Someone asked me to clarify what it means to be shunned by the Amish. First I will mention that there are two different kinds of shunning –– temporary shunning and permanent shunning. In this essay I will focus on permanent shunning, which is reserved for those who have left the fold. I refer to my home community, because it varies how fast the Amish hold to the rules from one community to another. However, some form of shunning of former members is pretty universal among the Amish… it was after all, one of the things that caused the split to happen between the Amish and the Mennonites. Jakob Ammann, who was very instrumental in causing the split, felt that the Anabaptists were not adhering strictly enough to the shunning of former church members. His followers were the first Amish, who separated themselves from the Mennonites.
In my home community, some time (usually several weeks) after a person has left, the community will hold a “fast and pray” day, hoping that it will bring the person back. Two weeks later, if the person has not returned to conform to the Amish “Ordnung “ he or she is then placed in the “Bann” (pronounced ‘Bawn’), which means all rules of permanent shunning apply. There are four basic rules:
1. Amish members of the church may no longer eat with a former member.
2. Members may not do business with a former member.
3. Members may not ride in a car driven by a former member.
4. Members may not receive gifts from a former member.
Though this seems pretty straightforward, it really isn’t. Some church districts are stricter than others. It depends on who the bishop of the district is, and also which family they are holding accountable. There are favored families in the community, and then there are the black sheep families, and many gradients in between. The parents in the black sheep families are held more accountable to these rules, while a popular family may get away with not adhering to them. When my husband and I first visited my family, we ate with them. Then my parents were criticized for “eating at the same table,” so the next time we visited, we ate at a separate table, only inches away from the main one. Then my parents were chastised for that, too. A few weeks later, I received a letter from my mother in which she wrote: “Dad and I confessed in church today for eating with you and David. I know you will say we needn’t have, but at our age, we need to obey the rules of the church.” Ever after that, whenever we visited, we ate beforehand to avoid the issue.
The rule of not eating with former members is based on a Bible verse in which it states that one should not dip into the same bowl with sinners. When my father died and former members were there for the meal (including me), the women served everyone cafeteria style, by placing the food on everyone’s plates. On some occasions, they will serve themselves first, and then the former members follow, in other cases, someone will “fix a plate” for the shunned person. In stricter communities, they won’t eat around or near the shunned person at all. Thanks to Jakob, the whole practice can be very intimidating and uncomfortable. However, compared to some cultures that make as if the “errant” person died, the Amish form of shunning is mild.
In some future post, I will discuss my beliefs about whether shunning deters people from leaving the fold.