Amanda K Gross is an anti-racist organizer and artist. She blogs about the interconnectedness of racism, patriarchy, capitalism and white womanhood at MistressSyndrome.com and is working to convene an anti-racist affinity group for white women and femmes working within Anabaptist institutions. Learn more about that here.
I have this vivid memory from when I was around six or seven years old: My mother and her sister were coming out of our Mennonite church education building in tears. It must have been late spring or early fall, the adults had locked themselves inside of the brick and cinderblock air-conditioned building for the last of a series of after-church meetings, and the children played happily in the honeysuckle and poison ivy outside. When I asked why they were crying, I was told they were very sad because many people, including my aunt, were leaving our church. Our church of 75 or so committed attendees — out of the metro area’s several million — had been whittled down to half and a second area Mennonite church had been formed.
There is a dizzying array of Anabaptist sects that, even for a relative “insider,” can cause confusion. I don’t know the specifics of when or how the Old German Baptist Brethren or the Weaverland Conference came to be, but I am familiar with the pendulum of conflict avoidance and rigidity that has shaped a history of Anabaptist sects dividing and subdividing. I am familiar with how disagreements over what is “the right” way, have led to further homogeneity, with each little group conforming to its own.
While Mennonites might be known for peacebuilding efforts and justice-focused upper-education curricula, our internal dynamics hint otherwise.
Rather than feeling ashamed of these contradictions or becoming defensive, I am focused on how these contradictions offer an incredible invitation for those of us inside — and outside — Anabaptist communities to practice what we’ve been preaching all along.
In the anti-racist organizing work that I’m a part of, we use a tool called the 4Ds. These 4Ds — Defensiveness, Denial, Distancing and Deference — speak to ways people respond to heightened tension, including during conflict. The 4Ds, not so coincidentally, correspond to the trauma responses of fight, flight, freeze and fawn. The responses one gravitates towards has to do with influences like history, cultures, family patterns and systems of oppression.
I think a lot about the sociocultural historical patterns of these 4Ds for Mennonites of European descent and how that has both enabled assimilation into white North American culture and hindered working toward beloved community. I can imagine how European Mennonite martyrs must have had a Distancing (freeze/disassociation) response given both the threat to their lives and their commitment to nonviolence. Defensiveness (fight) wasn’t a theological option and escape was impossible — or wasn’t a theological option, as in the oft-referenced Dirk Willems story. And Distancing became their last defense. For some European Mennonites, Denial (flight) became available — notably due to other forms of violence, such as settler colonization and access to Dutch wealth. At times, Deference (fawn/pleasing and appeasing) supported European settlers in accessing stolen Indigenous land, creating strategic buffer zones for colonial settlements and finding harbor under Nazi-occupied Russia.
These multigenerational patterns that once served a purpose for a community’s survival have continued to cycle through Mennonite cultures, institutions, communities and bodies in harmful ways. How can we confront, interrupt, heal and transform these cycles toward beloved community? Perhaps understanding toxic shame can help.
Trauma practitioner, somatic educator and abolitionist, Karine Bell talks about cultures with toxic shame, and specifically identifies conflict avoidant cultures, which develop when there aren’t “opportunities to experience repair [after rupture in relationship] and [when the] shame experience is ongoing.” “Toxic shame,” she says, “becomes hyper focused on individuals, pathologizes behavior, and identifies people with it.” In connecting toxic shame to structural racism and other forms of injustice, Bell says that toxic shame “is a philosophy woven into the cultural ethos in many parts of the world where colonialism has touched, which says white bodies are the standard by which all other humanity is measured… Toxic shame is reflective of a structural hierarchy that’s inherent to white body supremacy.”
What do those of us in white bodies experience when confronted with our own harmful actions? As someone who has talked to hundreds of white folks about their/our racism, I’ve seen the 4Ds show up in a distant gaze, an angry retort, with arms crossed tightly and chest closed. For those of us who grew up in cultures and family systems where toxic shame was dominant, even the mildest critique of behavior can be experienced as life threatening. Within a toxic shame paradigm, the smallest correction, offered so often in love so that we can stay in relationship, causes the deep fear of relational rupture that makes our bodies act as though our lives might be in danger.
It is easy for me to identify how the toxic shame response appears for other white folks, but Bell’s description for those of us who consider ourselves “in the work” of social justice invoked my own shame reaction. For “those in the work,” she says, “toxic shame can look like perfectionism, policing of other [white] bodies by saying you’re racist. It can keep white bodied folks from seeing where toxic shame still shows up in subtle ways… This shielding from shame can produce really avoidant behaviors.”
As I was listening to her talk, my face got hot, my body tense. I felt a wave of anger (Defensiveness) and then despair (Distancing). Was she saying there’s no way for me to “get it right,” when I had been trying so hard? Was she saying my whiteness would always be a barrier to my belonging? The video of her talk played on, but I had already zoned out. It took several deep-breathing exercises, some artmaking, a long walk and a good night’s sleep for me to be able to reengage.
And I’m glad I did, because when I was ready to receive her words, I felt inspired and encouraged.
“If shame has a purpose,” she said, “and if the purpose of shame is to instruct us about the potential harm in a behavior that we or another is enacting then, in that healthy shame paradigm we would have an opportunity to reflect: Maybe there’s something there for me to look at? Maybe there’s something here collectively for us to look at? [In moving] . . . into and out of connection and disconnection—rupture and repair—we learn that conflict is not only okay but can be healthy, generative, bring us into deeper levels of relationship, and evolve us personally and collectively.”
It took me approximately 24 hours to reengage; it took my home church(es) approximately thirty years.
During one of the regular phone calls I have with my mom, she was excited to share that the two metro-area churches, smaller in numbers now than they had been when they initially split, had begun talking about becoming one again. They still had a lot to figure out. They still had patterns of harm and injustice to address, but they had (re)committed to addressing them together. This was not something I had ever expected nor dreamed of. It’s not perfect; perhaps that’s why it inspires my hope, or dare I say, faith.
I am hopeful that the shame and silence, our cultures of shunning and perfectionism, of fleeing and freezing, are beginning, slowly, to turn towards the openness of engaging in the hard things together.
MC USA’s Women in Leadership (WIL) works to dismantle patriarchal systems in Mennonite Church USA by empowering women to live out the call of God on their lives, increase their capacities, and contribute their wisdom in congregations, area conferences, agencies and institutions.