They’ve searched for you. They’ve come to your door and knocked. Oh, you might not have answered. Maybe you hid in your bedroom, or peaked through the curtains, but they came nonetheless. You’ve seen them walking up to your door in their discount suits, clip-on ties, and clean-shaven faces. In 2008 they spent 1,488,658,249 hours doing just that. Indeed, with the possible exception of their constantly evolving policy on blood transfusions, Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably better known for their door-to-door proselytizing than for anything else.
It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that for as intensely as Witnesses try to recruit new members, they try even harder to shun those who come to doubt the religion.
One of the most effective tools a religion has at its disposal is shunning. Fear of being shunned is what keeps many members loyal to a religion they no longer fully believe. And for those few who are vocal about the hypocrisy they’ve discovered in their former religion, shunning is a form of damage control, a preemptive maneuver that prevents the faithful—the “sheep”—from associating with those who may cause their faith to waver.
In religions, and other groups propped up by unverifiable claims, the need for shunning is apparent. Should a member come across damning information about the group, it is imperative to ex-communicate that individual hastily, lest they divulge their findings to others. Of course, merely erasing a former member from a religion’s roster doesn’t silence them, but it does squelch the curiosity of members in good standing. Simply inform the faithful members of a cult, sect, or religion that their best friend, brother, sister, father, or mother has been excommunicated and—violá!—suddenly, and without dissent, all in the congregation are now under theological mandate to ignore, demonize, and otherwise demean their former companion.
The word “shun” brings with it images of a by-gone era; of women in bonnets in the back woods physically turning their backs on former members; of zealots crying out that their family member is “dead to them.” But far from being relegated to bygone books and plays, shunning is vibrant and thriving in twenty-first century America.
A few years ago, my wife and I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We did so of our own accord, without creating any enemies. We held no ill will towards anyone. We simply disagreed with some of their teachings and policies and quietly discontinued our religious activity with the local congregation. Over the year that followed, Witnesses occasionally stopped by our door to visit. The visits were brief, amicable, and even friendly at times.
The following May we celebrated our son’s second birthday. Witnesses view such celebrations as sinful, but, since we weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses, we saw no reason not to celebrate his birthday; much as, say, a non-Muslim sees no reason to fast during Ramadan.
But word of our small celebration traveled through the gossip chain, and eventually came to the attention of the elders. In August (over a year since we had last considered ourselves Witnesses) I received a call from an elder of my former congregation. He requested to meet with my wife and me, but I declined his offer on the basis that I saw no benefit in holding such a meeting.
But Witnesses aren’t so easily deterred. The same elder called two weeks later, insistent that we meet. He explained that he knew about our birthday celebration and that the elders needed to deal with our sin. This seemed odd to me; since I was no longer a Witness, why would the elders hold me to their rules? It was as if I had quit a job and then, over a year later, received a call from my ex-boss accusing me of violating company policy during the past month.
The elder had me in a difficult spot. Had I simply declined the meeting again, the elders would have disfellowshipped (the Jehovah’s Witness term for excommunication) my wife and me, meaning that all of our Witness friends and family would be barred from speaking to us ever again. On the other hand, had I accepted the meeting, the elders would have seen that we were not remorseful for our “sin” and likewise disfellowshipped us.
So instead I asked him to give me a few days to ponder the matter. He agreed and, in the meantime, my wife and I sent a letter to the elders wherein we agreed to meet with them as long as we would be permitted to bring legal counsel and record the meetings. We asked them to respect any ecclesiastically privileged information they may have had about us, and to not defame us to the congregation. These were reasonable requests, as the Witnesses claim to follow the Bible, and the Bible records several disciplinary meetings. And since the elders would undoubtedly be in contact with the team of lawyers from the Watchtower Society (the Witnesses’ governing organization), we felt it was only fair we be afforded the same rights.
The elders did not respond to our letter.
But this put them in a difficult spot: My wife and I were free to associate with any Witness we wanted to, yet as non-believers, the elders worried that we would convince our friends and family that the religion was untrue. They wished to silence us, but their hands were tied.
The elders corresponded with the Watchtower Society numerous times and eventually devised a plan to excommunicate us without having to go through the legal trouble of disfellowshipping us without due process. Instead, they concocted a new form of expulsion: removal. Without informing us of their decision, the elders “removed” us from being Witnesses over two years after we had already left the religion. This satisfied their need to label us as persons to be avoided. Our names were defamed to the entire congregation, and when people called the elders requesting more information, the elders offered up details of our private conversations. In short order, our family and friends ceased all association with us.
“You and James are no longer Jehovah’s Witnesses,” wrote my wife’s sister in an email. “Based on this, combined with the abusive talk about my beliefs and religion to others, I am making the decision to cease all association with you and James.” Her brother sent a nearly identical message about making the decision to cease all association. (It’s interesting how similarly scripted both messages were while also asserting the decision had been an individual one.)
Thankfully, this is a watered-down version of the stance some religions take. Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular have a palpable nostalgia for the days when fallen comrades, instead of being shunned, were simply killed:
We are not living today among theocratic nations where such members of our fleshly family relationship could be exterminated for apostasy…Being limited by the laws of the worldly nations in which we live and also by the laws of God through Jesus Christ, we can take action against apostates only to a certain extent, that is, consistent with both sets of laws. The law of the land and God’s law through Christ forbid us to kill apostates. (The Watchtower, 15 Nov 1952)
The relational aggression, however, is immediate and total. My wife was even met with silence after explaining to her sibling that our three year-old son had gifts he wished to give his cousin. Witnesses believe that toddlers and even infants are equally culpable with their parents, a teaching they base on that ever-loving book, the Bible, and hence see no reason to associate with the condemned children of apostatized parents.
So the next time smiling folks come to your door with Watchtower in hand inviting you to join the Witnesses, ask them: If I join, will I be allowed to hold dissenting opinions? Should I ever decide to leave the religion, will I be allowed to do so freely and without harassment? Will the friends I’ve made in the religion continue to treat me as Jesus treated the Samaritans, in a kind and Christian manner? Ask if they are currently shunning someone themselves—a childhood friend, perhaps. Their mother? Their grandson? Then ask if they believe theirs is a religion of love. They may squirm. They may run. Either way, they’ll think. It’s never too late to start.