The Meidung, known in English as "shunning" or "the ban," is a potent tool used by the Amish to maintain their strict behavioral standards and their old-fashioned common faith. Its use was at the very center of the founding of the Amish in Europe in the 1690s; Jacob Ammann was a Mennonite who had strong ideas about certain religious policies and practices, none more important than the precept that the community should enforce discipline by separating from itself those who did not meet its high standards.
Ammann and his followers rooted the practice of shunning in their understanding of Matthew 18:17, in which Jesus says of an errant believer who fails to respond to private admonition, "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." Ammann argued that other Mennonite elders were not applying the ban in cases that clearly called for it, and that the exclusion involved must be a total severance of social relations, not merely debarment from the communion service, as some other leaders taught. The conflict came to a head in Ammann's confrontation with the more moderate Hans Reist in 1693, and despite several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation that ensued over the next several years, the Amish became a movement distinct from the larger, more liberal body of Mennonites.
Shunning is a last resort, used only after lesser sanctions have failed. Most violations of the Ordnung (the detailed system of regulations governing daily life) are addressed through private admonition and repentance. In more serious cases the offender is asked to make a public confession at a church service. One who remains unrepentant will eventually be shunned for a limited period of time, typically six weeks. Only thereafter—or following an unusually flagrant violation, such as the purchase of an automobile—is the permanent ban imposed; even then it may be lifted upon public repentance and cessation of the offending behavior.
Shunning involves a near-total cutting off of social relations. Amish in good standing may not do business with an individual under the Meidung. Although Amish may ride in motor vehicles when necessary, no ride may be in a car driven by a banned former member. Husband and wife may continue to live together when one is banned, but they may not engage in sexual relations. Family ties are drastically ruptured; the shunned are in effect disowned by their parents and siblings. Church members who refuse to honor the ban will themselves be banned.
Theologically, shunning is regarded as salvific medicine that will help the wayward member, who has sinned against God, return to the fold. It also serves to purify the church, which is regarded as a body of saved believers, and reaffirm its role as a bulwark against sin. In effect it serves as perhaps the most important instrument for the maintenance of Amish life and of the Ordnung. To outsiders the ban seems harsh and cruel, but it has played a vital role in the maintenance of Amish distinctiveness.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. 1980.
Kraybill, Donald B. The Riddle of AmishCulture. 1989.