Sep 18, 2016

What is shunning and why is it used?

Dave Dormer, CBC News 

Sep 18, 2016

A recent court decision has brought the rarely used practice of religious shunning into the spotlight.

The Alberta Court of Appeal decided to allow the Court of Queen's Bench to hear an application relating to the 2014 expulsion of a member of the Highwood Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The appellate court sided with Randy Wall, a Calgary real estate agent and member of the congregation who faced expulsion after admitting to being drunk on two occasions and verbally attacking his wife.

So what is shunning and why is it used?

"When someone in the group breaks the norms of the group," said Irving Hexham, a professor of religious studies at University of Calgary.

"When they go against what the group regards as its ethical standards, they essentially excommunicate the member and they tell members of their own community that they shouldn't talk to them, they shouldn't sometimes be in the same room as they are, they shouldn't have anything to do with them and they say they are not welcome in the church or meeting place of that community."

Jehovah's Witness aren't the only faith to use shunning as a form of punishment.

Excommunication from the Catholic Church is the most widely known, while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has used a form of shunning. Some First Nations have used also banishment as punishment.

Once someone is shunned, it doesn't last forever, said Hexham.

"It lasts until the person who is identified as being the culprit either repents and comes back and asks for forgiveness and changes their ways," he said.

Hexham said he was surprised the appeal court sided with Wall.

"I thought it was rather absurd," he said.

"I didn't expect them to decide in his favour. I thought they would say, 'this is a religious group and there are norms within that group.' We recognize the separation of church and state and you voluntarily join the religious group and you voluntarily leave. Also, if they want to exclude you, that's their decision. You can't force people to become members of a religion. It's a private group."

Personal experience

Sheryl Waldner has experienced shunning, more than once.

A former member of a Hutterite colony in Manitoba, Waldner left the group in 2006 along several with her siblings, wanting to see more of the world.

For that, she is now shunned. Her own father had been shunned three years earlier after he became a Christian, she says.

"We were all an emotional mess," she said.

"We were full of fear because of the way we grew up… and because we didn't know how to live on the outside, or who we are as an individual."

What made leaving even tougher, said Waldner, was the fact she had no resources and couldn't speak English, as members of the colony spoke a unique form of German.

"We didn't have much of anything but people on the outside who were not ex-Hutterites, they invited us into their home. It was a small ministry in North Dakota," she said.

"They knew were desperate, they knew we were searching for something different."


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