Monday 31 August 2020

Sects Education #6: The Children Act (2017)

(Spoilers.You know the score.)

In The Children Act, Emma Thompson plays Mrs Justice Fiona Maye, a judge with a reputation for making decisions on divisive and high profile family cases. At the start of the film she makes the call to allow a hospital to separate a pair of conjoined twins, knowing that one will die rather than both, against the parents' wishes. She is called upon to make a judgement about Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), a boy of 17, only a few weeks from adulthood, who is sick in hospital and needs a blood transfusion to live. The boy is a Jehovah’s Witness, and neither he nor his parents wish the procedure. The hospital seeks an injunction to enable them to save the young man’s life. Fiona's marriage is however faltering – her husband (Stanley Tucci) announces he's planning on an affair – and in a lapse of judgement she goes to see Adam in hospital. He turns out to be bright and they connect over a song (her passion, it turns out, is music, and so is his). Of course she makes the judgement to save his life. He survives, turns 18, and begins to pursue her, because he has a crush on her. She rejects him eventually, but because of her own emotional state, does not know how to respond appropriately, and the ending is inevitable, tragic and wholly predictable.

And look, this is really not a great film. It's scripted by Ian McEwan, based on his novel, and the book is clearly defined as Serious Literature, by which we mean “stylistically accomplished but ultimately shallow books about the problems of rich people” and the film version cares (and wants you to care) more about the emotional problems of rich white straight people with temporal power than about Jehovah's Witnesses. It's not without empathy for Adam and his parents, but they're not its focus.

It's not exactly a bad film. I mean, it's watchable and the hour and a half passes pleasantly enough. It's just tasteful and competent. And not a whole lot more than that. And maybe when you're dealing with issues of life and death you really need to not worry so much about being tasteful.

The issue of the blood transfusion that comes up in The Children Act should be in itself an open and shut case, because the law after which the film is titled provides that cases like this more or less always find in the favour of the hospital, and the particular case of the Jehovah’s Witness family who refuse a blood transfusion for their child only for the hospital to turn to the law and overrule them recurs in news outlets on a fairly regular basis – for example, I found two from 2019 alone in a couple of minutes of Google searching. And of course, it’s a central plot point in Apostasy, too, where the consequences of it drive the second half of the story.

The horror that the Jehovah’s Witness Movement has of blood transfusion is one of those weird little kinks and quirks that a lot of religious groups have, one of several that Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for, and indeed it’s one of the things that make the post-Protestant sects unique in general – I could think of the rules Mormons have about clothing, or the issue Seventh Day Adventists have with the day of the week you hold church services, or the complex relationship that Christian Scientists have with conventional medicine.

It’s an important point with them. The notes in the New World Translation of the Bible (the official Watchtower Bible and Tract Society translation) for Acts 15, for example, read:

Christians were to avoid idolatry, sexual immorality, and the eating of meat from animals that were strangled and thus not bled properly. With regard to abstaining from blood, the meaning of this verb is broader than simply not consuming blood. It implies avoiding all misuse of blood, showing regard for its sacredness.​.. In God’s eyes, abstaining from blood is as important as avoiding idolatry and sexual immorality.

And the official FAQ on this subject reads: 

This is a religious issue rather than a medical one. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly command us to abstain from blood. (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:10; Deuteronomy 12:23; Acts 15:28, 29) Also, God views blood as representing life. (Leviticus 17:14) So we avoid taking blood not only in obedience to God but also out of respect for him as the Giver of life.”

And the point to concentrate on here is that this isn’t really a whim, or a quirk. Jehovah’s Witnesses take this terribly seriously. And it can be difficult for people from secular backgrounds really to understand the extent to which these issues matter.

Ideological issues like this are massively important to religious groups (and to political groups, too). And the more exclusive and separate the religious groups are, the more important they become. It might be easy to conflate the seriousness with which these disputes are treated with the sort of low stakes ferocity of, say, arguments in university departments or differences among the members of provincial poetry open mic scenes – to draw from my own experience. But it's not the same. While to an outsider, the day on which you go to church, or the precise style of your underwear, or the way in which democratic centralism is conducted (footnote: that's when, after debate, a central committee gives one recommendation to a group, which is then no longer up for discussion, and while up for a single vote, is really a foregone conclusion; groups which practice democratic centralism include Marxist-Leninists, Welsh Baptists and British university Christian Unions as run by UCCF) might seem to be wholly as trivial as arguing about who gets to be on the open mic bill tonight or the punctuation in the minutes of the staff-student committee, in fact the difference is this: to the believer these issues are life and death – and beyond.

Fiona Maye: It has been difficult under such pressure of time and intense public interest to arrive at settled legal principle. But the obvious is worth stating; this court is a court of law, not of morals.

The judge makes this statement right at the beginning of the film, while making the call on the conjoined twins case. But of course it's a programmatic statement for the whole film, since what happens to the boy Adam is about moral imperatives, and the clash of subtly different moral imperatives (and not just in Adam's case, although these are the ones that matter).

People who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses who butt up against them often find themselves utterly hating them. They seem so dour and so superior in their attitude, in the way that you do, I suppose, when you know you're going to an eternal reward that the person you're talking to isn't. They don’t celebrate birthdays, or Christmas. They don't come to your parties. Why on earth would anyone want to be a Jehovah's Witness?

Kevin Henry: ...and from that point on, we never looked back. I stopped drinking, got my training. Me and Naomi became good with each other, and, and looking after Adam properly, and he was – calmer – and he started doing well at school. And we had a lot of support from our Kingdom Hall, and good friends there. They’re the sort of people who’ll never let you down. We were happy. We was in the Truth.
Amadia Kalu QC: And now, Mr Henry, your son has leukaemia, and you and Naomi are facing the ultimate test of faith, is that how you’d put it?
Kevin Henry: That’s exactly what it is.
Amadia Kalu QC: Can you tell the court why you and your wife and Adam are refusing a blood transfusion?
Kevin Henry: What you have to understand is that blood is… the essence of what it means to be human. It’s… it’s the gift of life that we should all be grateful for. Just as life is sacred, so’s blood.

There are two sets of psychological reasons why one might stay in a religious sect, and I suppose you could divide them reasonably into the categories of the carrot and the stick. Sometimes you stay because you're scared, because you're abused. Because for whatever reason, the alternative to whatever you're going through is worse than what you're going through. You might be afraid of dying alone, or dying forever. You might be afraid of losing your family. But on the other hand, these things are often tied up with what's good. The happiness you felt at being accepted into a community. The support you had to deal with your problems. The gratitude you feel for this community having turned your life around.

Now Apostasy, as a film about Jehovah's Witnesses, was entirely about the stick. And that's reasonable, since its entire reason for existence was as a critique of the Jehovah's Witness movement in the eyes of a former member who’d had a terrible time at their hands. Its status as a narrative list of everything crappy about Jehovah's Witnesses depends on it. The one thing The Children Act does right is to let the issue with the blood transfusions be the problematic point here. You don't need to have any more, because it's an issue of life and death. Meanwhile, Kevin Henry gets to defend both Adam's right to refuse treatment and their struggle with that in the courtroom by laying out the good that being in the Truth has done for them: they have a community that mended their lives.

Adam's rejection of that community comes from the intoxication of still being alive, and his confused infatuation with Fiona, where he himself isn't sure whether he sees her as surrogate mother or lover; when she inevitably does the right thing and rejects him, he returns to the bosom of the Truth. Because I guess you would. Because groups like these are where broken hearts go.