If you are an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, no doubt you have been subjected to some form of shunning. If you have never been a JW you will know little or nothing about their practice of shunning former members.
It sounds like something out of the Puritan era, like The Scarlett Letter, and yeah, there are a lot of Hester Prynnes around.
If you leave the JWs voluntarily or if you are expelled for “wrongdoing” you will be subjected to shunning. This means that every JW you know will not talk to you, yea, will not even acknowledge your existence. If you have family who are JWs, depending on how staunch they are, they will follow the same procedure with the possible exception of a life-or-death situation or in business situations.
If you have “faded” from the congregation, simply stopped participating, it is likely you will receive the same treatment from most in the congregation, since you are now “bad association.”
Here’s how it works in practice. The JW-in-good-standing (we’ll call him “Paul”) is perusing the selection of cantaloupes in his local supermarket, and whilst thumping a melon he spies a no-longer-a-JW (we’ll call him “Jim”) approaching. Paul will either become extremely absorbed in melon selection, pretending not to see Jim, or he will drop the unlucky melon and beat a hasty retreat to the dairy case, depending on whether or not he considers Jim to be an apostate (very scary people, indeed).
Once he reaches the safety of the yogurt display, Paul will whip out his cell phone, call some other JW-in-good-standing and breathlessly relate the chilling tale of his narrow escape from eye contact with Jim. “He was right there by the organic zucchini! I barely got away!”
However, if Paul is a braver soul than previously indicated, he may relish the encounter in order to show his disdain for his former friend, dramatically turning his back, placing his melon in his cart, and walking away. In this way, Paul imagines that Jim will feel the pain of the lost friendship and long to return to the JW fold.
Paul will view his actions as evidence of his Christian brotherly love and will likely experience a moment of smug satisfaction, having done his duty although, due to distraction, having selected an overly ripe melon in the process.
In my case, I left of my own accord, delivering a letter of disassociation to the local body of elders. That act placed me among the worst of the worst, as though I had spit upon Jesus Christ himself.
“She left voluntarily? Inconceivable! She is in league with the Devil.”
I moved about 50 miles away and, on my first day at a new job, found myself in a small office with no fewer than three JWs, one of whom I knew a little, and one of whom was an elder.
After a couple of days the elder came to my desk and asked me basically what my deal was, and I told him I had disassociated myself. He offered to help me return to the flock, which I politely refused. After that, he and I didn’t interact much. The other two JWs were women who restricted our interaction to business matters only. Until Christmas.
The company paid for everyone in the office to go to a restaurant for a dinner that would serve as our Christmas party. We all knew it was a Christmas party, and the dinner occurred mere days before Christmas. Therefore, since JWs do not participate in the celebration of Christmas, the three JWs should not have attended.
Throw into the mix that I was going to be there and that the Bible clearly says that the faithful should not eat with one who has left the faith. No way should any of them have been there. But they all were, even the elder, with their spouses. I can only imagine the mental gymnastics they had to perform to quiet their consciences.
About 6 weeks later I moved 1000 miles away, so I am now comfortably incognito.
My family members who are JWs (Mom and brother) live 5000 miles away, so seeing them has never been an issue. Of course, I am no longer welcome in their home, and I receive no communication from them. I write a couple of times a year because I love them and I want them to know I’m still alive.
Three years into my exile, my mother, in a wild act of rebellion, answered one of my letters. Alas, in the five years since that communication I have not heard from her. More than likely my brother found out about the letter and had a severe chat with Mom. He is very staunch, and Mom is dependent upon him for a home.
Sadly, the emotional blackmail that is shunning has a fairly decent success rate, especially among those expelled for “wrongdoing.” Among those who leave of their own accord, perhaps on principle, usually shunning does not work.
One way of leaving the cult is called “the fade” where you gradually stop attending meetings until you disappear. At first, you are likely to get a few “shepherding calls” during which two elders will read to you a predictable list of scriptures to induce you to return.
You will also be subjected to “encouragement” from fellow congregation members when they run into you in public.
This painful stage can last a year or more. However, once you have faded completely, and the elders have stopped harassing you, basically you’re out.
Now, this method has varying degrees of success as far as shunning is concerned. It is likely that most of your former friends will avoid you, but your family is under no obligation to shun you. However, it is quite possible that they will do so in order to make your nonassociation as painful as possible and effect your reactivation.
Leaving the cult is never easy, sometimes humiliating, and always painful.