In 2016, my mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, shunned me via an 83 word email, in which she described how she needed to remain loyal to Jehovah, and could not remain in contact with me until I returned to the religion.
Several years earlier, in my early twenties, I’d begun to exit the religion. I had started to doubt it was the one true religion, as I’d been led to believe. I slowly stopped going to meetings and on the “ministry” (the Jehovah’s Witnesses term going from door to door), and hoped a gradual approach would mean I wouldn’t be shunned.
“Shunning” is the deliberate act of cutting contact with people – even family members – who are not part of the faith. And despite it being stated on the Jehovah Witness website JW.org that this doesn’t happen, my experience shows that it very much still does. In fact, in a video in 2016, parents were encouraged to shun children who left, framing shunning as an opportunity to show loyalty to God. After watching this video, my mother obeyed directions, and shunned me.
Jehovah Witnesses are not the only faith group that practice shunning – it has been used by Muslims, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Fundamental Christian groups for example. People are encouraged to mix only with group members and believe anything outside to be sinful. Members of these groups often lead an isolated existence.
This degree of isolation creates a dangerous situation for those who exit religions implementing shunning: they no longer have contact with those inside, but have no support networks outside the group. Moreover being shunned can unsurprisingly lead to depression, anger, and suicidal thoughts. After being shunned, I suffered a period of grieving for the relationship with my mother that I knew was no longer possible.
It is for this reason that I feel that organisations practising or promoting shunning should face greater scrutiny and even punishment in the form of financial penalties or legal action.
The Government has acknowledged the harm shunning can do. Colin Bloom, the Government’s Faith Engagement Adviser, published an independent review into how government engages with faith in April, and while it only mentioned shunning three times it did note that the physical, emotional and spiritual toll of leaving a sect can be significant. Bloom encouraged better dialogue between faith groups and the Government and recommended that a programme to support those who have been shunned is funded.
This is all well and good but I don’t believe it will stop shunning. A useful starting point would be a working legal definition of a cult and shunning, allowing differentiation between benign faith groups and those whose practices are harmful. Making shunning a specific criminal offence too would likely have a knock on effect on the charitable status of these groups, since the key test of a charity is that it constitutes public benefit, something that is difficult to argue when harm is evident.
Although to most, the cruelty of the practice seems immediately apparent, I’ve heard Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly describe shunning as a loving provision in their literature, stating it’s to help those shunned “realise what they’ve lost”; emphasising how it keeps congregants free from “moral contamination”, calling those who leave “mentally diseased”.
Such language and actions veer dangerously close to the definition of relational coercive control as stated on the Crown Prosecution’s website. Coercive control includes isolating a person from family and friends, and “enforcing rules which degrade, humiliate, or dehumanise the victim”. Not only does shunning those who leave faith groups act as a form of control, it also infringes their right to religious freedom as stated in the Declaration of Human Rights.
In official responses to criticism, leaders of the Jehovah’s Witness assert that shunning is an individual choice. But I would argue that choice is made under persuasion from videos, literature, and other group members. This leads to the question, should religions who benefit from the protection of freedom of religion and yet infringe that same freedom by promoting and inflicting punitive measures face penalties? Considering the harm shunning inflicts on millions, it seems it is time to place organisations imposing and encouraging it under greater official scrutiny.
After I lost my mother to the religion, I experienced a period of intense, prolonged grief. When I tried to explain to people outside, they didn’t understand the severity of the situation. Annabel, a fellow ex-member describes shunning as being “put into a state of purgatory. There’s no language to distance yourself from it”. Like Annabel, I couldn’t fully explain to people what I’d lost; not only had I lost my faith, I had also lost my sense of self, my entire support system, and worst of all, my mother.
Kate, a former member, describes the isolation members of the sect exist in – children attend faith school, when they leave then working in businesses owned by the Brethren. Married women are expected to stay at home, their whole lives revolving around marriage, the church, and fellowship. As a victim of domestic violence, Kate experienced numerous breakdowns and lengthy stays in psychiatric units. Despite escalating abuse, Elders explained to her that the only acceptable solution was “reunification” with her husband. In 2019, vulnerable and alone, Kate fled the family home, speaking out in a national newspaper when she realised the severity of the situation. This was to cost her dearly: her parents subsequently cut all contact with her.
Annabel echoes this distress; “you’re on an abandoned planet. You just get stranded and there’s nowhere to go, your whole life’s taken away.” It is these recurring human stories that I’ve heard repeatedly the publication of my memoir, The Last Days, that have led me to question the ethics of shunning – should such a harmful practice be allowed to flourish today?
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