Shunning disfellowshipped ex-members is typical of monotheistic religions. Scholars have argued there is a reason for it.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 6
Campaigns against Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to be on the rise internationally. In part, these campaigns are connected with propaganda of non-democratic states, including Russia, which have banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their own purposes, and need to justify actions that international institutions and several countries have condemned. In part, they are fueled by the anti-cult movement, which needs to justify its existence and the support it receives from some governments by claiming that “the threat of the cults” is indeed dangerous and growing.
One of the main arguments used against the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they teach that their members in good standing should shun disfellowshipped ex-members (with some exceptions I will explain in the third article of this series), except if they are part of their immediate family and cohabit with them. It is claimed that shunning harms psychologically the “ostracized” ex-members and violates their human rights.
Although an overwhelming majority of the international court decisions dealing with this matter have concluded that teaching shunning is within the scope of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious liberty, on March 16, 2021, the Court of Ghent, in Belgium, fined the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their practice of “ostracism;” and on January 26, 2022, the County Governor for Oslo and Viken, in Norway, issued an administrative decision denying to the Jehovah’s Witnesses the state subsidy for the year 2021 they should have received as they did for thirty years, finding some aspects of shunning objectionable. Both these decisions have been appealed.
In this series of articles, I will try to clarify what shunning as taught and practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is all about, why they practice it, and why in my opinion it does in fact fall within the scope of freedom of religion, which should be granted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses—and to everybody else.
One can find practices similar to shunning in some Buddhist schools and elsewhere in Asian religions, but shunning as practiced by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a typical feature of the monotheistic religions called (not without discussions) “Abrahamic,” i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To claim that it is a practice unique to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is just propaganda. While there are differences in the way that Jehovah’s Witnesses implement this concept from other faiths, a brief review of shunning’s religious roots will provide important context.
In Deuteronomy 13:6–16, Jews were taught that confronted with an apostate who left the Jewish faith and propagates the worship of other gods, even if the apostate is “your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend,” “do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them” (all Biblical quotes from the New International Version). In some cases, the Deuteronomy taught, these persons might even be sentenced to death. Christians read in 1 Corinthians 5:13, “Expel the wicked person from among you” and 5:11, “Do not even eat with such people;” and in 2 John 10–11, “Do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.” Muhammad (ca. 570–632) was even more radical, according to a widely quoted hadith collected in the Sahib al-Bukhari, regarded as the most authoritative statement of Islam after the Quran: “If a Muslim denies his [sic] religion, kill him.”
These were not mere words. Executing apostates was not unheard of among the ancient Jews. When the Jews lost their political power and became a persecuted minority, the execution of the apostates was replaced by rituals and practices enacting their symbolic “death.” The community, including the close relatives, regarded the apostate as dead. The apostate was mentioned by using the language usually reserved for a deceased person. According to the entry on the “herem” (shunning) written by Haim Herman Cohn (1911–2002), a leading expert of Jewish law who became Israel’s Minister of Justice and then a Supreme Court judge, in the authoritative “Encyclopedia Judaica,” an apostate “had to live in confinement with his family only, no outsider being allowed to come near him, eat and drink with him, greet him (…). After his death his coffin would be stoned, if only symbolically by placing a single stone on it,” which amounted to a symbolic execution. Even today, some ultra-Orthodox Jews maintain these practices.
In the “Corpus Juris Civilis” by the Roman Emperor Justinian I (482–565), which regulated all aspects of life in Catholic and Orthodox countries for several centuries, article I.7.3 mandated that those excommunicated or who had left the faith “should be separated from association with all other persons.” They could not make valid wills, nor inherit, and in several cases their properties would be confiscated by the state. Up until the 20th century, Catholic Canon Law regarded some categories of apostates as “vitandi,” in Latin “to be avoided,” and similar provisions still exist in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.
There is perhaps no need to elaborate on Islam, where the passage from the death penalty for the apostates, still part of the law in several states, to a severe form of shunning, where it happens, is regarded as a significant progress by scholars of Islamic law and history such as David Cook, as apostates at least remain alive.
These prescriptions had a reason. Scholars have explained that the early Abrahamic believers lived in a world where monotheism was the exception rather than the rule. The ancient Jews and Christians and the first Muslims were all surrounded by polytheists, whom they called “pagans” and who in turn regarded monotheism as irrational and bizarre. Monotheistic believers might have had polytheist relatives and friends. The Roman Empire exerted a strong pressure, including through persecution and executions, to bring monotheists back into the polytheistic folds. So did the “pagan” Meccans when confronted with the first Muslims.
Keeping the monotheistic faith was very difficult. It was at continuous risk of being submerged by the waves of a stronger and aggressive polytheism. Jews, Christians, and later Muslims had to adopt extraordinary measures to protect their struggling faiths. One was shunning the apostates, who would have otherwise added their voices and pressures to those of the “pagans,” with the catastrophic consequence of corrupting and destroying the young monotheistic religions.
It is true that Christians and Muslims (although not the Jews) later gained political power. But they were still aware of the fragility of monotheism, and decided the provisions against the apostates should be maintained.
For several centuries, apostates were punished and isolated by the states, which is still the case in several Muslim countries. Within Christianity, while both Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) still believed that protecting believers against apostates was a task of the state, slowly in modern times the idea of religious liberty emerged. In fact, this idea made the practice of shunning not less but more, strict. Protestant groups advocating the separation of church and state maintained that apostates should not be punished by the state, which had no business in adjudicating religious controversies. They did not leave the apostates alone, however, but privatized the repression of apostasy. Since the state was asked to remain out of the picture, containing the danger represented by the apostates became the responsibility of individual believers, first among them the apostate’s relatives and closer friends.
Those who know the simple life and old-fashioned antics of the Amish may also know that they keep a strict version of the “Meidung,” or shunning, as practiced by early Protestants. Few realize that “Meidung,” when it was introduced, was regarded as a progress. The Amish fled to North America to affirm their right to religious liberty. As part of religious freedom, apostates were no longer executed, and physical violence against them was forbidden. They were free to go elsewhere and, if inclined to do so, establish new separate religious communities. The only sanction they were subjected to was “Meidung” or shunning, i.e. strict separation from their friends and relatives, which was perhaps sad but surely better than being burned at stake or drowned in the icy waters of the Limmat river, the penalty for apostates in Protestant Zurich.
Today, most Christians regard appeals to the state for punishment or execution of the apostates as a thing of the past, or the mark of religions contrary to modern democratic ethos. That apostates if left unchecked, may undermine the faith of the believers or destroy the religious communities, is still acknowledged. But dealing with apostates is left to individuals and families rather than to the state.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses would say that they practice shunning not for historical or sociological reasons but because the Bible teaches it, most notably in 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 13 and 2 John:10-11. Similarly, a devout Muslim would insist that the Islamic attitude on apostasy simply derives from divine revelation and the very words of Prophet Muhammad. These are internal attitudes, called “emic” in the language of social sciences, which should be acknowledged and respected. Scholars contribute a different point of view as outsiders, called “etic” (a technical term, not to be confused with “ethic”). This “etic” perspective does not replace the “emic” one. But it shows that there is nothing strange, irrational, or unique in the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses about shunning, a practice that is part and parcel of the history of monotheism.