Spiritual murder

OstracismIn three weeks time I am due to give a paper at a conference in Stockholm on the topic of ostracism or shunning and its use by some religious bodies. It is a topic that interests me and is closely connected to the overall topic of this blog. In my thinking about the harm that Churches and cultic groups sometimes do to their members, I have also become aware of the power of the threat to exclude a member if he or she does not toe the line and follow the leaders. Such a threat is a powerful means of control. Every member knows that to leave the group whether voluntarily or through expulsion may be followed by the horrors of being ostracised forever. Actions taken against a departing member can be vicious and of the upmost cruelty. It is no exaggeration to describe them sometimes as attempted spiritual murder.

In many high-demand religious groups, both those in the church and outside, members have to sign a contract. It may not be a literal written contract, like the absurd billion year contract of the Scientologists, but it still makes serious demands on the membership. Each member is promised inclusion within whatever the group is, whether it be a cult or more mainstream religious body in return for financial and emotional commitment to the group. What does the member receive in return for his commitment? The advantages of being a member of whatever church or cultic group may include the following. First of all the member is promised emotional and spiritual support, instant friendships and whatever spiritual guidance that the group, in the person of the leader, has to give. The implicit promise is also that the formerly worrying issue of going to heaven or hell is now sorted. As long as the member is in good standing, he or she is guaranteed to be in a right relationship with God and thus able to claim a place of eternal bliss. But there are costs and these may be said to be fairly high. Among them there might be included the following:
• The church expects that each member will give ‘to God’ a tithe of their income. This money will be used to maintain the church building and pay whatever salaries that the leadership team requires.
• There are also requirements over what the member may or may not do. The member may not question the teaching or instructions of the leadership on any topic. It is assumed that he/she will fall in with any pronouncements that are made, including guidance on moral issues. The idea, for example, that there is more than one approach to the issue of gay marriage would be considered very alien in many Christian and cultic communities.
• In some churches there is a ‘purity’ teaching which strongly discourages members from mixing with others outside, even members of their own family. They will be referred to the passages from Matthew about ‘hating’ members of their own family in favour of following Jesus. Few Christian churches pursue this teaching to the lengths of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Scientologists but there is still a strong sense of ‘us and them’ even in many Christian congregations.
• The person in the high-demand group will be unable to grow socially, spiritually or professionally beyond the bounds of the group. If the leader is, for example, lower middle class in education and cultural aspiration, then that limit will extend to every member of the group. Any desire, particularly among the young people of the group, to explore new forms of musical and artistic expression will be squashed and suppressed because it might show up the cultural poverty of the group. In many cultic groups, no young person is allowed to go to university in case they learn things which might challenge the claims of the leader to mediate truth of every kind to his flock.
The main benefit that we have identified in being a member of a closed group, whether Christian or otherwise, is that one is part of a intimate friendship circle which allows close emotional support. This is combined with an assurance about one’s ultimate fate in the place beyond the grave. Both things because they have been bought at a very high cost (see above) , will not be surrendered easily. To lose them is to lose almost everything one has worked and struggled to receive over years, even decades, within the particular religious institution.

The threat to expel individuals who do not conform to the will of the minister or religious leader of the group is a real one. Expulsion is sometimes chosen by the individual themselves in preference to continuing in the abusive or suffocating atmosphere that the church or group has become for them. But the costs of leaving will often be appallingly high. One’s social life is ripped apart as the human contacts, built up over a long time, have to be let go. Family members who remain in the group are sometimes no longer allowed to be in contact. If the social costs of leaving the closed group are extremely high, the spiritual aspect is just as devastating. Having lived within a group that promised salvation for so long, one now hears that they will henceforth be outside that salvation. The ostracism process, in summary, casts one out of contact with human beings that one has loved and with God. What more terrible fate could befall someone? The effect of disfellowshipping, disconnection or expulsion, or whatever it is called, is shattering. Coming through that experience without suffering deep depression and trauma is difficult to envisage. In some situations this experience will lead to the literal destruction of the individual through the act of suicide.

My blog is dedicated to the handful of people who have been through the full horror of spiritual murder through an act of ostracism by a cult or church but somehow have found their way to reading these words. I have not unfortunately, I am sorry to say, met many people who understand when I try to describe the horrors that are involved in the deceptively simple words, shun or expel. Ostracism, as my conference paper will emphasise, has, as its aim, the rendering of a person to become invisible or simply cease to exist. In my understanding, ostracism thus becomes a type of murder. Murder and ostracism have the same purpose, which is to eliminate another person. Can it ever be right for a Christian leader to suggest that all that is implied in shunning is an appropriate action for a follower of Jesus? Even when ostracism is not in fact practised but is kept as a threat to control the members of a group, it is still an obscene weapon and should be condemned as utterly unworthy of any human being, particularly one who claims to follow Jesus.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. 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.

6 thoughts on “Spiritual murder

  1. There is an old hymn that says: “Now I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me”
    What a dirty rotten shame that cultic fellowships turn that on its head and say, “Now you belong to us!”

    In my experience the ‘Lost sheep’ so often dismissed and ostracized, formed the ranks of true seekers, and if my memory serves me well, they were the most trustworthy and kind.

    “From fixtures and forces and friends your sorrow does stem, they’ll hype you and type you making you feel you got to be just like them”
    Bob Dylan (To Ramona 1964)


  2. “Disfellowshipping” is what I know it as, and it is terrible. I wouldn’t disagree with the term “spiritual murder”. What about someone who is told they can be re-licensed on condition they understand they are not really part of the team? Or who is not spoken to by the line manager for two years? Leaving is still hard, but in a way, they are not in the set anyway.

  3. I can imagine the far-reaching trauma of this kind of expulsion though I haven’t belonged to this kind of church. But analogous things also happen elsewhere, creating a pool of people who are likely to have empathy for this. For me, suffering psychosis in my early twenties and then repeats, with the accompanying stigma of madness, which was actually much stronger then – including self-stigma – created a sense, and indeed in many ways a reality, of being ostracised from society and indeed the human race. I would say this was every bit as profound and far-reaching in my life, and many others have experienced the same. Ironically possibly in the context here, ultimately it was the church that saved me, by gradually enabling me to feel that God loves me the same as everyone else, that he regards me as a human person and one of his children, and if a sinner, then no different from everyone else in that!

  4. Thank you haiku for sharing with us your experience of stigma and ostracism. Mental illness continues to be an area of experience which involves not only neglect on the part of society but also fear. Of course the church is often, and should be, a resource to help individuals recover their self-esteem and self-acceptance and we see plenty of examples of Jesus crossing the stigma barrier to include people and make them welcome. He was doing this against the background of a faith – Judaism- which practised exclusion to a high degree. The purity laws of the Old Testament have exercised a fascination for some Christian bodies. We have to ask ourselves where we stand over this ‘purity’ notion. Do we stand with Jesus and his welcome of the ‘impure’ and disadvataged or with a rigorous application of Old Testament regulations about who is in and who is out. This struggle between ‘inclusive’ Christianity and the exclusive version is alive and well today and we all have to make a stand somewhere along this continuum.

  5. A timely essay, thank you Stephen. Violence in a domestic situation for years was only thought of as physical violence. It is now recognised that psychological abuse, of which ostracism is a powerful component, is in many cases far more damaging. Ostracism in religious communities is a very powerful weapon, but one which needs to be exposed. Harmful theology needs to be addressed. So thank you for doing this.

    Please will you tell us more about the conference, who is organising it?

  6. Thank you Anne. The conference I am going to is the International Cultic Studies Association which is based in the States. The UK attendees number only about a dozen. My particular contributions are not necessarily central to the topic of concern for the overall conference. This year they are focussing on children in high demand groups. What I tend to talk about is the topic in the area of cults and extreme religious groups that has grabbed my attention in the previous twelve months. They seem pleased that mavericks like me exist on the edge of the cult studies world. Most of the other speakers are Phds and university lecturers etc. Ostracism studies have grown only in the past 15 years but virtually no one in the world of Social Psychology has addressed the religious component apart from a mention of the Amish. As you rightly say when it is exercised in religious commuinties it is a very power weapon. It needs to be owned up to in Christianity as well as in the cults when it occurs. To be be cut off by a community or family, is, as I have suggested, a kind of death.

    I will be sending a report from the conference to the blog if I can.

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