Shunning is For the Faithful

I realized only this year that all that time I was an orthodox member of the Mormon church, I was afraid of exclusion. It was something that I always worried about, at the same time that I told myself that I never had to worry about it because I would never do anything that needed such discipline. I was very good at following all the rules, better than most Mormons around me. And then I began to write about Mormonism, sometimes with a critical eye. The fear of exclusion quickly became constant, until I realized that there was nothing I could to stop it, and jumped into it with open arms, embracing the fall away from the community.

There are various names for the kinds of exclusion practiced within Mormonism. We (I’m still referring to myself as Mormon, though I don’t attend and don’t believe in the institutional church — it’s convenient that they have moved away from the label “Mormon,” at least for the current leadership) Mormons don’t practice anything like official “shunning.” There’s “disfellowshipping,” which is a formal stage of discipline where you may be asked to give up a temple recommend, not take the Sacrament, or to step down from a calling. There’s “excommunication,” which is when you are set apart from the church and if you want to return, you must be baptized again and go through the temple again to have a “restoration of blessings.”

But there are many, many other forms of exclusion. There is not being asked to take a calling, often because you are considered a contaminant and no one wants you to serve with the children or the youth, or because they can’t trust you to teach from the manuals. There’s the exclusion no one will admit to, when you are simply not asked to go to the private women’s lunches that other church friends go to. There’s the exclusion of not being allowed into the temple if you have given up your recommend for any reason at all, or because you have stopped paying a ten percent of your income to the church as tithing. There’s the exclusion of not having ministering sisters or brothers who contact you on a monthly basis, with or without a message, to see how you are.

And then there are all the subtler forms of exclusion. The way that people turn away at the grocery store. On the street. At the park. The way that people stare at your clothing, no longer in line with church modesty rules. The way they seem to whisper to others. The sense that you have that someone has taken your place in their friend group. The ridiculous neighborhood Christmas gifts or birthday cards that you no longer receive. You didn’t want them in the first place, so why do you care now? You don’t, but you notice. You’ve been on both sides. You know the consciousness of these choices.

I always thought that these forms of exclusion were meant to help bring people back who had sinned. But now I wonder if that is the point, are these really the best ways to bring people back? If I had committed some sin and felt remorse for it, would exclusion help me to find my way back? It raises the stakes, certainly. It is a threat — this will get worse if you don’t work very, very hard to make everyone believe you belong to the “in group” again. If the point was to heal the breach, is this really what we would do? Why not assure them that they only have to want to stay, and they are welcome? Why not offer an overabundance of love instead? Why not show forgiveness immediately and in a divine fashion, to be remember no more? Why the insistence that they prove that they are “worthy” to return?

This is when I begin to see that this isn’t about morality and never has been. This is not even about the sinner. It is about establishing rules. It is about maintaining the boundaries between in-group and out-group. It is to make it clear to the one who has made a mistake what exactly they will be giving up if they do not move heaven and earth to return. But more than anything else, it is about reminding those who have done nothing wrong what will happen if they even consider it. Here is the reminder of the one who is sent away. Do you want that to happen to you? See their pain. Do you want that pain? Then step far away from the edge.

There’s a famous anecdote within Mormonism about a man hiring a trail guide. He asks the guide how close to the edge of a trail he can go. The first guide shows how close he can get. The second guide gets even closer to the edge. The third guide says that he stays as far from the edge as possible. Of course, the point of the story is to tell the listeners to stay far from the edge. That is the point of shunning. It is the head on a stick, the spectacle of a hanging or an electrocution. It is the community’s way of warning us what will happen if we don’t follow the rules.

For me, it is interesting how this worked. I believed that I never wanted to stray from the community. And then, suddenly, it turned out that I couldn’t help but begin to speak about who I was and what I believed, even if they weren’t what they had been. I found that pretending came at the cost of my own mental health. I had friends outside of Mormonism. I hadn’t been raised so much in fundamentalism that my experience was closed off to Mormons alone. But I still feared the consequences of my speaking out. I told myself that I could go this close to the edge and not be excommunicated. I told myself that I knew the consequences were possible, but they weren’t likely.

Until the time came when I had to jump over the edge completely. And I did not look back. I had already been taught too well that there was nothing left on the other side. Not for me.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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