooting, in German-speaking media several “cult experts” claimed that “probably” the assassin acted because he had been traumatized when he left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They noted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest that members in good standing, including non-cohabiting relatives, cease to associate with those who have been disfellowshipped or have formally resigned from the organization (so-called “shunning” or “ostracism”).
In Germany, one particularly vocal proponent of this theory was veteran professor of psychology Michael Utsch, who has worked since 1997 as a “cult expert” for the federation of German Protestant churches. He hypothesized that the crime was a fruit of the “emotional pressure” the Jehovah’s Witnesses may have exerted on the killer, a case of “how the cults isolate and control people.” “Perhaps the Hamburg crime is an opportunity to finally take note of what the cults are doing,” he said.
In another interview, Utsch added it was “a pity” that the misdeeds of the “cults” “only now are coming more into the public eye because of such a terrible event.” Utsch also tried to argue that the conservative theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their inability to reform themselves and “learn” how to adapt to the modern social context, may destabilize certain members and lead them to destructive acts.
He speculated that in the Hamburg case ostracism might have been the problem. “There are enough former members who are ostracized and who feel that this is a great deal of mental stress, and my first guess is of course that he was disappointed, that he was angry, and that such a terrible act then took place…”
In Switzerland, Georg Otto Schmidt, who heads a similar Protestant anti-cult center, immediately speculated that “it could be an ex-member who was absolutely desperate due to the exclusion and therefore took this action in the form of an extended suicide out of revenge.”
Swiss anti-cult journalist Hugo Stamm, well-known for his vitriolic attacks against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also conjectured that the Witnesses’ theology might have destabilized the assassin, who perhaps also suffered for having been ostracized. He even speculated that “it is quite conceivable that now the Jehovah’s Witnesses will interpret the killing spree as another signal for the end times.” Without clarifying whether she was still reporting Stamm’s opinion, the journalist who interviewed him added that the Jehovah’s Witnesses “may use the horrific event to close ranks internally with even more indoctrination and tightened rules.”
The articles I have quoted make it clear that the anti-cultists were not privy to any information on the perpetrator that had not already been published by the mainline media. They were just speculating, and obeying their Pavlovian conditioned reflex leading them to claim that if “cultists” are beaten or killed it should somewhat be their fault.
The Hamburg shooting came one day after March 8, International Women’s Day. Every year, on that day of observance, we are asked to reflect inter alia on how many women are killed by ex-partners they had left or were threatening to leave. They are more than 40,000 per year throughout the world. The “crime” for which these women died is that they excluded their former partners from their lives (something we can translate in religious terms as “disfellowshipping”) and refused to further associate with them (“shunning” or “ostracism”).
Those who would argue that these women were responsible of their fate, because they had “destabilized” their ex-partners by expelling and excluding them from their lives, would rightly be regarded as guilty of an obnoxious form of hate speech. Those who blame the victims, i.e., the Jehovah’s Witnesses, after the Hamburg massacre do not deserve to be treated more kindly.
Just as misogynism and prejudices against women fuel feminicide and revenge killing by their ex-partners, anti-cultism and hate speech against the Jehovah’s Witnesses may influence weak minds and even lead to violence and murder. Those who allowed Phillip Fusz to go around Hamburg with a deadly weapon should certainly be investigated. I would, however, suggest also investigating those who, by publicly slandering the Jehovah’s Witnesses and depicting them as an evil to be eradicated at all costs, might have slowly pushed the assassin’s fingers to pull the trigger.