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Friday, July 1, 2011

To Shun or Not to Shun


When I moved into this house, squirrels invaded my attic. There was a little section at the roof line that had developed a space large enough for a squirrel to squeeze through. So they scurried around above my head when I was in my bedroom. I bought a kindness trap and evicted them. Since then I have been at war with the pesky little creatures. They dig holes in my gardens, tear up my grass and scurry across my roof looking for weaknesses in my defensive perimeter. I have sprayed all sorts of noxious stuff around my house to chase them away. Hot pepper sauce seems to be the most effective, but it only lasts a short time. My adopted stray cat, Momma-Kitty is also somewhat effective, when she is not sleeping, that is. Basically, I want the squirrels to stay far, far away from my home. I want them never to be seen, to be shunned from the polite and orderly sphere that I have created around my kingdom. If I started to shoot them with a shotgun, I wonder if the neighbors would notice.

Which brings me to a strange concept that pops up occasionally in the church world – shunning. Jesus teaches his disciples to shun people in Matthew 18:15-20. If someone “sins against you” (NIV) we are instructed to talk to them privately, then with a witness, then in front of the church and then “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. Law abiding Jews of Jesus’ day shunned pagans and tax collectors, and so we have a clear way to handle conflict. Try to work things out, and if that fails, never speak to that person again. If we all followed this advice to the letter, the only people we would end up speaking with would be people who haven’t offended us yet – complete strangers.

This is not the only passage in the Bible that promotes shunning. Hager and Ishmael are shunned by Abraham (Gen 21:8-21); people with skin diseases are shunned (Numbers 5:1-4); Jesus tells the disciples to shun whole towns (Matthew 10:14-15); and Paul tells his supporters to shun false prophets, and in one case names one – Alexander (2 Timothy 4:14-15). It appears to me that shunning is a normal response to adverse situations in the Bible.

And yet, shunning can be an abusive response to disagreements that tear families and communities apart. My Mom’s family is from Amish country and so I have learned a lot about those folks over the years. Shunning is used by that community to keep their members in line. They can’t arrest them, but they can separate a wayward member from his friends and family. And since they live in a society separate from the rest of the world, shunning is a powerful weapon that can break a person’s spirit and force them into obedience. I would guess that most of you think the Amish are quaint and harmless. I’m sorry but I disagree. They are a cult that limits the education, experiences, and resources of their members to control them. Shunning is their chief weapon, and believe me when I tell you, it works.

On the other hand, shunning, in the form of a restraining order, is properly used by the police when someone is threatening to do harm to you or your family. I’m sure that you have had someone in your life who was actively doing you harm. What was the best response? Get that person out of your life! The same goes for the church. Unfortunately there are people in this world who are toxic to churches. I had a member in Scranton who came to church with his girl friend, while his wife was sitting three rows in front of them. I had to tell him that he could come to church, but he could not bring the woman he was sleeping with to church while his wife was attending. The effect of that conversation was the same as shunning. He never returned to our church. But he was doing terrible harm to his wife, and to the rest of our church family. It had to stop and so it did.

The key to understanding shunning is the phrase “sins against you”. If someone is doing you harm or threatening to, they have to go. The people of Nazareth threatened to throw Jesus off of a cliff (Luke 4:14-30). It is no wonder he never returned to the town of his upbringing. If someone is doing something wrong but is not harming anyone but themselves, then we are to reach out. Thus Jesus ministered to sinners and tax collectors. I have ministered to many people who abused alcohol and/or drugs. If they are hurting only themselves, we try to save them. If they are doing evil to others, then I feel the necessity to do whatever possible to stop them. As always our biblical responses need to be measured with wisdom that comes from God.

As to the evil squirrels, in the fall when the acorns drop, they will start to dig up my garden again. Momma-Kitty will most likely be too busy sunning herself. Stronger measures must be taken to rid my world of this pestilence. I’m considering guided missiles.


Pastor Bill Whitehead

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