Whether you’re a former Jehovah’s Witness who has been disfellowshipped1 or an atheist who has been disowned from a deeply religious family, take heart. This doesn’t have to be a soul tearing rejection from the only family you will ever get. Far from it.
Here’s what you need to know: no matter what you’ve been told, you can choose your family. Only your relatives are determined by genes and blood. Family is different. Because family is about relationships. If your relatives are bad news…or reject you because they think you’re bad news…you can choose another family based on any criteria you like. Realizing this can put you back in charge of your own life. Even if that means striking out on your own and leaving your old, dysfunctional family behind.
Some people think that family is something you’re born with and, ultimately, that family is all you have. Oddly enough, many people with this mindset were taught to think this way by their parents or other relatives. Isn’t that weird? Sure increases the power they have in the relationship, doesn’t it? Especially if they seem free to toss you aside just because they don’t like some of your life choices. That’s a useful attitude for those with all the power in a relationship, but for those without…not so much.
It should go without saying that not all families are bad. Some really do know how to pull together and how to support each other unconditionally. But if your family is bad for you or has given you the cold shoulder because they don’t approve of who you are, then it’s time to change this “family is all” mindset.
But Family Is Family. I Can’t Just Change That!
Still not convinced? Let’s look at this another way.
There are many definitions for the word family. Good old Wiktionary has a few that are of interest to us today:
Notice that these definitions mention blood. But not all of them do. There are other things that can bind two or more people into a family.
When two people get married, they begin to see their spouse as part of their family don’t they? Many Witnesses who were converted to “the truth” begin to see the Witnesses at their Kingdom Hall as family, too. Many aspiring Witnesses actually choose their non-relatives over their relatives because the bond of faith is stronger than the bond of blood in their mind. Ever wonder how many of those Witnesses had families that were less disapproving or toxic than those who shun ex-believers?2
If other people can change their sense of family in these situations, you can too. Believe it or not, some exxers were relieved when they were disfellowshipped. It was a quick fix for all the poison their relatives had dumped on them for not being good Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or it brought an end to Witnesses harassing them about their lack of faith3. That’s one of the reasons people choose to disassociate themselves from their former Kingdom Halls and, in effect, their Witness friends and relatives.
Of course, it doesn’t feel good to be rejected. That’s how rejection is supposed to feel. Some of us were disowned by families we felt very close to. But the hard reality is that families who disown us only loved us under a narrow set of conditions. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, those conditions are determined by an organization of men that they probably haven’t even met.
Face it. You can do better than that. All you have to do is choose.
Why Do Relatives Do This?
Some truly believe it’s about love. As in, “I love you and this is the only way I can coerce you into doing what’s right. (According to my definition of ‘right,’ at least.)” I’m not so sure they’re right in calling this love. At the very least, it sounds…well…let’s just call it an emotionally unhealthy way to look at love and leave it at that for now.
For Jehovah’s Witnesses, fear can be high on the list of motivators. The Society encourages a culture of genuine fear and even paranoia among its Witnesses.4 Many Witnesses are truly afraid that strong ties with so-called “worldly people” (like a non-believing mate or relative) will corrupt them and lead them astray, ultimately costing them everlasting life. Especially if the former Witness chooses another religion. The irony of this position is, of course, hard to ignore. Nevertheless, fear remains a common motive for families to shun.
Even if they know you aren’t interested in converting them out of the Society’s borders, your family may recall lines in the Bible about bad associations and see it as a command not to associate with you at all. Disobeying the Bible, or the Society, could earn Jesus’ disapproval of their actions. They think Jesus sees everything, after all. He might not let them live in a paradise Earth if they disobey the Bible’s council or the Society’s orders. So, once again, fear drives them to shun.
A less sympathetic motivator is a good old-fashioned need to control others. Hey, control freaks can have kids too, ya know. Shunning is the perfect way for a relative to express disapproval and gain leverage, especially if their religion encourages it. If this is motivating your family to shun you, then you might be better off letting them in the long run. Why would I say this? Because the harder you reach out to the them, the harder they get to slap you away. In fact, reaching out to a controlling relative will only encourage them to shun you. To them, that just means its working.
As I mentioned earlier, relatives who shun for either of these reasons may claim that they are really doing so out of love. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that shunning is a kind of tough love that can win back a relative or friend who has lost their faith. It is, for the Society at least, a cudgel that is being swung at the victim for the victim’s own good. They may even liken it to an intervention, where family threatens to cut off all ties to an addict unless they agree to get help. Of course, being a drug addict does do clear and measurable harm to the addict and all their associations. But this isn’t necessarily true for someone who has a simple change of heart about their religious beliefs. My wife and I have different religious views, yet we have been married for well over a decade. We’re not dead as far as I know. And no one can prove that we’re dead in any spiritual sense. They merely have an opinion about it.
For me at least, the problem with anyone who claims to shun us out of love or loyalty to their god is that no one truly knows if their faith is true. What they do know is their own opinion of what is true and that you aren’t playing by their rule book. So however you size up their motives, shunning you is still a way to force you to comply with their wishes and to placate their own fears. The only thing they know they’ll gain (if it works) is a change in your behavior. The rest is, at best, wishful thinking. For all they know, God is real but he wants us to treat each other with acceptance and respect no matter what. Thus, shunning loved ones might be the very thing that makes their god angry. No one, and I mean no one, truly knows what God wants (or if he’s even out there, but I digress). They can quote scripture all they like, but how do they even know those scriptures were divinely inspired? Again, they have an opinion, but there isn’t much in the way of proof.5
Bottom line for me: even if love is a true motivator here, that doesn’t mean the person shunning you is correct in their reasoning or doing so for completely selfless reasons. It certainly doesn’t mean that you have to be the victim. If you can’t repair the right with your relatives, then you have to move on and rebuild for your own good. Let them worry about their own motives.
So What Now?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this article. Relatives are about genes and blood. Families are about relationships. Does a family that shuns you sound like a good, healthy relationship for you? If not, you can choose to find new relationships.
To do this, you have to get out. Literally. Sure, you can start with ex-Witness groups like JWD or ex-Christian groups online. But these are baby steps. You need to take a leap and get outside. You need real world friends, some of whom will, in time, become your new family.
Just remember that picking a family is like finding the right mate. Some people will seem qualified at first, then disappoint later. On the flip side, you can’t be too controlling or fearful in your own relationships if they’re to mean anything. Balance is necessary. A lack of balance can cause you to become judgmental or even to shun others without realizing it. You have to be the kind of family member you would want. This can be harder than it sounds if a bad family is all you know. Like everything, it takes time.
Take the time and make it work. And remember: the family you were born with doesn’t have to be the only one you will ever have.
Another link on a related topic:Biological Family v. Logical Family | Freethoughtify
- Disfellowshipping is like being excommunicated with a huge dose of shunning iced on top. None of your Witness relatives or friends will even speak to you once you’ve been disfellowshipped. Of course, many ex-Witnesses are shunned just because they’re seen as a bad associate. But that’s another story. ↩
- I leave it to you to decide if this is a good thing or not. Jehovah’s Witnesses will surely say this is a sign that their congregations are wonderful places filled with loving kindness. That has not been my experience. But that’s a debate for another time or article. ↩
- I’ve been tempted to write a letter of disassociation many times for this very reason. ↩
- Yeah, I said it. If everything outside of “the truth” is bad–including the people, the institutions, and even ideas that are not born of the Society–then I think we can say that is true. Jehovah’s Witnesses see these things as good sense and as a protection. I see it as paranoia and fear mongering. You say tomato, I say… ↩
- Please don’t start citing apologist ideas of “proof” about the Bible. It isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. ↩