Exploiters of ‘Poverty and Ignorance’?
“JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES . . . take advantage of the poverty, the neglect, and the ignorance of a good portion of our people,” alleged Mexican writer Jorge García, “in order progressively to take control of their conscience.”—Excelsior of March 9, 1983.
Similar accusations against Jehovah’s Witnesses are often heard in Latin America. ‘No one of any importance ever becomes one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ say some professional people, politicians, and religious leaders. ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses get their followers from the poor, ignorant people.’ It is true that many of Jehovah’s Witnesses are of humble means, but does this mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘taking advantage of poverty, neglect, and ignorance?’ Does the fact that many humble and poor people respond to their teachings mean that such teachings are wrong?
To answer these questions, let us think back to the first century of our Common Era. What kind of people were attracted to Christianity back then?
Christianity—Why It Appealed to Lowly Ones
Modern-day critics of Jehovah’s Witnesses are merely echoing the words of first-century opposers of Christianity. Consider, for example, the Greek intellectuals who dwelt in the ancient city of Corinth. As the apostle Paul put it, “the Greeks look[ed] for wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 1:22) They wanted, of course, not Biblical wisdom, but abstruse philosophical arguments. And when the apostle Paul “did not come with an extravagance of speech or of wisdom” but delivered instead the simple message of “Christ, and him impaled,” Christianity was mocked by many as “foolishness.”—1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:1, 2.
Was Paul ‘taking advantage of ignorance,’ then, in appealing to the humble and lowly ones along with the other residents of Corinth? Not at all. Paul explained to Christians there: “For you behold his calling of you, brothers, that not many wise in a fleshly way were called, . . . but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame . . . in order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God.”—1 Corinthians 1:26-29.
From the very beginning, Christianity had been a religion that primarily attracted lowly, humble people. Jesus’ 12 apostles—the foundation of his church—were not taken from among the educated scribes and Pharisees. (Ephesians 2:20) Rather, they were from the working class, four being fishermen by trade. (Matthew 4:18-22; 10:2, 3) They were men who were viewed by the religious leaders as “unlettered and ordinary,” meaning that their education was elementary and not from the schools of higher learning. (Acts 4:13) The “lettered” scribes and Pharisees downgraded the long-awaited Messiah, mocking his teachings and his followers. They took the attitude that ‘no one of importance follows Jesus.’
Recall what happened on one occasion when they dispatched officers to “get hold of” Jesus. The officers came back empty-handed. Why? Says the Bible record: “The officers replied: ‘Never has another man spoken like this.’” Yes, they were astonished at Christ’s teachings! Yet, how did the educated religious leaders respond? “In turn the Pharisees answered: ‘You have not been misled also, have you? Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he?’” (John 7:32, 44-48) Pride thus prevented them from accepting Jesus. True, the Bible says that “many even of the rulers actually put faith in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess him, in order not to be expelled from the synagogue; for they loved the glory of men more than even the glory of God.”—John 12:42, 43.
Imagine that! These men were actually convinced that Jesus had the truth, but they refused to become his disciples out of fear of men. It was simply not convenient for those rulers to sacrifice their standing in the social, political, and religious circles to become followers of Jesus. No wonder that Jesus said: “Truly I say to you that it will be a difficult thing for a rich man to get into the kingdom of the heavens”! (Matthew 19:23) So, in general, such ones were too proud to follow a religion that required them humbly to ‘pick up their torture stake and follow Jesus.’ (Matthew 16:24) Christ thus once said in prayer: “I publicly praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have carefully hidden these things from wise and intellectual ones, and have revealed them to babes.” (Luke 10:21) Unlike the worldly intellectuals, such ones were receptive to the truth.—Compare Matthew 18:3.
God Is Not Partial
Wrote the disciple James: “God chose the ones who are poor respecting the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he promised to those who love him, did he not?” (James 2:5) Did this mean, then, that those of means and secular education were barred from serving God? Not at all! After the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, received holy spirit, Peter observed: “For a certainty I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) Perhaps Peter recalled Jehovah’s words to Samuel, spoken centuries previously: “For not the way man sees is the way God sees, because mere man sees what appears to the eyes; but as for Jehovah, he sees what the heart is.”—1 Samuel 16:7.
Interestingly, then, the Bible states that “a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7) Christians were found, too, in the prestigious “household of Caesar.” (Philippians 4:22) And even though the majority of Christians were of humble means, there were some in the congregation who were rich.—1 Timothy 6:17.
It should not surprise us, then, that the truth today has borne fruit primarily among the common people. Jehovah is still looking, not at a person’s bank account or secular education, but at the heart. (Proverbs 21:2) Remember, too, that Jesus said: “No man can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him.” (John 6:44) Certainly, the Father would draw to himself only those who were humble and teachable, would he not?
However, this is not to say that educated and so-called professional people are not becoming Jehovah’s Witnesses. When Paul gave a simple, yet forceful, exposition of the truth before King Agrippa, the king admitted: “In a short time you would persuade me to become a Christian.” (Acts 26:27, 28) Likewise, many educated ones have been attracted to the truth by the clear and logical explanation of Bible truth that Jehovah’s Witnesses give. Remember, a humble person is not necessarily uneducated. Moses was called “the meekest of all the men who were upon the surface of the ground.” (Numbers 12:3) Yet, he had been “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.”—Acts 7:22.
It is worthy of note, though, that when individuals of little secular education begin associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses, they often take steps to improve their educational skills. They try to improve their reading and study habits so as to learn the basic teachings of the Bible and keep up with the steady stream of Bible literature published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. If a sincere person wants to learn the Bible but is hindered by illiteracy, free instruction can often be arranged through the local congregation.
The Watchtower Society even publishes a booklet entitled Learn to Read and Write. This booklet has helped many thousands of people to learn to read in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. In one Latin-American country, 51,249 have learned to read and write in the past 26 years with the help of this booklet! In one small Latin-American village, the inspector of the Department of Education met together with representatives of several different organizations—including Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witness there told them about the Learn to Read booklet and invited the group to one of the Witnesses’ meetings.
The group attended the Theocratic Ministry School—a meeting designed to help men and women become effective teachers. To their surprise, they saw a man whom they had known to be illiterate—on the platform and giving a Bible talk! Said one of the visitors, a school principal: “It is not possible that this man that we have always known as an illiterate is able to converse in Spanish [rather than his native dialect], much less to talk to an audience, but he is.”
So rather than exploiting lowly people, true Christians today are helping them improve themselves by assisting them to come to a knowledge of the truth. Such Christians are carrying out the educational work Jesus commissioned when he said: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, . . . teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19, 20) And as a result, each year tens of thousands from every level of society are joining the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses.