'I Am Now a Ghost': Jehovah's Witnesses and Shunning

When a Jehovah's Witness is disfellowshipped, families are ripped apart. Parents and children are prohibited from enjoying each others' company and siblings no longer appear together in the same photograph.
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Angie's family in 1988 and today: "I am now a ghost."

Recently, my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with posts celebrating brotherly and sisterly love. It was April 10, National Siblings Day -- the one day each year we're obliged to tell our siblings how much we love them. Many of my Facebook friends did just that, posting smile-filled sibling snapshots, some from childhood and others from recent holiday gatherings, with captions like "Love ya, Sis" and "Thank you for being the best big brother."

It was one happy moment after another -- until I stumbled on the posts of my friends Brandy and Angie. Their reflections took a sad turn. They spoke of loss and severed families. Both are former Jehovah's Witnesses who were disfellowshipped years ago, exiled from family members who remain loyal to the Watchtower Society.

"I do have a blood related sibling [and] I love him," my friend Brandy wrote on her Facebook wall. "He's my big little brother Ben. He has a big heart and a lovely nerdy mind. He is tall (6'4") and has wonderfully long arms that wrap perfectly around the people he loves. I couldn't stand him the first twelve years of his life, but he sure did love me! He would yell 'I love you Branny!' down the halls of our school and my embarrassment was more than I could handle. He's married to a sweet woman now and they have a beautiful little girl for whom I long to play the role of World's Best Aunt. But, alas, they are Jehovah's Witnesses and I have been disfellowshipped from the organization, after 21 years of membership. My brother remains a Witness, so he can't associate with me."

My friend Angie, the oldest of seven siblings, posted two photographs on National Siblings Day. The first was taken in the late 1980s, a few years after her family converted. Wearing a bright red sweater and broad smile, she stands out next to her parents, four younger sisters, and two younger brothers. The second photo is more recent -- and Angie's not in it. "I am now a ghost," she captioned the photo. Her parents and siblings remain Jehovah's Witnesses. Angie, an apostate after two decades of Watchtower service, is shunned by her family of origin. Her parents have never even met their nearly three-year-old twin grandsons.

"I have six siblings, two brothers and four sisters," Angie wrote on her Facebook wall. "After leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2000, there's been virtually no contact with any of them. The Watchtower Society instructs its members to treat ex-Jehovah's Witnesses as if they are dead. No phone calls, no family outings, no visiting with nieces and nephews, no support. When I was first disfellowshipped, I cried, then I was sad, then angry, and now I feel sorry for my siblings and parents because their minds are not free to think or act as they choose. They must do what the Watchtower Society tells them to do or risk their own destruction at Armageddon."

Of course, every belief system has "insiders" (the elect, the faithful) and "outsiders" (the sinners, the lost) and, naturally, "insiders" prefer the company of other "insiders" -- and no religion likes to lose adherents. Some faiths, however, Jehovah's Witnesses included, erect a taller, thicker wall between the elect and the lost, and impose strict disciplinary action on insiders who dare to go their own way. Witnesses are among the more strident observers of St. Paul's admonition to shun those who stray from the fold, even extending the command to the shunning of one's own children.

According to some estimates, perhaps 70,000 Jehovah's Witnesses are disfellowshipped every year. They are publicly named at the Kingdom Hall. Their former congregation and all Witness family members are instructed by congregation elders to cut the disfellowshipped out of their lives, not even to exchange as little as a hello on the street or an occasional email.

When a Jehovah's Witness is disfellowshipped, families are ripped apart. Parents and children are prohibited from enjoying each others' company and siblings no longer appear together in the same photograph. Former Witnesses, like Brandy and Angie, become family ghosts, hovering nearby but never present. The differences between the loyal and the apostate, according to Watchtower doctrine, are irreconcilable, insurmountable, forever. For ex-Witnesses, therefore, National Siblings Day is one more sad reminder of all they have lost.

Rodney Wilson teaches comparative religion at a community college in Missouri.

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