Weeks after a former Jehovah’s Witness killed her husband and two grown children before turning the gun on herself, allegedly because she snapped after being shunned by her family as a result of leaving the faith, the media is putting a bigger spotlight on the practice of disfellowshipping.
Tresa Baldas of the Detroit Free Press spoke with a number of people who have been affected by the practice for a front page story on Sunday.
Essentially, if you were a Witness who left for whatever reason, believers are told to shun you until you return. That means your parents may refuse to speak with you — or even see their grandchildren — unless you admit you’re wrong. It’s emotionally draining. And in some cases, it’s even worse. Many are driven to suicide.
Shunning “can lead to great trauma among people because the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very tight-knit community,” said Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies associate professor at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
“If you’re separated out, you’re really left to your own devices in ways that are very challenging and very painful,” Schmalz said. “Once you leave a group that’s been your whole life — letting that go is a kind of death.”
An estimated 70,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped every year — roughly 1% of the church’s total population, according to data published by the Watchtower. Their names are published at local Kingdom Halls. Of those, two-thirds never return.
The Witnesses have no problem with this practice, though. They think it’s a form of “tough love,” the best way to get fallen believers back into the fold. However, they ignore the very serious harm they’re causing. Look at what two believers said about it:
“We’re not perfect. We probably have bad things that weren’t handled properly … and then people are resentful,” Danny said.
But, he stressed: “We try to emphasize that we love everyone.”
“It is actually — although seemingly a contradiction — something done of love and concern,” the woman said of disfellowshipping. “Many thousands have returned to the ‘fold’ as a result and have been able to ‘carry on in the faith.’ “
That’s the same justification evangelicals use when promoting gay conversion therapy or supporting discrimination against LGBTQ people. It’s all in the name of love… even though the opposite is so painfully obvious to everyone outside the bubble.
When you think of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a lot of people are quick to mention someone knocking on your door to spread the word. Maybe something about how they don’t celebrate birthdays or accept blood transfusions. But this practice of forever shunning those who leave the faith, or at least disobey its core beliefs, ought to be right up there on the list. It’s just plain cruel.
It’s also a sign of the religion’s weakness. It sends the message that critical thinking will never be enough to bring someone back to Jehovah — they won’t come back on their own. They have to be emotionally manipulated.
The fact that the practice goes on at all should be reason enough for more people to leave the cult.
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