A couple weeks ago here on Baltic Avenue I published a post having to do with the ever-so-slightly marginalized existence of American expatriates and non-Lithuanian speakers of all kinds here in Šiauliai (see “Life in the Slow Lane”). I mentioned our brief but enjoyable encounter with a Roman Catholic nun and our incipient friendship with a pair of Mormon missionaries whom we have come to recognize in the streets of the city center. Now there is a little more to report on this front.
Last week, on our way back from the Maxima supermarket—it’s about a kilometer away from our flat—we stopped to rest our weary pack-mule haunches at a sunny bench on our pedestrian street. Not a minute had elapsed before we were approached by a friendly woman who seemed undeterred by my effort at preemption. “We don’t speak Lithuanian,” I announced. No matter, she seemed to say, smiling, and then launching into a spirited one-sided conversation. While Jane retrieved a handful of litai from her purse, the lady insisted we take a copy of her publication, Atsibuskite!—i.e., Awake! We stuck it in one of our grocery bags and lugged it home.
Atsibuskite! is not an easy read in Lithuanian, but I was able to detect much that would be familiar to anyone who has ever perused the literature dispensed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the obligatory story debunking Darwin’s theory of evolution; multiple images of earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, and other natural disasters, all construed as signs of Jehovah’s wrath; an account of the dangers of smoking that probably was more indebted to mainstream science than the Darwin article; a feature story about El Salvador designed to pique the curiosity of the reader’s inner turista; and an analysis of troubled relationships between husbands and wives (vyras ir žmona). Everything was written in Lithuanian, even the fine print having to do with the Witnesses’ website (www.jw.org), and the address of their Lithuanian headquarters in Kaunas. You have to hand it to the Witnesses; they put together a pretty slick package.
I come from a family of lapsed J.W.s on my father’s side, so I’ll confess that my interest in the sect is not purely academic. To me it’s particularly significant that the sect was founded (by a man named Charles Taze Russell) early in the twentieth century in Pittsburgh, which happens to be my ancestral hometown, and a place where social stratification has always been pronounced. Wikipedia describes the Witnesses as “a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity,” and that seems about right to me. Historically, they have had issues with military service, the compulsory flag salute, and blood transfusions, which goes far toward explaining why they have been unpopular among conventional Christians and sometimes the victims of persecution by autocratic regimes.
What fascinates me about the Witnesses is that they are so self-consciously bourgeois, and this, I would submit, is because so many of them seem to be upwardly mobile blue-collar workers clinging to precarious toeholds in the middle class. The sociologists refer to this phenomenon as status anxiety, and I think it is eloquently expressed in the image above, in which Jesus’s unidentified disciple is depicted as muscular, yet freshly scrubbed and entirely housebroken and non-threatening. None of Caravaggio’s dirty feet for this saint! I would submit that J.W. artwork expresses multi-ethnic yet arguably mono-cultural aspirations; only middle-class people need apply.
It is perhaps significant that the fall of the Iron Curtain generated a religious revival in eastern Europe, but not so much for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches as for the American apocalyptic sects—the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses—which have been growing rapidly in this part of the world. Evidently, no one wants to be a proletarian anymore. Atsibuskite!