I just finished reading A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, a beautiful novel about a Mennonite teenager dealing with grief, loss
of faith, and everything that goes with a family member being shunned.
It was both hopeful and despondent, a delicate balance to maintain in
storytelling without being trite.
Historically, exile has been considered one of the worst forms of punishment; death is often preferred. Even today, in Bali, the shunning act of kasepekang is the most severe punishment that can be sentenced, likened to a social and spiritual death sentence.
While formal shunning is not often seen in the contemporary western world, people are disowned all too often for reasons based on misunderstanding and fear. I have a gay friend whose family no longer speaks to her; Sara Davis Buechner, a transgender classical pianist, was shut out of the US concert scene; and I’ve known many colleagues who have either come out or been outted, who were essentially excommunicated from their whole community.
It is much easier to write people off than to try and understand something that we don’t know or that scares us. You spend a lifetime with someone, and when you find out something new about them, something socially unconventional or maybe personally repugnant, it takes a whole lot less effort to think of that person as a stranger than deal with the challenge of reexamining your own beliefs.