Ostracism and Church – further reflections

ostracism2The paper on ostracism I am proposing to give in a couple of weeks time is more or less completed. I thought my readers would not mind, at the risk of repetition, if I share some more of the insights I have gleaned from my reading. In my linking of ostracism, as newly defined by the social psychologists, to the cults and churches, I appear to treading a fairly new path. We have of course long known that the silent treatment has been freely dispensed by some churches to their ex-members. All kinds of passages from the New Testament have been milked to ‘prove’ that Christians in good standing in a congregation should not associate with former or non-members in any way. I am not going to examine these except to note that an obsession with purity and separateness does not seem to justify in any way the attempt to treat former members with what can be, in effect, pathological cruelty.

Social psychology has examined the concept of ostracism in great depth in the past 20 years and has attempted to show how another person confronting silence or studied ignoring is affected. The writer of a key book on the topic, Kipling Williams, set up various experiments to test his theories as to what happens to people when they are deliberately ignored. These simulated stagings of ostracism were of a relatively trivial nature. They involved, for example, getting people to play a game, passing a ball to one another, and then deliberately leaving someone out. Another experiment involved the use of the internet where a conversation within an online community consistently ignored a contribution coming from a particular individual. More serious examples of ostracism are reported, such as a cadet in a military academy being given the silent treatment over a number of years or marriages where one party refuses to speak to the other. It is out of these scenarios, experimental and anecdotal, that Williams creates his model for ostracism. It is this model that is at the heart of my paper. It is also one that fits poignantly with the experience of those who have been expelled from their Christian or cultic group.

Ostracism, according to Williams’ model, has as its intention the undermining of four fundamental human needs. Each of these needs contributes significantly to human flourishing. Because they are actually things everyone requires to function successfully as human beings, the attempt to destroy them can create massive unhappiness. This unhappiness can be so great that a person under this kind of attack might be tempted to surrender to despair or even suicide.

Williams’ four needs that are attacked by ostracism are a) belonging b) self esteem c) control and d) meaningful existence. In regard to the first, which is perhaps the most important, the ostracised person will feel rootless and ignored if all his/her belonging is taken away. Of course, we might think, such a person will immediately attempt to establish contact with other groups and find new ways of belonging. But the irony of this is that the group doing the ostracising had typically taught the individual that he/she was to cut off all contact with family and friends who do not belong to the group. Having made the individual totally dependent on the cultic group for their belonging needs, the same person is then ruthlessly cast away.

Self-esteem is the next need to be under attack. The silent treatment will have the effect of undermining an individual’s confidence and encourage him/her to think of themselves as being permanently in the wrong. Over a period the inner sense of self-value will plummet and the individual will lose all his/her confidence and morale.

The loss of control will happen, once again, because a silence, which is never-ending, will leave one with a sense that the barriers that exist with the ostracising group cannot be negotiated with or overcome. The individual will be left in deep sense of uncertainty, living in a kind of profound enveloping mist.

Finally the deliberate isolating of the former member by the group will be effectively a kind of social death. According to another sub- branch of social psychology, known as terror management theory, people need each other to fend off their fears of death. Without good human contact which gives a sense of meaning and a way of warding off primeval fear, people can easily sink into an abyss of heightened despair because they are being faced with their extinction.

In this abbreviation of a lot of material, it can be seen that ostracism, in whatever setting it is practised, can be a terrible weapon of coercion and terror. Without a word being spoken or rather because no word is spoken, terrible injury can be caused to people. As I stated in a previous blog post, the weapon is also terrifying as a threat. The person contemplating the possibility of being shunned or ostracised will live with this fear all the time. It is no hard thing to be controlled with this kind of threat hanging over you. In churches and cults that use this weapon, when in fact or as a threat, there will often a pathetic gratitude to the leader that they are still in ‘good standing’. The conditioning process works so well that the individual does not usually realise that they are living in a state of permanent fear. They have managed successfully to suppress the terror of possibly losing friends, family and everything that the cultic community offers to them. They have also managed to be unaware that they are being day by day controlled by an individual, who is their guru or leader. The fear of entering the hell of ostracism has effectively stopped them from a full awareness this control. It has also prevented them from growing up and maturing as either a human being or as a Christian.

I think I have said enough to communicate my profound horror at the existence of the weapon of ostracism being used or threatened within religious communities, especially Christian ones. What we are left with is the right of people to disagree with one another. We must celebrate, not conformity and mass opinions, but difference and disagreement. People must be allowed to argue and have different opinions without being made to feel any threat coming from those who think differently. Within my own Anglican church, the rhetoric has been sometimes upped to the point that those who do not agree with conservative ‘orthodox’ opinion feel that they may one day be expelled. The GAFCON/Reform group claims to speak for the mainstream Anglican position just as ISIS claims to be the proper voice of Islam. Neither claim is of course valid. Debate, discussion and disagreement must be allowed to flourish and this blog will always support this privilege to hold different versions of truth within one church communion. Dignity in Difference is the title of a book that appeared five years ago. That is what I seek and will fight for. Anything else would be a surrender to the tyranny of an abusive monochrome form of power which has no place in a Christian church.

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 “Ostracism and Church – further reflections

  1. Well said, Stephen. I am often left wondering about the way that the experiences and feelings those who have been horribly abused actually mirror both my own, and the feelings of others that I have dealt with in bullying situations. It’s not that the harm is as serious, or as long lasting. But the language strikes a chord, for all that. Ostracism can be used in small ways. The one person in a Ministry Team who never finds out about the meetings. The person the team leader always forgets to include in the rota. I have thought for some time that neglect was a form of bullying. And what about the powerful person who goes months without speaking? Deliberately turning his head as you approach. Apart from the fact that it is seriously weird! This is not the same as being “disfellowshipped”, as a Jehovah’s Witness, after years of being separated from the rest of the world, so that you can no longer function without the Witnesses, but now you are alone. Fear, yes. But I lived in fear for years, and I didn’t have to face anything like that. But, like the Chinese water torture, the problem is, you have no idea when it will happen again, or what you might do to trigger it, or how you can prevent yourself from triggering it. You just live in dread. I pray you will find attentive ears and hearts.

  2. My goodness! As I polish up my own presentation on how a Second Generation Adult (a child-now adult raised in a cult) understands forgiveness, I have to laugh at reading this! In essence, that subject regards the loss of connection, and I see my 30 years of laboring at the task involving several components which, through forgiveness, helped me arrive at a place that allows me to find meaning and purpose in that suffering. For me, building the strength of and balance within my own self-concept helped me find self-forgiveness. From a healthy love of self that was not modeled for me at home, empathy for my parents and my spiritual abusers flowed into forgiveness. Among a few other factors that helped me find my way to some sense of wholeness, chief among them are Maslow’s self-esteem, Bandura’s self-efficacy, and Rotter’s locus of control figure significantly. I even drew up a conceptual model of the process.

    I look forward to seeing you again and hearing your talk, sweet vicar. It sounds like you and this Williams fellow are both on to something!

  3. Could there be two parts to ostracism – not talking to a person, and not listening to a person? There could be one or the other or both – all slightly different situations perhaps? I guess you’re really talking about the not talking and not listening situation which I suppose would be the most profound.

  4. Ostracism, as defined by Williams, is an attempt to treat another person as though they do not exist. It will require a certain amount of effort on the part of the ‘source’ to keep up this non-attention to their target. But the silent treatment, as it is normally expressed, includes both not speaking or listening. There are clearly a multitude of levels of severity with which this is practised, but at its most severe form, it is indded a threat to life itself. There are also many trivial forms of ignoring people. Sometimes the ignored person fails to spot that this happening at all. The book I consulted contain numerous permutations of what ostracism is, but I think giving someone the silent treatment is the best and shortest summary.

  5. Those who experience this lose all trust in human nature. They live in a vacuum. I am remembering the Pentecostals I experienced. I’m thinking of one time when I had missed attending for a few weeks. It was made clear to me that if I didn’t show up soon I would lose various “Privileges,” one of those privileges would be that I could not get married in the church.

    What people end up believing, and the vast amount of choices on offer bewilders me. From David Icke to the Moonies to Scientology. It may not add up to the reader here but, I honestly see a link to the British class system, people with time on their hands, upper middle class/ ruling class. It is here that (For them) being seen to serve a great cause and be part of the herd can grip even the most cynical.
    Of course thinking for yourself would spoil things, and the ostracism that could follow would be like an arrow in the heart.

    All very human stuff, no need to bring God into it at all is there?

    Peace, Chris

  6. Stephen,

    You wrote: I think I have said enough to communicate my profound horror at the existence of the weapon of ostracism being used or threatened within religious communities, especially Christian ones.

    What I see in the US may be a element of our society, as I realize that nations do often take on their own cultural norms. Having read this earlier today, I found myself thinking that Christianity in the UK perhaps handles tolerance better. But then I hear about the political tactics of the Exclusive Brethren and some of the fringe shepherding-like homeschooling groups that also ostracize there.

    I spoke to a mother yesterday who was triggered by a big scandal about a large family who follow the cruel fundamentalist (Baptist) sect that she abandoned two decades ago. With a large family herself, she admitted that she contritely considers that the ill fate now faced by this public and large family could well happen to her own — just because of the practical challenges within such a large family. Of course, she’s been ostracized as well, but as John Donne admonished, she realizes that “the bell tolls” for her and all of us. We are subject to harm and are dependent on God’s grace and help to “keep” us and see us through the hard places in life as limited people in an imperfect world.

    I encouraged her and said that we need to just trust God and to pursue virtue with each opportunity that we have — big and small. I told her that I think that each decision we make to do what we understand as right changes us and changes those we touch. In the face of so much of what seems like near-complete neglect of virtue on the part of religious leaders, it can be discouraging, but we should be sober about each chance we have to be a light and a comfort. We bring our meager loaves and fishes to a loving God with a desire to change something that we have little to no power to change on the larger scale, and the rest is up to him.

    I believe this strongly and put my faith in the power of that virtue — of doing right in our daily lives, modeling that for those around us. But I found myself lamenting today my grief that so few pastors and Christian leaders see this “weapon of profound horror” used against the wounded lambs who need compassion as they cry for justice but don’t appear to get it. Or they don’t seem to get it in a timeframe that would give them (and me) more comfort. Our times are in God’s hands, and until justice which vindicates those who suffer from ostracism and are robbed of community as well as healthy esteem with that needful degree of healthy autonomy, I’m encouraged that there are communities like this one to encourage them .

    I pray for more tender hearted pastors and for God to open the eyes of those who are blind in their illusions of self righteousness. But there are days when I grieve, seeing my prayers like a small boy’s few loaves and fishes.

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