Monday, July 12, 2010

Anatomy of a shunning

Deirdre Mundy is a smart, thoughtful writer whose posts are always interesting. This is especially true when she writes about the Legion of Christ. Consider today's post about the Legion/Regnum Christi habit of "shunning" anyone who leaves:
Many women have reported that when they leave the movement, they are shunned. Their children are shunned. The women who have been their friends for years, sometimes decades, suddenly treat them like garbage.

They feel like they’re going crazy. They’re lonely and depressed. They wonder if it was really worth it to leave in the first place.

If you left RC and are being shunned, You are not the crazy one. Your former “friends” are not the ones suffering, like Christ, from betrayal. You are the one suffering betrayal.

For those of us on the outside, the shunning seems like madness. Catholics don’t shun. Even if someone leaves the Church, we’re supposed to love them as Christ loves them. And the women who’ve left RC haven’t left anything close to the Church. They’ve basically left a club. The Knights of Columbus doesn’t shun inactive members. Why does Regnum Christi?
Do read the whole thing.

This post really got me thinking, especially that bit which says that Catholics don't shun. We don't--the Church doesn't, that is. Some may think that excommunication is a kind of shunning, but it really isn't--it is an act of mercy designed to bring a person who has moved too far away from the Church in some way back to his or her senses.

No, Catholics as a group don't shun. But individual Catholics sometimes do. And while in the LC/RC example both men and women have experienced shunning when they decide to leave a Legion seminary or a Regnum Christi chapter, let's face it: out here in the ordinary world, it's women who do the lion's share of shunning.

But what do I mean by that? Am I talking about the natural tendency we have to accumulate people in our lives who fit different categories (e.g., casual acquaintance, acquaintance, casual friend, friend, close friend, best friend, etc.)? Am I talking about the ordinary forging and weakening of these bonds over time?

Not at all. What shunning is, when practiced by people on their own as opposed to people in a group which uses shunning as a disciplinary practice--Deirdre mentions some in her post--is something entirely different. It might be helpful to take a look at what "shunning" is, in that context--if only to guard ourselves against the temptation of indulging in it.

1. Shunning is something that can only be directed against a friend. Just as in group situations, only a group member can really be shunned, so in friendship situations is it only possible to shun people with whom we've already formed a fairly close bond. So choosing not to pursue a friendship further on the grounds that you don't have much in common isn't shunning--but suddenly cutting off contact with someone you've been close to might be.

2. Shunning is always unilateral. Friends can move apart, both physically and spiritually. A change in circumstances might make two people decide that they need to spend less time together; often this is quite amicable, as when the marriage of one friend limits her time to spend with an unmarried friend. But shunning involves cutting someone off without that person being on the same page--or, sometimes, even knowing about it.

3. Shunning is always communal. Thus far I've mentioned things that one person could do: decide, with no just reason, to cut off a friend, without warning or explanation. Except in very unusual circumstances (e.g., the friend has been threatening, abusive, or otherwise harmful), this tends to be an unjust and un-Christian act--but it isn't shunning. Shunning requires that the person who is doing the cutting off draw others into her actions. She may do this in a variety of ways: a whispering campaign against the "former" friend, false accusations, misleading information, or even the sins of calumny or detraction. But the person who wishes to shun a former friend is always a person who can't be content with merely ending the friendship on her own; she has to have the support of others around her.

4. Shunning is often a test of loyalty. The person who uses shunning as a way to get rid of friends she no longer wants will frequently use the situation to test the loyalty of her other friends. If Vera is cutting off her friend Agnes, for instance, she may act hurt and upset if their mutual friend Sylvia doesn't follow suit--and heaven help Sylvia if she mentions, in Vera's presence, that she and Agnes still meet and chat frequently!

5. Shunning is an act of passive aggression. The victim of a shunning has little she can do. If Agnes notices, for instance, that not only is Vera suddenly aloof and unavailable, but so are their mutual friends, she may suspect what is going on. But if she calls Vera on this behavior--or anyone else among the group of former friends--she will be met with incredulity and denial, most of the time. She may not even have a clue what she's done to deserve this kind of treatment (because the answer, all of the time, is nothing).

6. Shunning is at heart an act of great immaturity. Adult friends work out their differences, or mutually agree, often if not most of the time without saying a word about it, that the friendship isn't really working at its former level. Children on the playground who get upset by a playmate will turn their backs, refuse to play anymore, and convince a few others to storm off in indignation with them--but adults aren't supposed to do that. The adult woman who makes a practice of regularly shunning her former friends, badmouthing them to others, and, as far as possible, playing the part of an innocent victim is really modeling childish behavior, refusing to do the work necessary to deal with disagreements and slights (real or perceived) as an adult would.

7. Shunning is contagious. If you have ever been friends with a person who routinely shuns many of her former friends, telling bad stories about them and urging others to have little or nothing to do with them, you should not be asking yourself IF your friend will ever decide that it's your turn to be shunned. The question you should be asking yourself is...WHEN.

Many of these things could also be applied to the kind of "group shunnings" Deirdre is talking about. Only someone in the group can be shunned, for instance, the shunning often happens with little warning and for little reason, it is unilateral and communal, it is immature, and it is quite likely to come back to haunt people who participate in it--whey they do something that the group dislikes, however whimsical the group's decision may seem. But in any case, a temptation to shun another person--not only to cut off friendship unilaterally, but to get others on board and turn them against your friend as well--should be seen as what it is: a temptation to something really wicked, something no Catholic should participate in regardless of group affiliation or friendship difficulties.


Roger said...

Another point: shunning, as you describe it, is unjust alienation. Those who shun are actually alienating themselves from the Gospel of Jesus and from their brothers and sisters. Is that Christian unity?

Jesus taught us that the shepherd should be willing to leave the "ninety nine" to look for "the one" stray.

I guess today "one" should be willing to venture and save the "ninety nine". Now, that would be true charity.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Erin-- thanks for the kind words. I think your point #3 is the most important - Shunning happens communally. The group is consenting to the shunning, the entire group, not just a ringleader, is culpable.

All it takes is a few brave voices to speak out and stop the madness.

In a middle school classroom, you can't really expect those voices to exist. Everyone is immature and insecure when they're 12.

Among a group of Catholic women, there should be no voice that keeps silent. We're adults. We claim to admire the martyrs who faced fire and scaffold. The least we can do is face down some disapproving snorts!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting subject. What is the difference between shunning and flat out ending a friendship with no explanation but great justification? The effects are as stated may or may not be communal. What if the friendship ends between individuals but entails no one else? The individual is outside of the communal group who ends the friendship most likely, even if they refuse to disparage others.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous, I think that ending a friendship ordinarily requires some delicate handling; of course, if there's great justification, then it may be best simply to cut contact with someone, as charitably as possible.

But a shunning always involves telling other people to avoid that friend, and keeping him/her away from the whole group, I think.