20/20 Perspective: Shunning
Having left the message in 2013, this is a look back in hindsight of the things I’ve learned with the blessing of time and distance. These are personal thoughts and opinions from my experience.
Who Shunned Who?
Honestly. This is a question I’ve had to really reflect on.
In the immediate aftermath, it could be well documented in my writing on this website how the message folk effectively ‘shunned’ people who left. I felt very strongly that this did happen, and I felt this was an evidence of how the Message was a “cult”.
But I’ve had to really think about this as the years have passed. And I think I have a little more developed opinion on it now.
What is Shunning?
Shun: to avoid deliberately.
In the most simplistic of terms, the practice of ‘shunning’ is defined as a deliberate avoidance. It is often associated with groups who, by virtue of their strongly held religious beliefs, will banish a former-member from their community and fellowship.
Shunning is an effective tactic of social control within tightly-knit communities, given that social acceptance is often a core measurement of divine approval. To be outcast – even if only briefly – is a wounding and destabilizing punishment.
Whereas a more common understanding of shunning is a banishment from a group, perhaps a more painful form of shunning is when it is enacted as a form of punishment within a community. An example might be that, upon violating a rule of acceptable conduct, a member is effectively not welcomed or included in community activity. It could be formally decided upon by the leadership (ministry / deacon board proclaiming their ruling upon the individual), or could be a generally understood social rejection to demonstrate community disapproval.
Ultimately, it is an effective and painful method of social control. People don’t like to be labelled as unworthy or unacceptable. The pressure to conform in order to be reconciled and accepted is immensely motivating.
Does the Message Practice the Act of Shunning?
There are too many accounts of community shunning occurring to dispute that it happens.
In the Message, there was an understanding that the leadership could effectively cast someone from “under the blood” as a form of spiritual and physical expulsion. That would be the ultimate rejection, and was not one that I frequently heard of or witnessed.
However, in more common circumstances of socially out-casting a member, it wasn’t rare to see someone pushed to the outside for being “less spiritual” or for struggling to maintain standards of holiness. When there was a cloud of uncertainty surrounding one’s devotion to the church, church members had a natural tendency to avoid them. Shunning was even more likely when disagreement arose between members, or in larger scale, even between churches within the message community.
This element of social avoidance is the aspect I want to focus on most: People will default to protect themselves from discomfort in nearly all situations.
Human Nature is to Avoid Discomfort
In the aftermath of leaving the message, did I think I was being shunned? Yes.
I was beyond being a mere “unbeliever”; I was apostate for rejecting the prophet. With simple deductive reasoning, based on my observed experience as a long-time believer, I expected to be shunned. Clearly, I was. The amount of outreach I received was shockingly minimal.
But here’s the honest twist. How many people did I reach out to after I left? Did I shun message people too, as per the definition of shunning (eg. avoidance)?
I don’t even think it is always “intentional” in the sense of personal malice. There is a mutual aversion between the church group and the individual leaving. Neither is eager to spend time with the other socially or in an effort to rebuild bridges. At the time of my leaving, I know the last thing I wanted to do was find myself in the company of a group of message believers. There was an unpleasant tension. I’m sure they felt exactly the same.
Having talked with many people who left the church, I can tell you of stories where an ex-believer was in a store, and they saw a person from their old message church who very clearly did everything they could to avoid them. But also – I know the reverse is true! Many of the ex-believers did the same, and they would go out of their way to avoid an uncomfortable encounter.
What I’ve Learned in Hindsight
My thought is very much a perspective of fairmindedness. I recognize not all churches are equal, and in some more extreme cases, the “shunning” is patently enforced from the leadership. I’ve heard some horrible stories of deliberate and strict shunning from the Message leadership in a specific church.
However in general, I believe it is less about malice, and more about fear and discomfort. There is research to suggest that the act of “shunning” is a reactionary response and painful to both sides.
From the perspective of one still in the message – the ex-member was infected with unbelief and poses a danger to the community. How often does a sheep chase after a perceived wolf? Shunning was not necessarily what they wanted to do – so much as it was what they had to do. Furthermore, what if the ex-member presented persuasive arguments? That scenario was entirely undesirable, and in fact, “not-knowing” why a person left was a more comfortable status quo, and a compelling reason to avoid rather than facing an uncomfortable conversation.
From the perspective of one who was leaving – there is often rejection, guilt and shame involved. Personally, I felt a sense of shame, because leaving the community seemed to suggest an abandonment of my community, relationships, role, testimony, god, faith/beliefs and even my morality. It might seem that I was secretly desiring to ‘sin’. So yes – even though I had real reasons for my decision – I still felt a sense of the hurt I committed. I was absolutely certain that I would not be understood, no matter what I said. So did I want to talk to message people? Did I want to try to explain myself, over and over? No.
So just as they avoided me… I avoided them. Yet if you asked me if I still cared for the people I was leaving, absolutely I did! And I bet they would have said the same about me.
I think the ‘shunning’ that happens is the result of something much bigger than us. I didn’t want to lose anyone. But what else was there to do, but for me to go and for them to let me go.
I do think with time, the affect of shunning from the perspective of “fear and discomfort” can fade to the point of irrelevance. Speaking personally, as years passed, I realized that the bond I had with many people in the church was contingent entirely on our community and agreement. Once I left the church and my viewpoint changed, the bond was broken. I am not ‘shunning’ them any longer, so much as… I’ve moved on. I don’t need or want to see them because they aren’t in my life anymore. I might even opt to never see them again, if asked for a meeting. Not because I hate them, but because… what’s the point?.
Where the Ugliness is Exposed: Family
There is a wildcard in all of this: family.
It’s one thing to lose a friend or church member. Those are the people who came into our life at some point in time, and we established a relationship. It can hurt, but truthfully, friends come and go. But family – those are the people who were bonded to you from your birth. Grandparents, parents and children. Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces. Siblings and cousins.
This is where shunning takes on an uglier face. What does a parent do when their child leaves the message? What do siblings do? How do they treat each other? Will they sit across the table over a Thanksgiving meal? Will they gather at Christmas and exchange gifts? Will birthdays still be an occasion for joy? Will grandparents be there to see their grandchildren born?
These are the situations which make me step back and say – I loathe what malpractice of religion can do. I’ve heard horrible and sad stories of shunning, and in these situations, it takes exceptional people to rise about the discomfort and ask the question: “Do I want to have a relationship with my dad / mom/son/daughter/brother/sister/grandchild? “
Forgive me for saying it just this way – but your religious piety be damned. Find a way between family to really love each other – even if you disagree.