Shunning in the Church

Last night PBS’s American Experience aired a documentary on the Amish, focusing on the practice of shunning.


Shunning is the intentional culling of wayward members of a group. It isolates the wrong-doer, marks them within the community. It is a jail without bars.


The American Experience has a companion episode that portrays Amish culture.  It opens with the image of an Amish boy, posed as the crippled Christina in the Wyeth painting, Christina’s World.


Amish culture focuses on church as community and as community as the guiding influence in life.


My family has always lived close to the Amish. In fact, my ancestors arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s at the same time as the Amish. They, too, were from Switzerland. They, too, were seeking religious freedom in the wide wake of the Reformation.


They made their way from the Swiss Alps to the sea and left the Netherlands on the same ship with Amish immigrants. They soon had second thoughts about spending weeks crossing the Atlantic with the people they saw as rigid. They disembarked when the ship stopped in England and waited for another passage.


Then they settled the same counties in William Penn’s colony—Lebanon, Lancaster, Dauphin and York.


The Pennsylvania Dutch come as “plain” or “fancy.” We were the “fancy”—although not very. Buttons were permitted, hex signs might grace a barn. and refrigerators and telephones seemed like a good idea. My grandfather spoke Pennsylvania Dutch although his voice was silenced before I ever heard it.


Pennsylvania is a fascinating place, religiously. Penn’s  experiment lives to this day. Amish live next to Lutherans and Methodists. Methodists live among Quakers, Catholics. and Orthodox. The interwoven fabric of faith extends to include the Jewish and Muslims and in recent years Buddhists and Hindu. Jewish and Lutheran children attend Quaker schools. The local Chinese restaurant had a Christmas tree next to their Buddhist shrine.


Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.


We believe that. The problem is that recently this has been interpreted by courts as being unable to uphold the laws that established religions have made for themselves and that creates a lawless mess among the faithful. It opens the door to religious bullying. Yes, the First Amendment protects religious bullies!


And so, this documentary on shunning is interesting.


Redeemer has been shunned—the Lutheran way— excluded from participation by decree. It’s not supposed to be possible under Lutheran law but . . .


We’ve lived in exile for five years. The purpose of all shunning (and bullying) is to isolate the victim. Isolation creates desperation. It strips the victims of influence and power. It gnaws at self-esteem and confidence. It devours energy and resources.


For those who can withstand the cruelty, it sets us free.


Shunning pits the power of the individual against that of community. Lutherans theoretically believe in the power of the individual. We call it interdependence. The strength of the individual makes the whole strong.


Sometimes an individual accepted within community (leaders) can use the power of community as a weapon. Isolation and shunning is a number one tool.


Individual thinking is a threat.


Having experienced Lutheran shunning, we know it is scary. Both Lutheran and Amish shunning exist to protect the past. The Amish are more forthright. They call it what it is and don’t pretend to be sugary and sweet about it. It is ugly business.

  • We bear the condescending looks of clergy.
  • We’ve been invited “to the table” by people who clearly are glad to see us leave.
  • We’ve been threatened with lawsuits (something the Amish don’t do to one another).
  • We’ve had story after story, lie after lie, told without anyone questioning the teller.
  • We’ve heard scripture taught but not applied.
  • We’ve been the topic of Lutheran derision for years.


We feel that we have a role to play in the denomination of our heritage. We move on with our ministry as we are declared non-existent by Lutheran know-it-alls. The “things” that were ours our stripped, divided, and sold as if we were dead. We are still alive, well, and watching.


It makes us think about the role of the gifts of an individual within community.

  • Must the talents bestowed by God upon the individual all be directed toward the preservation of social order?
  • If God makes you a chemical engineer, must you spend your life behind the plow?
  • If God gives you the gift of discernment, must you submit to the discernment of less gifted but more powerful? Lutherans didn’t use to believe in intellectual submission. Things seemed to have changed.


Most of the interviews in this documentary were with Amish who left the order. Each witness spoke through pain. They left without farewells. Shunning was invoked quickly. Return under any conditions but those of the community was made difficult if not impossible.


Families who sought reconciliation were forced to do so behind locked doors and dimmed lights—secret from the community.


This is the fascinating part of the Amish story.


Among the shunned Amish interviewees, there was no condemnation of the Amish way of life, just sorrow that they no longer fit in. They felt loss. They followed their individual “callings” despite hardship and communal condemnation.


They did not leave their heritage behind. They did what they had to in order to pursue their calling without extravagance.


One young woman took up nursing and started a fund to help other Amish pursue education. Several set up halfway houses to shelter and guide Amish runaways.


The power of the individual is extending the Amish community, whether the leaders approve or not.


There is always a temptation among the religious to look down upon the different. That’s a big part of religious tradition.


It’s also a major roadblock to moving ahead. Lutherans decided long ago—when they jumped ship in England in our family’s case—that they wanted to witness their faith within society. We want to rub shoulders with all God’s family.


Amish take shunning seriously. It is not widely discussed. It’s hard for everyone.


Shunning is so against Lutheran teaching that convoluted ways must be found to justify it. Myths arise to justify the ill treatment of loyal members who have erred only in daring to disagree with the status quo. Lutheran leaders don smug expressions and shun with a smile (or a sneer). It all hides this fact: When Lutherans practice shunning, we violate the tenets of our faith and polity. 


Redeemer is still Lutheran. We didn’t leave the order. We are locked out.