MJ was Killed Building Peace in Other People’s Business

Today I opened Facebook and read that they found MJ’s body in a grave in the Congo along with his Congolese and Swedish comrades. When I first heard he was missing, I feared for his life. I also held out hope because maybe as a white American he would be more valuable alive than dead, but at the end of the day white privilege and American citizenship didn’t save him.

We know that in a global context of international violence white lives matter more. Given our history of white supremacy, colonization, and European-centricity, we can easily trace the threads through time that explain how this has come to be. What we examine less is what would drive a young white Mennonite from Kansas – who could have lived a life of material comfort and physical safety- to risk all of that and place himself in the middle of some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world – to go directly to places where the locals are trying to leave.

Wars Abroad Wars at Home; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

My above words are slightly inaccurate. We do talk about it on some level. We glorify it. The Martyr. The Savior. The Hero who risks all to save others. MJ’s name will be written alongside of others who died in the name of peace – Dirk Willems, Gandhi, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus. MJ’s name will be spoken in Mennonite pulpits on Sunday. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Some who hear his name will grieve because they knew and loved him. Some will be proud because he was “one of ours”. Some will be proud because he has kept up our reputation. (Mennonites are known for our farming, peacemaking, and our righteous dying.) Some will revere his name and his work because his sacrifice means that others won’t have to, that their children won’t have to, that they won’t have to.

But I believe that there is more to why young white expats* Mennonite and Other-than-Mennonite risk their lives in the name of peace. There’s more to it than the white savior complex, martyrdom syndrome and promise of humble glory. There’s more to it than a deeply embedded spiritual socialization of serving others and erasing motives of self.** While I think MJ and others (myself included) have definitely been influenced by these messages, there are other driving factors that we don’t talk about. There are other things at play that a lens of glorification would not have us see. And this is not to take away from the intrinsic value and awesomeness of MJ’s life and work. It is to complexify and complicate our one note melodies and turn them into narratives of harmonious dissonance.

Martyr’s Mirror, Plough, Tractor, Adhesive Bandages, courtesy of the internets

When I told my sister that my college classmate had been kidnapped in the Congo she said (and I paraphrase), “Well what do you expect getting involved in other people’s wars. That white man had no business over there.” And she’s right. And she’s wrong.

She’s wrong because the wars in the Congo do not purely belong to the people of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those wars belong to us all. And I don’t mean in an esoteric kum-ba-ya “All wars are our wars. All people are our people.” kind of way. But in the way that white people in what is now the United States of America are intricately connected to the geopolitical how and why conflict in the Congo exists. This includes the history of colonization, the occupation of political rule by Europeans alongside the continued economic, cultural, and religious colonization by Europeans and North Americans (including Mennonites and other religious entities), and also the international corporate extraction and exploitation of the Congo and it’s natural resources and the militarized political influence of white westerners and their market capitalism driven by consumerism (also that of Mennonites as participants in North American consumerism) – to name a few.

She’s right though, because that is what one gets for interfering in other people’s wars. Her comment made me reflect on why I would ever deign otherwise. Why would I even expect someone who consciously and willingly planted himself in the middle of violent conflict to survive – to have a right to survive – to have the right to survive while at the same time expect all those born and raised in the context of war to most likely not survive? What part of me could exceptionalize MJ’s survival?

There is something deeper than “a call” that drives white expats into peacebuilding in war zones, that takes white missionaries to Kenya, that propels white college students into the industry of international development, that gives hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of white folks employment doing “good work” in the inner cities via the NonProfit Industrial Complex (myself included).

This Land is White Land; quilted adhesive bandages and fabric by Amanda K Gross

We rush head first into other people’s wars because we are escaping our own.

It is easier to helicopter into a foreign conflict zone where we know no-one than to face the conflict zones of our homes. It is more alluring to negotiate the violent disputes of the Congo than to navigate the personal trauma of rural Kansas. It is better to run and deal with other people’s messes, no matter how dangerous they may be, than to hold up a mirror and confront and sit with the ugliness of our own. There is more hope in convincing Congolese rebels to put down their guns than to convince our conservative Republican fathers to give up their allegiance to whiteness.

I say this not to blame MJ, but to identify with him. The root causes of Congolese violence are intimately close to home, and staying engaged in either risks our emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical health. Rather than see MJ’s journey as exceptional, as out there, as something that could only happen in the dangerous jungles of Africa – what if MJ’s journey was in fact parallel to our own? What if we approached engaging in our own context, with American whiteness, with being in relationship to our families, and dealing with the roots of this interconnected mess with the same purpose and courage that we will ascribe to MJ’s life?

And to take it one step further, what if we did so leaving the Martyrdom and Savior Complexes behind? What would that mean for those of us who are still in the land of the living?

MJ Sharp, you will be missed.

 

Fly Away Home (in progress): Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*expats=North Americans and Europeans and Australians living/working in Asia, Africa, and Latin American

**Erasing motives of self is a dangerous egotistical illusion that sets us up for doing more harm to others and also to ourselves out of the myth that in totally suppressing our own wants and desires we are practicing a sort of holy selflessness, rather than recognizing our wants and desires and discerning what of it is in alignment with God’s justice, mercy, and love, and rather than learning and trusting our deepest truths to be in alignment with God’s Truth. I blame dualism.

How the Blatant Segregation of The North Made Me Realize the Subtle Segregation of The South

written by AMANDA GROSS

There is a myth in white America that white southerners are responsible for the racism of this country.

Spilt Milk; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

Despite being raised in the South, I grew up with some of this messaging too. After all, I wasn’t really from from Atlanta and neither were a lot of the white people around me. My mama grew up deep in the mountains of Appalachia, but she wasn’t really from from there either. One generation back her parents were solidly from Amish Mennonite Pennsylvania. My dad came directly from north of Philly, so there was no question on his side. And with both lines being from from Swiss German Anabaptist pacifist roots, we were in the clear when it came to being on the side of racism=bad and besides no slaveholding (whew!). So when Ms. Sylvia told me stories of mean white boys at the bus stop and taught me to be a different kind of white person, I knew there was some connection between them and me. I knew I was white. But I also knew I wasn’t Southern in that way.

Cue Scarlett O’Hara.

Despite “not being Southern in that way”, upon reflection a number of curious circumstances stand out. On one hand, I was given all sorts of concrete examples of how not to be like the mean, angry lynch mobs and slaveholders of Southern history. On the other, Gone with the Wind made a very short list of approved films for my childhood viewing. This encouragement included tours of the Margaret Mitchell home and a general sense of pride that she was from Atlanta – a white woman role model and artist/writer who succeeded in her field despite the sexism of the day. When I watched the film for the 3rd time (I loved the dresses), maybe Ms. Sylvia silently shook her head in disapproval while doing the dishes, but not one adult indicated that this was a problematic narrative. When I was confused that things didn’t match up – why were the white men all eager to go off to war when white men in my church said war was bad? why was Prissy screaming hysterically in the midst of crisis when Black women I knew were composed and knowledgeable? why did enslaved people stick around when in all the other stories I read they were trying to get the Hell out? – there wasn’t any critical discussion to help me process it. When my precocious second grade self read the book and then wanted a “Gone with the Wind”-themed birthday party (complete with hoop skirts), not only was this idea supported (by my parentals), but also people sent their children (mostly white) (also in hoop skirts). (Note: Of the birthday party goers, maybe one of my peers was from from the South.)

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue 7 Scarletts (in hoop skirts) and 1 Rhett Butler.

Many other Southern cultural things slipped in un-complexified. Like Uncle Remus stories and field trips to Joel Chandler Harris’s house. Also visits to the Cyclorama (practically in my backyard), many picnics at the Stone Mountain (highly patriotic/Confederate leaning) laser show, and that one time, a trip to a plantation outside of Charleston.

Squilt (detail); Hand pieced and quilted by Amanda K Gross

Now I also was steeped in Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy. Eighth Grade Georgia History was a semester on the evils of slavery and the wickedness of the Confederacy and then a semester on the Civil Rights Movement. Black History Month lasted the entire school year. However, somehow Southern white overt racist culture ended up kitschified by our Atlanta Yankee parents – not totally taken seriously yet not totally dismissed. Like your cute kid brother, on a good day. Harmlessly annoying, but you’re feeling generous and proud of yourself for your generosity.

Cue Pittsburgh, PA.

Upon my arrival to the North, I was totally unprepared for the level of scapegoating and denial of responsibility for things like racism. I was not prepared for how casually white folks in Pittsburgh dismissed the South as that racist place and used white southerners as a contrast to prop up their own home towns as very much not racist. The more I got to know Pittsburgh with its clear cut segregation, with its racist workplace hierarchies, with its appalling infant mortality rates for children of color, with its segregated neighborhoods, and severe lack of Black folks in positions of city and county power and authority, the more I got irritated about the Southern dissing. While Atlanta wasn’t perfect, never had I lived in a more clearly and overtly racially segregated place as Pittsburgh. I heard liberal white Pittsburghers talk about the ills of Southern racial segregation and continue on in their white bubbles without ever thinking anything of it.*

Poet’s Voice. Birds Song; Hand pieced and Quilted by Amanda K Gross

Cue self-reflective thought.

Once I moved through my irritation and initial defensiveness, this insight became a gift that has allowed me to reflect back on my growing up in Atlanta and reflect on my experiences with more honesty about how certain aspects reinforced my internalization of racism and other dynamics challenged and complexified those. Atlanta was no utopia, but the complexity of my narrative is that it gave me exposure to anti-racist ways of thinking and being in the world at the same time as giving me the potential to be just another ignorant white person.

Interestingly, growing up in inner city Atlanta, much like growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, offers the illusion of non-responsibility. In Atlanta, a white person can be literally surrounded by Black folks at work, at church, at the club, at school and yet have no – or at least very few -authentic relationships. Despite being surrounded by Black cultures, a white person can keep that bubble intact. In Pittsburgh, a white person can live their entire life without having to interact with a Person of Color in non-transactional ways, yet never connect their own history to the history of racism in this country. A white person can give the gift of full racist responsibility to our Southern cousins, giftwrap included. And so both ecologies offer the tempting deception of whew! At least it wasn’t us…

Grandmother’s Dream; Acrylic on Paper by Amanda K Gross

Let us not be swayed by a theism of whew! It takes courage and a practice of self-discipline to keep coming back to an honest mirror of our life histories. It takes attempt after attempt to delve deeper into the truths that have been covered up for us and covered up by us. It also takes a level of courage and maturity to not get stuck in a pool of self-pity and/or self-loathing and to use an honest look to inform how we change. Let us know our own pasts in order to move into the present and plan for a different future.** Let us talk acknowledge our Gone with the Wind birthday parties so that we might enter into hard, challenging, life-long dialogues with our children about racism and their connection to it. Let us ask ourselves, what are the repressed stories that need to come to light? What is the truth from our own histories that need to be resurrected and exhumed so that we can know, so that we can learn, and so that we can do different?

 

For more on the intentional Federal housing segregation policies that came out of the New Deal Era, listen to this interview on Fresh Air and read this article by Ta-Nehsi Coates.

**I just finished reading “The Present” by Spencer Johnson, which significantly influenced this blog post.

Artist Statement

written by Amanda Gross

When I was five I used to put on shows for anyone who’d take a seat. I’d grab some blankets, turn over the kitchen table, and raid my mama’s lingerie drawer. But it wasn’t just my debut. I rarely performed alone. Instead I persuaded my brother to sample his latest Ninja Turtle moves. I had the kids across the street stepping to a choreographed musical and I sweet-talked Ms. Sylvia into lettering the signs. Artmaking has always been more than an end result. Artmaking has been the collaboration, the process and the magic that gave my five year-old self life. Artmaking was exuberant expression, and artmaking became relationship.

Trust Black Women; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 29, I was stitching up a telephone poll downtown when a thought came across my mind. Soon after, I convinced 2,000 of my closest friends to help me knit the Andy Warhol Bridge. Between years 5 and 29 I had learned some things about creating nicely with others. I had learned how to motivate people with the ultimate trio of enthusiastic vision, resonance and steady confidence. I had learned how to intentionally create space for accessible participation. But, I had not yet learned my limitations. Knit the Bridge was like fiber meeting steel. As 3rd graders and grandmas knit their squares and word spread rapidly, Allegheny County, the keeper of the bridge, worried about risk, money and contracts. In our grassroots effort, we set out to reclaim and beautify public space all the while honoring our interconnectedness. The county’s legal team was not amused by our fluid way of outsourcing labor and materials. They wanted assurances of safety to know who would take responsibility if it failed. In the role of project manager I learned about the rigid structures that form our society, about my own weaknesses and need for support and also about the adaptable power and strength of communities when we come together. With Knit the Bridge artmaking began as co-creation, and then suddenly it became organizing.

A few years before, when I was 26, 27 and 28, and within a two-block radius of my home, four young Black men were shot and killed in separate incidents, one by Pittsburgh Police. Their deaths reminded me of a ninth grade classmate who shared their tragic story and I responded by organizing Quilting Bee Love, a listening project pairing quilters with those who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence. I intended this fiberart project to build relationship, humanize victims and their families, and find healing in the power of storytelling. A few beautiful quilt squares were made and some very personal stories were shared. Some of McKeesport’s most affluent quilters joined in, but the project halted when they couldn’t get past their own fears and internalized racism. In this juxtaposition of trauma, remembering, love and resilience, quilting revealed both destruction and beauty. And so, though limited in scope, through Quilting Bee Love artmaking became healing.

San Diego Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 15 I spent a year starving myself in France. Highly influenced by white feminine beauty standards, but also driven by an adolescent religious zeal to be perfect in the eyes of God, I was at the height of my over-achievement. Atlanta Public Schools sent me and 14 other awkward teens to represent as junior ambassador exchange students. Living outside the U.S. gave me perspective. I resisted the fat, ugly, dumb American stereotype by overcompensating with emaciation, extreme politesse and cultural and linguistic fluency. Upon my return home making art was the key that unlocked my pathology. In AP Art Studio I drew myself back to health, drawing image after image of my body until I realized my own beauty. I used the physical act of figurative drawing to emerge from the ugly distortions of my mind. In the midst of sickness, artmaking was the antidote. Artmaking was health. Through my practice, artmaking became self-reflection.

Reflecting back, I can see myself at age 8. One day afterschool, I dropped my backpack on the kitchen floor and declared myself vegetarian. All my friends were doing it. One week later, none of my friends were doing it. I still am. My mama gave me free range of the kitchen and I experimented with whatever was on hand. I learned to make do and make great. I learned to make vegetables sing. In the kitchen, artmaking was a way to eat. Artmaking proved resourceful. And in my identity formation, artmaking became a way towards self-determination.

Kitchen Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 24 I drove 12 consecutive hours from Pittsburgh to Maine to live with a couple of complete strangers – one of whom wove rugs and the other of whom threw pots. This sixty-something couple subsisted as craftspeople and always had. Over seven weeks time, I observed Susanne Grosjean’s work intimately and was an obedient apprentice. I painstakingly warped the loom and wound hundreds of spools of yarn. I wove pick after pick and then carefully unwove and rewove after each mistake. I mastered tension. I matched hue. I carded and spun and dyed wool. I worked exhaustively. During my apprenticeship, artmaking was not just craft and skill; it was a livelihood. Artmaking was a path to material survival. Through that path, artmaking became a rigorous self-discipline.

When I was 26 I went back to school and entered a graduate program in Conflict Transformation. I was steeped in the values of peace and justice via my pacifist Mennonite upbringing, and so this disciplinary study was consistent with my lifelong interest in understanding, undoing and rebuilding systems of oppression. I balanced my analytical inquiries with a solo interactive installation in the university’s gallery. In Domesticated I cut up money as a symbol of U.S. economic and military power in the world and sewed it back together as an offering of transformation. I embroidered war machines all around the uber-feminine 1950s kitchen, living room, and laundry to create the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Goodwill oblivious to the violent images all around them. Audience participants interacted with the Goodwills to practice their peacebuilding skills. How does one engage someone with an oppositional worldview? How do you talk about the tank on the lampshade when someone can’t or doesn’t want to see it? During my studies, artmaking was about making the unseen seen. Artmaking was a way to practice new. Artmaking as installation was immersion. Consequently, artmaking became subversion.

Philly Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 21 I marched with an angry mob on Washington. When the crowd ended up cornered between a chain link fence and riot police with teargas, a friend and I pushed our way to the front and knelt in prayerful protest. The police hesitated and there was a moment of stillness before the anger propelled the protest forward. In realizing the extent of injustice, my artmaking channeled anger. To feel powerful and useful, artmaking required putting my body on the line. Artmaking meant embodied danger. Thus, artmaking necessitates risk.

Similarly when I was 25 I took my body to yoga at the Kingsley Association. This began a new education and ongoing apprenticeship under the direction of Felicia Lane Savage to practice and teach yoga. I learned a different way to be in my body, an expansive form of artmaking. I learned to have grace for and to listen to my human form rather than push and exploit it. Here too, artmaking was embodied. Yet here artmaking can be flexible as well as strong. Artmaking risks without injury. In my body, artmaking is the practice of being.

D.C. Doodle; by Amanda K Gross

When I was 31 and 32 I spent two cold and snowy winters at an anti-racism organizing training in Minnesota. Whiteness was all around and it was inside me. This journey of understanding the layers of whiteness from historical, systemic and contemporary insidious racism has taught me another way to be in my body. I am learning to see what I’ve been raised to unsee. In unpacking this inherited legacy through Mistress Syndrome, I have stepped into my authentic voice as an artist. Dr. Joy DeGruy builds Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome off of the concept of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to describe a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities and their descendants today. If there’s a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome, or Mistress Syndrome as it more specifically befalls a white lady like myself.

I was born into white ladydom. Given a race and a gender in an Atlanta hospital in the early 80s. Along with my name, pink dresses (which I still love) and Cabbage Patch dolls, there were immediate references to dating, jokes that boys better stay away and hypothesizing about how my future white feminine sexuality would be fortified. I grew up a good little white girl, groomed to play by the rules and win, or at least maintain the flawless effortless appearance that I was. And when occasionally I wasn’t winning, my white lady mama would go remind the system that I was supposed to. At the same time that I was being conditioned to win at the perfect grade, body, attitude, I was also conditioned to help, support, defend and ultimately defer my self-interest to God (the Father), men (almost always white including my actual father) and the (church) Family (most definitely white). Through Mistress Syndrome, I claim myself the artist in the work. The Mistress Syndrome blog, visual artwork and anti-racist organizing are the start of this exploration. In this emerging and expanding body of work, artmaking is life and is my life. Artmaking is uncovering truth and pealing back of pathological layers. In this journey, it renders me vulnerable and holds me accountable. But, art also makes the alternatives. Art makes the vision and holds space for renewal. Artmaking is liberation. And as the thread that flows throughout my life’s work, artmaking is the transformation.

Puerto Rico Doodle; by Amanda K Gross