The Last Word
Now a recognized church, a Jehovah’s Witness proclaims the end is near
Markus Seyffertitz believes that the world will end soon.
"Crises, earthquakes, epidemics and the cooling of inter-personal relationships. Many of the signs described in the Bible are observable today," he says. However, the 44-year-old doesn’t appear particularly devastated. On the contrary, he has been waiting for the end for a long time, his whole life, in fact. By day, the resident of Vienna’s 10th District of Favoriten works for a bank, by night he enjoys watching F.C. Barcelona’s magic. He is happily married to his wife, Alexandra. Sometimes they go to the movies together – or knock on the doors of strangers.
Markus Seyffertitz is a Jehovah’s Witness, one of 21,000 in Austria and some seven million worldwide. In May, Claudia Schmied, of Austria’s Socialist Party (SPÖ) and Minister of Education, recognized the group as a religious denomination. It has taken 30 years – 30 years of petitions and deadlines, troubles and complaints.
The silent Witnesses who distribute the literature Awake and The Watchtower to passers-by; the annoying people who mumble something about Jesus into intercoms; newspaper reports of emergency patients who would rather die than receive blood transfusions – these all have formed our image of a strange community, something between a bible study group and a sect.
Anyone who attempts to see the world through Seyffertitz’s eyes enters a highly professional, global corporate belief group that expects total allegiance from its members – and in return, promises friendship, service and eternal life.
Seyffertitz is a model Witness. He receives his guests at a generously covered table in his cozy Favoriten apartment. He looks his interviewer deeply in the eyes while he calmly explains his "simple truth," never once stumbling. Facial expressions, gestures, rhetoric and reasoning all belong to the Witness curriculum. Seyffertitz’s monologues are a mix of Bible lessons, NLP and comfort. Viennese, he was born in 1964 into the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
"The religious upbringing is the job of the parents," he says." Hence, Sermon of the Mount instead of fairytales: Before he could even read, Seyffertitz knew the most important sites of the Bible. This is one of the reasons why now, after their recognition, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not planning to set up any organized religious instruction.
The fact that he was different from his schoolmates especially sunk in on birthdays. Witnesses avoid any form of celebration. The community comes before the individual; God comes before the community, and he gives deliverance in the afterlife in exchange for sacrifice on Earth.
Seyffertitz doesn’t drink or smoke, doesn’t celebrate or masturbate, he doesn’t go to brothels or to elections. Witnesses worship the family: the state, an instrument of the devil, is tolerated.
The apocalypse has already been prophesied by the community five times. The last time was in late fall, 1975. Back then Markus Seyffertitz was nine years old. Thousands of Witnesses worldwide withdrew their children from school, sold their apartments and canceled their life insurance policies. Seyffertitz today says that at the time he didn’t notice the excitement.
Witnesses describe the apocalypse as Armageddon: the war of the gods, the victory of Jehovah, the beginning of his thousand-year reign. At that time, the chosen 144,000 Witnesses will rise to heaven and rule at the side of God. The others will live for eternity on the Earth-turned-paradise. And non-Witnesses?
"Who it is that is unworthy of being saved is luckily decided by God and not by humans," says Seyffertitz. I asked if he is one of the chosen 144,000, which only they themselves know? An intimate question that after short hesitation, he answers with "no."
Too much had been interpreted into the message, it was asserted, as in October 1974, again the next morning came. Today the official version reads: there had never been such a prophecy. The truth is what truth is – and that is defined by the "Governing Body," the committee heading the organization based in New York.
The donation-financed corporate belief group is organized as a strict hierarchy and is highly professional. The Watch Tower is also being produced in the United States. Worldwide, seven million Witnesses distribute 37 million copies in more than 150 languages.
Since the error of 1975, the apocalypse no longer has a date, it just lies ahead. And so the community was forced to adjust itself to the world. In 1978, for example, the Austrian branch applied for recognition as a religious denomination.
Shortly after, in 1981 the then 17-year-old Seyffertitz was baptized. For this, the worshipers get into a pool. Sometimes these so-called "conventions" take place in soccer stadiums in front of 40,000 Witnesses.
Does Seyffertitz ever have doubts? He thinks for awhile: Yes, one time, just before his baptism, but the Bible convinced him. Puberty is the most difficult phase for born Witnesses, as they are confronted by temptations of the satanic world. Two of Seyffertitz’s brothers drifted away from Jehovah.
At the age of 19, he got drunk for the first and last time. This was the time when he married his current wife, Alxexandra. She is also a witness, a "Pioneer" even, who dedicates the majority of her time towards the community. She visits the sick and doubters or goes from door to door to recruit new Witnesses: They call it "witnessing" activities. "A Witness is only someone who can also bear witness," says Seyffertitz.
A Viennese resident is visited by a Jehovah’s follower on average one time a year. Target groups for conversion are people going through an identity crisis. The highest growth rates are in emerging and developing countries. Seyffertitz himself has already been able to convince three people of Jehovah.
The movement, which sees itself as the logical continuation of the apostolic founding community, was created at the end of the 19th century in the USA. Christianity, as founder Charles T. Russell argued, had distanced itself from Christ through roman-Hellenistic influences.
The Bible is the DNA of all things for Witnesses, "our guidance for the daily life as Christians," formulates Seyffertitz. He reads it over breakfast with his wife, in the evening with friends, at gatherings and in between by himself. In the conversation he repeatedly opens it and recites from it stage-ready. "Fascinating," he says after each respective punch-line and looks expectantly into his counterpart’s eyes. It is a mixture of happiness, intoxication and delusion, which then shines in his pupils.
As most Witnesses in Austria, aside from the Bible, Seyffertitz always carries with him a list of "cooperative doctors" who are willing to treat Witnesses in emergencies according to the wishes of Jehovah. So-called Hospital Liaison Committees and a law office fiercely lobby for the interest of their clients. Since the existence of the binding living will of the patient, the trying topic of blood transfusion is off the table; trying because it harms the reputation of Witnesses when a child whose parents enjoy reading the Bible dies on the operating table.
Four years ago, Seyffertitz was promoted to "Coordinator of the Body of Elders", supervisor of a Favoritner congregation with 90 members. Each official post of the organization is filled by "experienced men" as the Bible declares. Four-hundred of these congregations exist in Austria, some in Turkish, Serbo-Croatian or for the deaf.
Witnesses hold their congregations three times a week in Kingdom Halls. The furnishing is simple – chairs, a podium and a loud speaker. Anyone who is healthy comes. Anyone who is sick or has doubts is visited. Apart from the Bible, Jehovah’s Witnesses above all believe in the community.
The withdrawal from the social environment outside the Kingdom Halls goes without saying. Anyone who dedicates their free time only to the Bible, its followers and their expansion quickly loses interest in the puddle of sin outside.
Like Seyffertitz, the majority are well integrated; they function at their jobs, circulate the message without pressure and their hostile lack of interest towards the state and other churches has been reduced in the process of their recognition.
Doubters, skeptics and critics have no place in their Noah’s Ark. Witnesses who breach the ethical guidelines or vehemently ask the wrong questions are punished by "dis-fellowship". From this point on, every contact with the cast off is forbidden. From one day to the next they are left with nothing.
Whoever speaks with them and their advisors, under the promise of anonymity, encounters the other side of the Jehovah’s Witnesses: the mercilessness with which the presbyters judge the unwanted; the absolute power, by which each judgment and each argument from above is accepted and recited; and the pain a father feels when his son no longer speaks with him.
And so the Jehovah’s Witnesses no longer appear as just a strange and harmless group. They raise big questions: the delegation of responsibility, the normalizing of the individual, risks and side-effects of the absolute truth; questions Markus Seyffertitz anticipates and whose answers he has been learning since his childhood.
He speaks a lot about the Holy Scriptures and about life in truth, emphasizing that membership is voluntary and the beauty of the individual. These are biblical statements, as smooth as from politicians, hardly open to arguing. In any case, they are not answers. Still, not too much should be expected from Witnesses such as Markus Seyffertitz. He may be a well-trained believer, but he is not a theologian; a Jehovah Eyewitness, but not its lawyer.
How much longer does he think things on Earth will go on?
"I am not just a time soldier who works with an end in mind," says Seyffertitz. "I am a believer with normal needs who tries to live by God’s principles."
Stefan Apfl is central European Correspondent for the Viennese alternative weekly, Falter, where this article appeared originally on May 19 in German. It appears here by permission of the author.
Translation: Ingrid Salazar
Jehovah’s Witnesses were recognized in Austria in May as a religious denomination after a three-decade-long legal battle. Now they are the 13th official church (alongside Catholics, Buddhists, Mormons, etc.). With this they are allowed to offer religious education – which they do not yet plan. According to their own figures, there are 21,168 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Austria, of which 3,959 are in Vienna. Statewide the congregations take place in 33 languages.