Many religious communities practice some form of shunning, in which individuals who carry out acts or hold beliefs considered to be unacceptable or polluting by the rest of the community are socially excluded. Sometimes, shunning involves the dissolution of friendships and other, more distant social relationships; other times, the practice extends to the most intimate relationships. Marriages end, parents disown children, and the most sacred bonds of love are replaced with distrust or even hatred.
Scientologists practice a particularly extreme variant of shunning, called “disconnection.” People who disagree with the Church of Scientology’s teachings or practices, especially in public, may be placed in the category of “suppressive persons.” Scientologist friends and relatives of declared suppressive persons are strongly encouraged to cut such people out of their lives by way of what are called disconnection letters. An extensive website on the Scientology practice of disconnection can be found here.
Mormons have no doctrine of disconnection, but we do nonetheless have some tendencies toward a practice of shunning. The closest thing to an institutional basis for such a practice that I can find is the following question from our temple recommend interviews:
Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
For most of my adult life, I’ve had a difficult time with the way that question is worded. It includes, among its many permutations, the question, “Do you affiliate with any individual whose practices are contrary to those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Since we’re all sinners, I think the answer to that question would be “yes” for everyone on Earth. But, somewhat more seriously, I’ve always had friends and family members who are, in the oh-so-imprecise vernacular, anti-Mormons. Am I unworthy of admission to the temple because I “affiliate with” them, in the sense of spending social time with them and caring (sometimes deeply) about them? I always raise this point in every interview; the interviewer always dismisses it. Nonetheless, I worry that the wording of this question may suggest to some members that we aren’t supposed to associate with people who leave the church or lose their faith.
In practice, I know from many experiences–first-, second-, and third-hand–that people who lose faith and leave the church are often shunned. Some people divorce their spouses, giving no motive other than change in religious belief. Family members refuse to attend weddings, cut people off from family gatherings, and even cease communications altogether with “apostates” who were once near and dear to them. In our much less intimate online relationships, do we ever replicate this painful pattern? I worry that we do.
I find these behaviors hurtful and un-Christian. I feel that God’s chosen path for some of us involves journeys through other faith traditions; my wife’s spiritual story is one clear example. In some cases, those journeys may possibly last a lifetime. In rare instances, the faith tradition that God calls people to explore may be that of atheism, as in DKL’s life story. Who am I to judge whether any good, well-intentioned person is on the right religious track in his or her own life? As the saying goes, God works in mysterious ways.
But Someone much better qualified to judge than I has given us an example of maintaining ties of care and affection, even with those we see as the fallen:
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. (Matthew 9:10-12)
I doubt that we can reliably judge who is spiritually whole and who is sick. But for those who believe that we can so judge, Christ has set us the ultimate example in terms of rejecting the temptation to shun. May we go and do likewise!