I remember the night clearly. I was a giving a presentation on adolescent depression and suicide to about thirty plus parents. I had been rattling off grim statistics and anecdotal horror stories for some thirty minutes, when I suddenly noticed their faces. It was like being hit by a bowling ball in the gut, and it took my breath away.
Suddenly, all I saw were Mommies and Daddies who looked so weary and worried and hopeless. Here I was, another supposed expert, seemingly doing my very best to overwhelm them. Why? What was the point? What was the purpose behind making these good people feel as though they would never ever be enough? Why was I doing this to them? Stealing their peace of mind, and rapping them over the head with the myriad ways their cherished and adored children might come to ruin?
Well, that night I stopped. I really did. I came to the conclusion that I would address real teen issues, like depression or suicidal ideation, but only if I balanced it off with a heavy dose of genuine hope. I had come to the conclusion that these were good parents. These good folks, with few exceptions, would do almost anything for their beloved children. These mothers and fathers got up each day and poured everything they had into being there and doing for their kids. They needed encouragement and appreciation and respect, not some scolding for not being perfect parents.
That night I made a clear and confident decision. Though I lived in a culture obsessed with bad news and the need to use scare tactics to get people’s attention, I was no longer going to play that stupid game. I knew in my bones that fear was nothing more than expecting the worst, and using fear to gain power over people’s hearts and minds, was a brutally unfair tactic in the “how to be important” game.
I also knew that faith was expecting the best, and that it was not a matter of religion or doctrine or dogma. Faith is simply what matters to you most of all. For these good people, it was their children which had brought them here on a Wednesday night, probably after a long day at work, and more chores to do when they got home. These good Moms and Dads were here simply to try and be an even better parent, more awake to the issues of adolescence, more in tune with the pressure of being a teen, and even in touch with their kid’s very souls. These were good enough parents -- not just good enough, but way more than good enough.
Since that night, this has been the primary focus of my ministry and my writing. Seeking to help parents be good to themselves, so that they might enjoy being parents, and more important, enjoy their children. Our modern lives have become so harried and hassled, hellish in haste and expectation, that we barely have time to simply enjoy what is most precious to us – our very own kids. What do our children need? I suspect it is to know they are truly enjoyed. Joy is directly linked to hope, and hope is the greatest need of all for the modern child.
These days we are daily told in overt and covert ways, that we are never enough. We are not bright enough, sexy enough, talented enough, tough enough, or ambitious enough. We are not good enough sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, friends or neighbors, and we certainly fail in the parenting category. At least we are made to believe we always fall short. We are just not equipped to help our kids be successful and get ahead.
Well, the truth is we are equipped to help our kids become satisfied and significant. We can teach them about goodness; which the American version of the good life knows nothing about. We can show them how to be good people, adults who are committed to kindness, compassion, mercy, respect, forgiving, and yes, love. We can teach our kids about what truly matters, and what will last a lifetime and beyond. We can offer our kids insight and wisdom about what it means to lead a truly full life – a life full of making difference, by making someone else’s day.
Shunning –to have your value, worth, very existence, ignored. Shunning is the shrewd way of informing someone they are no longer a beloved child of God. Shunning teaches select folks they do not belong, and imprints upon their soul that they have fallen short. Shunning is the presence of the opinion that someone is now no more than an absence.
Everyone denies ever having participating in such a hideous phenomenon, and just as many will claim to have had the experience. There is a lie at work here, and it is all a matter of perspective. Are you the shunned or the one doing the shunning? There are far more of us doing the shunning, than being shunned, and this is why it remains such an effective tool of social manipulation.
Suffice it to say, I doubt it was the Amish who thought up this emotional and spiritual method of torture. I would guess it goes back to the beginning of the human species, or certainly to the existence of a family or neighborhood or community. It appears to be a markedly warped aspect of our human nature, this need to transform someone into an outcast. It is a tremendous power, and like bullying, it can become quite addictive. Giving someone the silent treatment, ignoring their existence, passing them by without any human acknowledgement, is certainly a most powerful weapon in the human emotional arsenal.
I have born witness to shunning throughout my life and ministry. Though we strangely seek to think of shunning as unusual or a seldom practiced behavior, the opposite is the case.
I think even today most of us could walk the halls of any elementary school, and quickly establish who had been chosen as the outcasts, those children teased and mocked on a daily basis, or who already bear the spiritual scars of being bullied. We would be able to spot the child who would never be invited to the birthdays of their classmates. We can conjure up the parental excuses as to why some kids are never included in the sleep over. We know immediately which kids will spend most of their free time alone, and will know their rooms as both prison and fortress.
We are aware of those whose physical appearance leaves them shunned, or whose lack of athletic or academic ability will cast them off into social oblivion. We can sense those whose family background forces them to wear an outcast banner across their brow. We know we know. We sadly plead ignorance or sigh as if we care.
By high school, the shunning has become more sophisticated, and the ranking of our youth more blatant and cruel. Again, were we to spend a day walking the hallways of a typical high school in America, or visiting its gym or cafeteria, I regret to say that we could name the homecoming court in quick order. We could also readily point out those who were being left out of every activity or function or experience that might make them feel included.
Over the years I have heard it said upon the suicide of a teenager, that the event had literally come out of nowhere. Everyone initially concurs that nobody saw it coming. The fact is that most of the time everyone saw it coming, and for a long time, and most thought themselves incapable of doing anything about it. Adults are prone to claim powerlessness in face of the adolescent popularity machine. Truth be told, many adults are major participants in the popularity game itself. Teen suicide has deep roots in social shunning, and its role in a youth taking their own life cannot and should not be underestimated.
What is most odd about shunning, are the places it most often occurs, and where we would think it should never happen – the family and the Church.
As a pastor of 40 years, I cannot begin to tell you how often I was counseled before a wedding or baptism or funeral, on how to handle the splits in families. There was frequently a cousin or sister or parent or child who was no longer thought of as family. There were silences so loud and vicious that families needed to be kept on opposite sides of the aisle. It is most striking how sides are taken in families over issues of such small magnitude and significance that it is hard to even imagine how the division ever dug down so deep.
Family gatherings and reunions and special events are often hopelessly ruined by a past decision to have shunned an individual, couple, or a family within a family. The shunning is absolute. No contact. No communication or compromise. No interest or respect shown. No love or loyalty. No Grace and certainly no God present.
The Church is notorious for such shunning. Many churches are “ruled” by cliques. Of course the clique will never admit to being a clique, although every member of the clique seems to know who they are, just as those who are not in the inner circle know who they are. The clique truly believes it speaks for everyone, and will decide which traditions are sacred, and when and if any change will be allowed. They are the keepers of the church history, as well as the gates of those to be welcomed or not.
Speaking from experience, being shunned by a church is no fun. It is sly and smiling, quiet, and ruthless. One is made to know that we not only do not fit, but that we have somehow been deemed bad. We are a bad influence. We are bad for morale. We are a bad Christian or denominational representative. We are strictly bad news in the church political spectrum. Suddenly we can be denied access to intimacy, leadership, creative participation, or being worthy of having our needs met or helping to meet those of others. We are not just out of the loop, but the loop is now worn like a loose noose about the neck.
As is always the sad case within the church, a shunning is never admitted, claimed, or discussed, and therefore forgiveness never asked for or received. The spirit of condemnation is worn in grimaces and offered in conversations which stop when we enter the room. If we are truly on the outside, we will be kept out of these rooms.
I suspect that Jesus and his family were shunned. Mary was not a virgin, and this was a birth out of wedlock. The religious elite of the synagogue, the clique of its time, would have let this young family know in no uncertain terms that they did not measure up and were unsuitable for being part of the flock. Could this be why Mary and Jesus became such relentless advocates for the outcast? Could this be why Jesus held his greatest anger for those within the synagogue’s hierarchy who saw themselves as the religious elite, cruelly judgmental, and wickedly elitist in their beliefs? I suspect so.
Shunning is tough stuff. It just may be the true opposite of Grace. Those who shun are secure in their right to declare what is right for others. Their loving, like their forgiving, is offered with a 100% guarantee of set conditions. When asked if anything is wrong, the shunning folks will say nothing at all. They will sigh and shrug and smear on a smile. They will coat their words with honey dripped niceties, but the truth behind it cannot be hidden by that Chiclet grin of grinding teeth.
We have all had to slog our way through being shunned. It is painful and pierces the soul. It is, like being teased, unforgettable. It scars the heart with a scalpel slice which never fully heals. It shatters the spirit by impacting our capacity to trust or our willingness to surrender. It just makes faith all that much harder.
Maybe this is why Jesus despised those who left people others out in the cold, and who clutched their power and position to their chest with the glee of greed. He told them they were like white washed tombs, clean and shiny on the outside, but inside full of the bones of the dead. It was Jesus’ harshest criticism.
Shunning! Isn’t it time to admit and claim its abundant presence in our lives, our families, our society and culture, our churches and synagogues, even our neighborhoods and communities? Isn’t it time to address this devastating habit, so lacking in maturity and spirituality, so void of faith, so lacking in the Grace of God who adores us all? My goodness, I would hope so. I cannot fathom any of us having to defend shunning to our Maker, or having it as an aspect of our legacy. We are better than that -- much better.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.