“Even my relationship with my immediate family is limited.” Asher, 20, was excommunicated last year from the religious community into which he was born.
The leadership of Asher’s church judged that he had committed a sin so serious that his atonement required the ultimate form of discipline: ‘disfellowship.’ Excommunication from his congregation. The sin in question? Fornication. A sexual encounter before marriage.
He was expelled from the main social union of his life. The congregation to which his lifelong friends and family belong.
Asher’s particular group has historically lived on the edge of mainstream society. They stick to themselves; they’re quite a distinct sect that takes pride in avoiding “worldly influences.” They believe that contact with those outside of the religion can be harmful to their faith. So once his community abandoned him, he felt that he had lost everything. His cup of life had been overturned.
Since he had been isolated within this religious world for so long, he never knew what immersion in the “outside world” looked like. Now that he was ostracized from his familiar community, he was implicitly forced to adjust to life outside of that bubble.
“I felt like I couldn’t connect to anyone,” he said about the adjustment. His social growth was stunted by growing up in such an isolated union. Additionally, he felt that an integral component of his personality had just disappeared. He could no longer claim allegiance to the only community that he had known since birth.
He felt completely inept at communicating with those outside of his religious bubble. Relationships with others were impossible. He withdrew from everyone. The isolation intensified.
“I ran away from my feelings and emotions,” he said about the self-destructive habits that he began to develop. He wouldn’t shower or leave his apartment for days. Binge-drinking hard alcohol became a nightly occurrence. His social anxiety escalated, his overall mental wellbeing declined, and the negative feedback loop of suffering persisted.
The more he continued these harmful habits, the more his mental health suffered, thus fueling his desire to continue the things that he said “make it easier to deal with painful emotions.” Day in, day out suffering in silence. The consistent pain led to suicidal thoughts.
The exiling disciplinary techniques of his formidable religious institution resulted in severe depression for a man who was completely inept at connecting to people from outside of his isolated community.
How many people does this describe?
But also many other wrongdoers in sects that employ this shameful practice. Since the inception of the Christian Church, excommunication has played a prominent role as one of the most severe ecclesiastical penalties. Over time, the practice has fallen out of favor among most mainstream denominations. However, historical schisms within the Church have created a need to refine and broaden the scope of what it means to be Christian. As smaller sects, such as Asher’s, carve out their institutional identities away from the orthodoxy, they have often opted to keep harmful tactics for punishment.
Even just within the realm of Christianity, it is evident that Asher’s situation is not as rare or medieval as we may think.
In the modern era of surging mental health conditions and stagnation of access to care for it, it is in the best interest of all to reduce techniques and practices which induce lasting mental suffering. The argument can be made that punishment is necessary for redemption and maintaining discipline, but in Asher’s case the punishment is acutely disproportionate to the initial transgression. Violations of community standards, especially those as minor as a consensual sexual encounter, should not warrant such a severe punishment.
The punishment is often beclouded as compassion for the “wrongdoers” and an honoring of God’s commandments. Is it possible to be compassionate while engaging in social and psychological abuse, sometimes spanning years?
Forms of Isolation have probably been used as a form of discipline since creatures began to form groups. Practices stick around for a reason. Its usefulness as a disciplinary technique has passed the test of time, but a line must be drawn.
Religiously speaking, excommunication has often been within the domain of that line as an acceptable form of isolation. But as we recognize the less visible psychological impacts of this practice, the line begins to shifts inwards.
Asher’s situation shows that this practice causes more suffering than was previously accounted for, which has made the magnitude of this disciplinary technique creep out past the line of acceptance. Excommunication can no longer be tolerated.
Institutions with emphases on love and fellowship should not punish through complete separation from friends, family, and other admired members of a congregation. They should embolden wrongdoers to repent from practices that do not align with their principles, but it should not come in such an extreme form of isolation. The anxiety, pain, and desolation due to excommunication cannot be matched by any purported benefit of the practice.