Ostracism – some reflections

ostracismWhile writing the piece on shunning for this blog, I experienced a degree of passion that made me realise that this area of suffering by ex-members of abusive churches needed more investigation. I started to do a word search in Amazon books to see what had been written on the subject. As might be expected I was directed to some novels describing the Amish experience where they have a special word ‘meidung’ to denote it. As shunning in a religious context is much wider than the Amish, I looked at other synonyms for the word. What came up was the word ‘ostracism’. This did produce a number of books but it appears, as far as I can determine, that no one has written a study on either shunning or ostracism in churches or cults. It is also intriguing to note that a new body of literature on the subject of ostracism has emerged over the past twenty years to look at the subject from a social psychological point of view. A book that I have ordered, looks at this same area of study but it uses the expression ‘social exclusion’ in its title. We tend to think of social exclusion as being the fate of people who through poverty, age or illness fall outside the usual networks of social support and thus become isolated. The book, however, seems to treat ‘social exclusion’ as a synonym for shunning and ostracism, i.e. a deliberate act on the part of groups or individuals towards others. The chapter headings in the book do not indicate that any of the scholars who are looking at the problem have considered the church as an area worth studying. So this may be a topic that I can give some further attention particular in my presentations to people interested the problem of cultic matters.

The book that I am now reading on ostracism has given me (and you the reader) a simple model from which to work. It suggests that ostracism, although operating at different levels of severity is a method through which to exclude and control individuals or groups of people. Most typically ostracism involves ignoring others, giving them the silent treatment and pretending that they do not exist. The most effective (and most cruel) forms of ostracism take place actually in their presence. Silence, not speaking, avoiding eye contact and speaking over them are all ways through which an individual can be made to feel utterly scorned. The book makes clear that the individual receiving this treatment, the target, is deeply wounded by this behaviour. It is far worse to be ignored than to be hit in the face because the human need to have their existence acknowledged is at least present when someone chooses to punch you.

I want now to list the four areas of human well-being that are undermined by ostracism according the book I am reading. There are, according to Kipling Williams, an Australian social psychologist, four areas of need that are important to every individual and each of these come under threat through being ostracised. They are respectively the need to belong, the need to have self-esteem, the need to have control over your life and the ability to make sense of life, to have a meaningful existence. Each of these human needs is undermined by the experience of being the object of ostracism. The picture that comes to my mind as I record these four human needs is that of a tent. The human individual, in order to function properly, has to have four guy ropes tethered to the ground for the tent to stand up properly. The ropes are connected to four tent pegs and these are symbols for these four fundamental areas of need. Ostracism effectively is an attempt by others to pull up the tent pegs, so that the tent collapses. In other word the ostraciser is effectively trying to make our fundamental sense of who we are collapse by this cruel and barbaric treatment.

I refrain, for reasons of space, from giving examples of ostracising behaviour because I am sure my readers have encountered it somewhere, whether in church or in another institution. But I want to mention the fact that being the giver of ostracism is also a fairly unhealthy experience for the individual. It may not become quite as bad as being ostracised but it is certainly harmful to well-being in a variety of ways. It hardly enhances a happiness or a sense of belonging if your leader instructs you to cut dead or ignore people that were until very recently your friends and part of the group. To put it mildly, shunning or ostracism is very bad news for both the target and the perpetrator. That it should ever be practiced in a religious organisation, let alone a Christian one, defies comprehension.

I concluded my review of shunning by asking whether anyone should every join an organisation which practised such horrible barbaric behaviour. I need hardly give an answer to this question but asking it helps to enable us to see how corrupted and evil certain Christian organisations have become. I certainly want to continue to study this question because, as I said before, it lies right at the heart of abusive Christian behaviour.

If you find your way to this blog post, you might want to watch the lecture I gave at the International Cultic studies Association in Stockholm in June 2015. Type in Stephen Parsons 2015 on the youtube search.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “Ostracism – some reflections

  1. While reflecting on Stephen’s blog on ostracism, I was struck by the amount of memories from my past where this dreadful practise took place. The whole area of disempowerment is linked to ostracism, simply by the way our society works. I refer to the way that modern capitalism negates any real emotion or lets say, human feeling? If someone is not ‘Achieving’ in the work place, or following the prescribed map, they will become a victim of this practise.
    Modern day churchgoers will bring into the church this normalized activity.
    So, so much more to say on this.
    The Anglican Church and other denominations really must have this debate soon.
    That debate as I see it is this; can people be welcomed (Or even encouraged) to take communion, (The body and Blood of Christ), if they are propping up a system (In their personal lives) that causes so much human misery?

    There is a schizophrenia here that can hardly be overstated.

  2. I find this prospect interesting. All of these “tent tethers” remind me of elements of normal growth and development, and we both need modeling and support until we develop our own sense of them. Healthy systems encourage their development. Major illness challenges these factors, as do major life transitions.

    Looking at the list encourages me, as I’ve developed in these areas as I’ve worked on my own emotional health and healing from trauma. Belonging reinforces self esteem, which reinforces healthy autonomy, all of which help one build a sense of meaning. It is a lovely way of looking at personhood.

    This view may be terribly pessimistic, but I find that social interaction challenges all of these factors on some level — and there are few organizations with which I’ve been involved where these elements are not challenged. Those who are insecure feel threatened by those who are not, and they generally grasp at the most available mechanisms — ad hominem judgment or exclusion or limiting one’s autonomy. I suspect that if we deal with fallible people, as we all are, we all encounter some degree of stress in these areas. High demand groups appear to be a tent, and they end up becoming a net that collapses down around a person.

    It may be the case that, as having been raised in an environment that was lacking in many areas and having been in two different high demand systems in the past, that my perspective is skewed.

    Yet at the same time, how do we get a child to engage in good behavior? We praise the good behavior and generally ignore the bad if our approach is most healthy (though some use corporal punishment). Could there be a healthy level of ostracism necessary for social cues? Does the author talk about any of this?

    1. Cindy, of course ostracism exists on a continuum so that it’s being practised is not always even noticed by the target. I just wanted to give the flavour of the argument and the very heart of the book describes the kind of ostracism that is an attack at the central well-being of the person targetted. Churches and cults do sometime treat their ex-members with outrageous cruelty and that power to undermine and destroy a person is sometimes used. The person, leaving a group, as you well know, is intensely vulnerable and thus can be wounded still further by the cold shoulder treatment or what ever way ostracism is practised. No one seems to have written about this so it is becoming a focus for the moment for my reading and study. The exciting thing for me is that there appears to be a lot of interest in this area just recently. My cory of the Oxford Handbook of Social Exclusion has now arrived and I am reading it with fascination.

      1. It really is an amazing topic. I’m also put in mind what Hassan calls his “BITE method” of manipulating behavior, information, thought, and emotion to dominate a person. I see it as a reiteration of cognitive behavioral therapy but one used to dismantle a person’s self as opposed to an actual therapy that is designed to bring about healthy change and continuity of living.

        When you attack a person’s psychological essence, you have to attack who they are, it’s almost artful the way that this author, through your window into their writing, describes this in terms of ostracism. It’s not an alienation from a group of people to which one needs to belong as an aspect of social creatures but also an alienation from self. What a barbaric practice, indeed, particularly when the evil is redefined as a necessary good.

        An enemy that is seen and understood provides a person with choice and the hope of self-protection. The insidious nature of this type of “fully orbed” ostracism that cannot be “seen” precisely makes reintegration of the self and healing so much more difficult. It’s so sad.

        I’m thrilled that people like you endeavor to understand the process. What damage and pain we could preempt.

  3. The C of E may do it in the way that all institutions do it. I have my sights on churches and cults that major on control of their members and milk them hard, financially, emotionally and sometimes sexually. The use of ostracism to punish individuals who walk away from such treatment is barbaric and cruel. The C of E may ostracise individuals but they seldom do it in the context of high demand control techniques. It is normally not difficult to walk away from most C of E congregations and many do without much difficulty. If they do the ‘heavy’ ostracism then they probably owe more to cultic models of power abuse than to Anglicanism.

    1. It’s still cruel Stephen. Just because there’s worse doesn’t excuse it. And it isn’t always easy to leave. What if you do actually believe in God, and have a need for worship? How do you just stop going? And if it’s endemic in that Diocese it’s a matter of moving house. Not that easy!

      1. English Athena,
        At this stage in my journey, I find this to be the most difficult challenge. I feel like “a man without a country” in so many respects, and I still look for some sense of that ideal in a new house of worship — but my conception of a good fit has been so terribly altered. No church or group or organization is a utopia or a family, but I find myself desiring it. I keep thinking of Abraham who was really looking for a city whose builder and maker was God, but what we have here in this life, hopefully guided by the Holy Spirit, is in part built by men. Yet I suspect that we all have that longing.

        Judith Herman states in Trauma and Recovery that the third stage and final stage of healing is reconnection with community. Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve yet come through that stage in all respects. It’s so hard to modulate one’s expectations and desires after trauma that’s done in God’s Name. It takes much trust, and that needs to be nurtured and rebuilt.

        1. Well, I hope no-one is expected to re-join a community that has abused them. Learning to trust again is something you do with those who have not harmed you.

          1. The terms in which Herman discusses things involves healthy connections. Just looking at what goes on in the brain itself makes a person feel isolated after trauma, and it’s healthy reconnection that she addresses.

            I also wrote something above that bothers me in re-reading it. Church should be our family — but not a fantasy one. Families have their share of problems and those relationships in family sometimes require the most work. I do find family among good friends, but I have yet to find a church as a whole that embraces me in a way that I find very comfortable.

            The late Paul Martin coined the term “the buzz” that one gets in a manipulative church — very much like the high an addict looks for in a mind altering substance. Real life doesn’t offer us that “buzz” that is honestly too good to be true in the long run but feels very satisfying when you’re early in the process of a manipulative religious experience. I’ve had my ups and downs in expecting to find a sense of family in a church system — though I do find it in individuals within churches.

            Part of adjusting my expectations, learning what is “good enough” in terms of faith (as I was taught to chase a type of ecstasy as a norm that was explained to me as the presence Holy Spirit), learning healthy boundaries…. all of these things are a part of my healthy reconnection to a healthy community of healthy faith. I haven’t figured all of that out yet.

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