By Patrick Haeck | January 2022
One of the most onerous forms of coercive control is mandated shunning of former members by high-control religious groups. I know, as it happened to me and my family over ten years ago. But my wife and I decided to do something about it, and it’s the story I’m about to tell.
My experience of shunning
In 2010, my wife Belinda and I decided to stop all of our religious activities as Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). Because we made this decision, JWs were mandated to shun us. Parents, siblings and long-time friends could no longer talk to or associate with us.
We both grew up as JWs. But about 20 years after we were married, we began to privately question several JW beliefs and policies. Three years later, I shared our concerns with higher-ups in the JW organization. Instead of answering my questions, I was treated to intense gaslighting. Fortunately, I was aware of this form of coercive control.
After talking with other rank and file JWs about how they were being treated, it became clear to me that this was an authoritarian organization that could not be challenged. When I refused to denounce my concerns about certain beliefs, I was disfellowshipped.
After we left, on an almost daily basis, we heard emotionally upsetting stories from other members who were being shunned and ignored by parents, siblings, and former JW friends, and how it affected their mental health. Some told us they tried to commit suicide. We were told about people they knew who committed suicide; how even 20 years after leaving this organization, people being shunned still struggled with JW-induced fears and phobias.
I saw victims of the JW mandated shunning policy from many sides of this issue: from active JWs, the disfellowshipped (DF), disassociated (DA) ex-members and from family members who were never JWs. Gratefully, we as a family never crawled into the victim role. But we saw the need to do something about this criminal activity called shunning.
While I could see the mandated shunning policy was a crime—inciting others to hate—I wondered why the courts did not see it this way and how I might change their minds:
- In court, individual complaints were dismissed by the JW organization as “isolated cases in which they have no responsibility.” – To combat this mindset, I had to bundle and organize the complaints so the court could see that hundreds of people, probably thousands, were involved as victims.
- Shunning complaints had been presented to civil courts. – A conversation with several lawyers helped me see that the shunning issue had been presented to the wrong court.
- The JW organization argued in court that shunning was a bible-based policy. – It’s not difficult to show that not all Bible-based policies should be followed. According to the Bible, men who lay with other men and children who disrespect their parents should be stoned to death, and that’s only two examples. (Lev. 20:13, Deut. 21:18-21)
- JWs hide behind their “freedom of worship” every time. – Freedom of worship is a part of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and is not ‘an organizational right’. Article 30 states: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”
- The descriptions of previous complaints were insufficiently precise. As a result of JW indoctrination, disfellowshipping and shunning were and are still being used as synonyms for each other. This stance was an advantage for the JW organization time after time. – Fortunately, one team of lawyers, the Belgian French speaking Mr. Jacque Lejeune made the distinction that the legal terms were mixed up.
Are shunning and disfellowshipping the same? No, absolutely not. Excommunication or disfellowhshipping is an organizational right that cannot be altered, and the reason why so many lawsuits were lost. Shunning is the treatment prescribed by the JW organization for people who are disfellowshipped or have disassociated.
People have the right to organize. Any organization has the right to make rules. By applying these rules, people can be admitted or refused membership in an organization. Consider the example of a school as an organization. Students are admitted to a school if they follow the school rules, which must meet certain legal criteria. In case of a conflict between the school regulations and legal criteria, the latter will always prevail. On the basis of a legal regulation, students who violate the school rules can be called to account. If they continue to repeat the violation they can be expelled (excluded, excommunicated, disfellowshipped) from school.
Obviously, this will have a certain impact on the normal social contacts with friends within the school. But just suppose the school principal visits class after class and addresses the students in response to the student who was disfellowshipped. He tells each class that the rule-breaking student was expelled from school and that this must have an impact on the social contacts they have with this person. If any of the students says “Hello” to this student, answers his texts or phone calls, plays soccer with him, invites him to a party, goes out to dinner with them, THEN such a student will be expelled from school too.
Suppose such a school principal were to announce such a far-reaching measure, how long would it take before he would have to answer to the court? And we are not talking about the application of the measure. It’s not exclusion of the student that makes the school principal legally actionable. It is the granting and enforcing a social death judgment—shunning—on the excluded student that will put him in legal trouble.
With this insight, I went to several lawyers who linked shunning to the laws against hate and discrimination crimes and incitement to hate and discriminate. The Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney followed this line of thinking and offered judicial review. Shunning should be recognized as a crime!
In March 2021, after six years of preparing for and presenting our case, the criminal court followed this point of view and convicted the Belgian branch of the JW organization of a criminal offense: shunning and enforcing it as treatment for people disfellowshipped and disassociated. (JWs appealed and the appeal process begins November 30th, 2021.
What did I want to achieve?
That’s a question I was asked by the court. Let me be clear: I do not want JWs banned as an organization, as they currently are in Russia. I’m NOT against the JW religion. Rather, I want to make it a more socially acceptable environment for both members and former members. There is no benefit whatsoever associated with practicing shunning. It only creates victims.
For example: Suppose a group of people believe “yellow beings live on the moon who have influence over us” and they organize around this theme. This is clearly an application of the right people have to organize. It is also an expression of the right people have to believe or not believe; they get to choose. The moment such an organization gives the order to damage/shun people who do not or no longer believe this, they are guilty of criminal offenses.
What was the outcome of the court’s reaction to JW shunning in Belgium?
Although the JW organization has appealed the ruling of the criminal court, there is a sense of relief created by the court’s decision about JW shunning. More and more people are coming forward, wanting to tell their story. But there is not one shunning story of an ex-JW that has a happy ending. Shunning is simply an inhumane policy.
What is happening now?
Worldwide, ex-JWs are pleasantly surprised by the court’s ruling in Belgium and are asking for advice to see if they can organize a similar complaint in their countries. In the Netherlands Now is the Time is an initiative moving with great strides towards a criminal complaint. Many good contacts have been made to recognize shunning as an inciting to hate and discriminate crime, which includes ex-JWs in Denmark, Czech Republic, UK, Canada and the US.
What is my ultimate goal?
My ultimate goal is to make this world a better place to live with religious mandated shunning recognized worldwide as a crime. The ruling in Belgium is NOT about how bad the JW organization is. It is about shunning as a practice, whether used by the JWs or any other organization. Remarkably, former members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have come forward, as have former members of the Exclusive Brethren in the UK, and so on as similar victims of shunning.
Fortunately, there are good things to report. Many JW parents who evicted disfellowshipped children from their homes, did not attend their children’s weddings and didn’t see their grandchildren grow up, are waking up and discovering how wrong shunning is. This has prompted them to leave the organization or be expelled for not shunning family members. Then I see family ties mend, the wounds slowly but surely heal and people recognize that the relationship breakdown after the exclusion is NOT due to a personal decision but is the direct result of coercive control/mental manipulation.
How can others help and contribute?
There is still a lot of work to be done. The damage done by shunning is huge and sometimes impossible to undo. Most ex-JWs need the help of a professional mental health counselor to recover, due to the authoritarian nature and coercive control of JWs. Even people who have been out of the JW organization for over 20 years are still fearful of being destroyed at Armageddon, suffering the consequences of fighting against God and His organization, still believing that this is the truth and that THEY are the sinners. However, this misinformation can be addressed with objective research and professional counselling.
It is a bit like the anxieties children have of the frightening figures at a Halloween party. It is enough to remove Grandpa’s mask for a moment and put it back on to free the child from his or her fear. But, in the case of the JW organization, it is about deep-seated, long-standing fears that motivated people to do things for which they now feel guilty, causing harm to themselves and others. So, we are now looking for mental health counselors who can help victims recover from the long-time mind control manipulation of authoritarian and coercive organizations.
This is not just about religious organizations. We see the same damage in political, social and commercial organizations. The problem is not that people organize. The problem is that authoritarian organizations, even an organization of two people, can and do use coercive control to get people to do things not in their best interest. And almost always, the victims have no awareness of its existence, let alone be able to recognize they are being coerced.
Thus, a gigantic task awaits to inform and educate people, especially young people, how to use critical thinking skills to recognize and wisely react to coercive control, be it mandated religious shunning or any other form of coercion.
More information about my work, Bonnie Zieman’s book and Andrew Holden’s research to help eliminate shunning as one of the many forms of coercion can be found as follows:
- An interview with Patrick Haeck on the Dutch Radio
- The aforementioned interview resulted in this interview
- Another interview
- A great book to read about shunning is Bonnie Zieman’s Shunned: A Survival Guide. She says about her well-written book, “Many studies have been published about the effects of shunning or ostracism on the person shunned but there are few books, if any, written specifically to offer help to the individual suffering from this sort of inhumane treatment. Granted there are books about how to cope with being bullied and/or marginalized in the workplace or at school. This book, however, directs its help to people who are subjected to mandated, open-ended shunning by religions, quasi-religions, cults and other extreme groups.”