I happened to stumble upon, “The Shunning,” an episode of the reality show, American Colony, which depicted what can happen in a Hutterite community when someone doesn’t fall in line. “If the elders find something that they don’t like, they are going to punish it, and that punishment is called shunning,” said Rita, a woman on the show.
Characters like Dwight Schrute on the comedy sitcom, The Office, poke fun at the practice of shunning. He cold-shoulders those he doesn’t like—shunning and unshunning at will, like a rejected thirteen-year-old.
But in Hutterite circles, shunning means you are barred from the colony and treated as if you were dead. The practice may be a last resort, but the loss of family, community, and financial security is severe for the banished person. There’s nothing funny about it.
On PBS’ American Experience, a documentary called, “The Amish – Shunned,” goes into great depth about it. Watch this short clip to get an emotional sense of the loss involved.
So basically, you’re all the way in—or you’re out.
Growing up in the Midwest, I was fascinated with people groups who lived a simpler life separated from American culture by geography and lifestyle. We encountered Amish people from time to time in their horse drawn buggies.
Later in college I studied the Hutterites. They “reside in agricultural colonies called Bmderhofe, and practice a highly conservative Christian way of life. They are isolated from more modern communities surrounding their enclaves, decline involvement in political issues, and are strict pacifists. Crime is almost unheard of and transgressions against one another are highly discouraged. The society requires every individual, child or adult, to give up selfish motives for the good of the group.”[i] Family life is traditional, but the community owns all land and properties, and colony leaders handle the money.
My thesis paper examined the mental health of Hutterites because mental illness in their colonies was statistically rare. What did they do differently compared to general society? Like Rosetans, they didn’t have to fret about job security or mortgage payments. Other than God, community was and is their safety net. I learned that when a member was determined mentally ill, he or she was not ostracized. In fact, the community embraced them even more.
Since then, other studies reveal a different picture. While severe mental disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar are few, depression is prevalent in Hutterite communities.
In general, some depression is caused by chemical imbalances. Other depression is circumstantial—death of a spouse, job loss, moral failure. Yet, research shows a strong link between suppressed anger and depression.
In Hutterite communities, the high standards for good behavior might create anxiety and anger in some. Inner tensions rise when a person can’t or won’t conform to the expectations of others, especially in a close-knit community.
And so among the Hutterites, the mentally ill are embraced, but the rebellious may be shunned—even though there’s an overlap called depression.
On Kenny Wollmann’s blog, Ask A Hutterite, he writes, “Shunning is a parting of ways between the church and a wayward or unrepentant member. At its best, it is a mechanism by which a believer can be restored to full membership within the body of Christ. At its worst, it is a soul-crushing device that an ungodly or unwise leader can use to manipulate the people he has been charged with pastoring.”[ii]
Families and church communities can be toxic when relationship is based on conformity.
He upended the “separateness” of Jewish tradition by conversing with a Samaritan woman, hanging out with tax collectors, and touching lepers. He didn’t corner or condemn people except for hypocritical church leaders. And He didn’t sidestep sin. Yet He came to give us a living, breathing look at the love of God in the flesh.
John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, came from an unchurched background. Entering church culture was a shock. Why did people change their voices to sound overly nice, after yelling at their kids in the parking lot?
As a Christian, Wimber was passionate about the lost, the unlovely, and the downtrodden street people. He invited them to church. Amazingly—they showed up, and they were not yet clean or sober.
Then one morning a long-time church member confronted Wimber in a hallway. “You’re wrecking our church!” she spouted. Wimber answered calmly saying—isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing? Bringing in the lost, the hurting, the needy, the sick—the shunned of the world?
Unshunning. For those of us who grew up in the church, it may take some practice. I’m interested in your thoughts…
[i] “Mental Illness in a Multicultural Context,” by Pauline Agbayani-Siewert, David T. Takeuchi, Rosavinia W. Pangan.