September 29, 2000
I do not have Olympic fever. I haven't even seen any Olympic footage, aside from whatever photos which may adorn the front pages of various newspapers. However, yesterday, I read something on a forum that I found very interesting. Both Serena and Venus Williams competed in the Olympics. Both proudly carried the American flag in front of an international audience. And Venus stood at attention and sang the national anthem.
You might wonder why this is so interesting to me. The answer is because the Williams sisters are Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs), and JWs are not supposed to sing anthems, pledge allegiance to the flag, or have a nationalistic bone in their bodies. The Olympics are considered by the Watchtower Society (the JW's equivalent of the Pope) to be a nationalistic event, and therefore to be avoided. Carrying the flag is considered to be an act of idolatry. Singing the anthem, or giving a standing ovation, for that matter, is tantamount to offering prayer to another god. This isn't just a minor thing like the Catholic "prohibition" against eating meat on Fridays. It is a very big deal.
At least, it used to be. Sixty years ago, JWs were beaten, threatened, stoned (with rocks, you weirdo!), jailed, and had their property destroyed because of their firm stance against nationalism. You can read more about that at Jehovah's Witnesses, Litchfield residents clash over religious beliefs. When I was a kid, I staunchly sat in my seat during the singing of the anthem while other students stood up and sang. Although some teachers tried to cajole me into at least standing for the anthem, I adamantly refused.
In fact, I never sang the national anthem until I was in my fourth year of university. The woman next to me complimented me on my singing voice and I said to her, "This is my first time singing this song." I don't think she believed me.
I can't help but wonder how many anthems the Williams sisters have sung. Venus is quoted as saying, "This is the one moment in time for me, for my country, for my family, for the team" (italics mine) (from Gold in hand, Venus grows up at the Olympics).
Personally, I don't care if either of the Williams sisters carry the flag, yodel out the anthem, or receive stars-and-stripes enemas. There are, however, numerous repurcussions bouncing about amongst the JW and ex-JW communities. This tempest in a tennis court is similar to the Michael Jackson Thriller scandal of the 1980s. Once upon a time, Michael Jackson was considered a JW in good standing. Then he started a solo career. JW children everywhere were clamouring for Michael posters and trendy but oh-so-tacky leather jackets.
At public assemblies of JWs, elders (JW priests) gave cautionary lectures on why we shouldn't give adulation to lowly people, but only to God. "After all," they said, "we don't have posters of our elders hanging on our bedroom walls, do we? So why should we have posters of some other JW, or even worse, a worldly person (JW-speak for a non-JW)?"
Then the Thriller video came out, and the sh-- really hit the fanatics. "No Jehovah's Witness would have such an involvement with the occult!" screamed outraged JWs. Michael Jackson carefully backtracked and added a disclaimer to the beginning of his video saying something to the effect of "I don't really believe this zombie crap. It's all make-believe."
But the JWs were not assuaged. Jacko was soon out of "The Truth" on his ear.
So, will the Williams sisters be out on their ears? Will their fame shrivel up like Jacko's did after he got the boot? Only time will tell. Because of the Internet, JWs are now able to discuss this scandal amongst themselves. Some seem to think there is a special dispensation for rich and famous JWs. If you're in the spotlight enough, you can get away with more. After all, if the JWs kick the Williams sisters out, they'll have just lost their golden poster children. Then again, if the girls are penalised, the people of the world will get a lesson in just how upright and the JWs really are (er, think they are).
In the meantime, it would appear God is on the Williams' side.
From: "Religious Affiliations of Celebrities" page in "Celebrity Religion" section of "Religion Facts" website (http://www.religionfacts.com/celebrities/religions_of_celebrities.htm; viewed 26 April 2007):
Below is an index of the religious affiliations or belief systems of celebrities (both living and dead; in film, television, music, literature, academics and politics), listed in alphabetical order by last name...
Celebrity: Serena and Venus Williams
Religion/Belief: Jehovah's Witnesses
Quotes, More Information, Sources:
"We believe in good association, association with fellow Witnesses, not becoming too involved with people that don't have the same beliefs and same values that we do. We go to meetings three times a week. They encourage us. You learn there, you learn more, just continue learning until you get a better understanding of things. I guess you are aware that we do house-to-house witnessing. I can't do that at all because I'm on the road. Getting more popular, I don't know if I can go house-to-house. I'm thinking about that." - Venus, asapsports.com [link to: http://www.asapsports.com/tennis/1998lipton/032398VW.html]