Sermon Hour: Why Mennonites Can’t Dance: Co-Creating Embodied Resilience for the Beloved Community

written by AMANDA K GROSS

On Sunday, August 15th I was invited to give the sermon at Columbus Mennonite Church.

Some of my friends were surprised to hear this due to my lack of theological training and general skepticism of religious institutions. But perhaps a lesser known factoid about the Mennos (and Anabaptists more broadly) is that there is a solid lineage of any and all believers being legitimate vessels of spiritual messages. And, in the many cases when that profound lineage hasn’t been squashed by The Patriarchy, you and even I might get invited to give a sermon on a Sunday in August.

Amanda preaching at Columbus Mennonite on August 15, 2021

This was actually not my first time giving a sermon at a Mennonite church, but it was a very special invitation; the result of a lovely several-year ongoing anti-racist organizing relationship with Bethany Davey that started at the 2018 Mennonite Women Doing Theology Conference (okay, maybe I’m more invested in theology and church stuff than I originally let on). It was also very special, because it was the most integrated service I’ve ever participated in.

I’ve copied the sermon text below, but to really experience the full service, hop on over to Columbus Mennonite’s page and scroll down to August 15th. There you can watch a recording of the service which includes movement, breath, visuals, and words.

Why Mennonites Can’t Dance: Co-Creating Embodied Resilience for the Beloved Community

Scripture and I have a pretty complicated relationship.

Of course there’s the ways it has been used deliberately against me: justifying my father’s authority as the “spiritual head of the household” or condemning my sexuality. Those spiritual traumas have become obvious to me now after 37 and a half years on this earth in the body of a cis-white woman. Those abuses, at least at this point in my life, are easy frames for me to reject, the motivations seem obvious to me now: the desire to control feminized and queer bodies, a deep-seated fear that indigenous ways of knowing would threaten the structures of colonized power. 

Over the years, I have developed several techniques to protect myself from the ways scripture gets used against me. Much of that came through surviving a childhood family unit in which one of my parents strongly adhered to theological sexism. (and still does.) Mainly, I have learned to remove my body from communities that would put her in danger and also to limit my engagement with my father, knowing that interacting with him will inevitably require me to do the emotional labor of constantly establishing and re-establishing boundaries and potentially be retraumatized.

I have a clarity in being victimized within these dynamics that while uncomfortable is somewhat comforting in its familiarity. It brings up in me what one of my mentors, Felicia Savage Friedman, would call “righteous rage.” This generational rage feels hot in my body and travels quickly and directly, like lightning. When skillfully directed, I can smite like one of the God of the Old Testament’s greatest hits.

But there are other times when my relationship to scripture is more complicated, when the energy running through my body gets stuck at that stubborn knot in my upper right trapezius or ends up churning around in my digestional track.

Like the one time when I was seven and had just learned about the story of Esther in Sunday School. I was excited, overjoyed even. Finally, a female biblical character with agency! Finally, a protagonist with whom I could identify! 

In my loudly relational way, I left the Sunday School room and skipped through the church education building letting every adult in sight know how thrilled I was that there was a book in the bible written by a woman. Standing by the front door, on my way to the sanctuary, an elder in the church, also my friend’s grandpa, quickly corrected my nonsense. The story of Esther was not written by a woman, he said in a matter-of-fact tone, in fact, there are no books in the bible written by women. And also, why would you expect such a thing?

Disappointment. Devastation. Ultimate betrayal. My shoulders dropped and my pace slowed. How could a community that nurtured my gifts undermine me so severely?

In the Mennonite church of my upbringing in the heart of Atlanta, I learned that scripture is always a compromise. At church I learned there were things to be loud and things to be silent about. At church I learned to quiet my joy and contain myself because scripture did not have my back. At church I learned to repress the wisdom of my own body, to lower my shoulders when my joy wasn’t real.

At church I learned that the disappointment only comes when I open myself up to it. Since then, building up strong defenses has served me to reclaim my sense of Self. So why then in preparing to share a message with you, would I want to open myself up to the potential violence of 1 Kings 2:10–12, 1 Kings 3:3–14, and John 6:51–58 or whatever else my lectionary google search results turned up for Sunday August 15th?

Or, for that matter, why would I want to make myself vulnerable to challenging my own narrative of victimhood? What would be the benefit of digging into the places I carry my self-protective tension, like that knot, which is not-so-coincidentally located in the same place as where my mother stores her stress, also her mother before her? What would be the value of paying for a deep tissue massage or remembering to lift my arms and open my chest several times a day? Why would I care to reopen my heart? 

Or to reach into the culture that helped shape who I have become: why would I want to mess with the self-soothing and long-held narrative of righteous persecution that led my Swiss German ancestors to this land? What would motivate me to skip loudly through the church education building proclaiming that scripture granted safe passage to my ancestors in 1709 at the direct expense of the Lenape and Susquehannock people? Why would I tell every adult in sight about how the governor of Virginia strategically invited Mennonites as “loyal foreign Protestants” to be the buffer between righteously enraged indigenous organizers and one of the first colonial assemblies to legalize whiteness? 

Relatedly, this scriptural history happened on the very land where I now sit, on land that has educated me with more than one degree. (and also educated my parents, my aunt and uncle, my brother, several cousins, and one grandparent.) This land stolen from the Monacan people, was settled as much by pacifist ploughs as militia guns, and on which a 16-foot sculpture of a giant plough made from reclaimed handguns bursts through the land. The sculpture, located 4 blocks up the street on Eastern Mennonite University campus, is called “Guns into Ploughshares,” an artistic statement by Esther and Michael Augsburger against one type of violence, but in ignorance of another wholly interconnected form. 

A part of me is curious what my friend’s grandpa would say to these particular responses to scripture’s use. What justification might be called on to muddle the clarity of a seven-year old’s righteous rage? What guilt or shame spirals might be invoked so that the church community would not have to feel the pain of being part oppressor? Which genre of silence might be practiced in order to pass the grieving process off onto the next generation? Which aspects of healing might be denied, instead choosing what so many past generations have, in the more familiar embodiment of fear? 

I wonder where this fear and silence has lived in the bodies of my ancestors? Where has it lived in the bodies of their congregations? Where does it live in us now?

For me, usually the multigenerational silence cycles around in my chest cavity. Like a cyclone in a valley, its fast winds bump up against the edges of my ribcage. It too, wants out, but I have learned as yet another self-protective technique, to contain it close to my heart.

(Movement Break)

There is a tool I use in anti-racist organizing called the “4Ds.” If you have something to write on and write with, you can draw four D’s nested one inside the other.

In preparing to be with y’all here today, my first D appeared in the form of denial. I have preached a couple times before, each time in spaces where scripture was more or less optional. So when I was asked to share a message, it didn’t even occur to me to start with scripture. Actually it was a non-religious friend who asked with some hesitation, if preaching meant that I’d be interpreting the bible. 

Distancing showed up as a close second as I kept the possibility of scripture at a long arm’s length. I put off thinking about it. I half-heartedly poked around the Mennonite Matriarchy Facebook group to see what the groovy theologically-inclined grandmas were posting about.

Deference snuck in, sneaky as it usually does. Okay (I felt a sense of obligation). Maybe they won’t take me seriously if I don’t at least pretend to care about the bible. Then my inner good little white girl remembered the sticker charts from Sunday School. Ooooh how I love a gold star!

And when I ultimately did my google search and read the words, defensiveness showed up strong and mighty and with a glint of sarcasm. This 1st Kings author is totally sucking up to David, pretending that he was all righteous and Godly when we know he abused his power and was about that rape culture life. And then there’s the Gospel passage, the one that’s supposed to be subverting the old-world order, is just perpetuating a 2,000 year-old tired trope that co-opts the divine feminine in the role of creation. This is very unoriginal material here. People with uteruses have been bleeding to give life for as long as humans have existed, and those same humans have literally been feeding human children from their bodies for just as long. All of a sudden, we’re supposed to reorient life-giving to a distanced father figure and male savior? I think not!

But the years of yoga practice and following my body’s urges to take breaks, is beginning to soften something. Also heeding the advice of Black women has helped, like Alice Walker who reminds us “to take what you need and let the rest rot” along with indigenous frameworks uplifting the wisdom of the earth which is reminding me in this moment that composting transforms the stinkiest of rotting vegetables into nutrition for future generations.

I looped back through the scriptures another time and reminded myself that I’m the one who chose to engage with them. I released a big sigh and then realized that it’s not all a wash. I’m drawn to the themes of lineage and David resting with his ancestors. Hopefully an elder is giving him a talking to. I’m appreciating that Solomon did his own thing, following his dad’s path “except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places,” kind of like how I burn incense and my father gets suspicious. I’m nodding my head to the focus on discernment, a current and constant theme in my work and life, discerning when and what to name and how far to push anti-racist change. And I am absolutely all about the flesh and blood images, which feel like a direct connect to bodies and healing in the body, which is really where I intend this sermon to land.

At any rate, the Solomon asking for discernment passage is reminding me of a particular summer vacation bible school moment when we made stick figures out of felt. I loved all things crafty. I made him robed in felted finery with sequins and positioned him on a throne, as the “wise judge.” But that one story about the women with the baby never felt right to me. I can feel the deep disgust in the pit of my gut right now at the thought of a man in power suggesting that a baby get split in two.

It’s reminding me that the divine wisdom I’m interested in is relocated in the body, in my body, and comes out warped when administered as abstract justice from a distanced position of power and privilege, which is making me curious about the cost to Solomon and about our interconnectedness and responsibility in this co-creation of Beloved Community.

Dr. Joy DeGruy’s writings in Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome was one of the first places I learned about the interlocking traumas of victims and perpetrators, of both the oppressed and the oppressors.

Quoting Dr. Joy: “These crimes are perpetuated in a seemingly never-ending cycle… For who can be truly human under the weight of oppression that condemns them to a life of torment, robs them of a future, and saps their free will? Moreover, who can become truly human when they gain so much from the pain and suffering of those whom they oppress and/or take advantage of?…”

Her groundbreaking work describes Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome as “a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today.” 

Dr. Joy builds off of the more familiar concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to unpack a pattern of behaviors and beliefs impacting those who were enslaved, their communities, and their descendants. She later posits that white people have also been impacted by this traumatic legacy of multigenerational violence, racial superiority, and the justification of “500 years of trauma and dehumanization [that Europeans and their descendants] and their institutions produced.”

To paraphrase Dr. Joy, if there is a Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, then there must be a Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome. 

Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome – the ways in which the multigenerational perpetration of physical and structural violence, the internalization of superiority based on race, and its corresponding belief system that afflicted and continues to afflict the racial descendants of slave masters, read: those of us who have come to be called white – is not entirely mine to unpack, but a very (inter)connected piece of it – Post-Traumatic Mistress Syndrome – most definitely is.

My work on Mistress Syndrome (for short) focuses on the multigenerational inherited trauma at the intersections of race, gender, and class for status quo and passing white ladies like myself and that historical legacy, yet to be undone is a collective struggle which is both specific to white women and also entirely connected to Post-Traumatic Master Syndrome in an interlocking and overlapping partnership that has kept violence unnamed, normalized, and securely in place both inside and outside our white houses.

As Dr. Joy writes: “Those who have been the perpetrators of these unspeakable crimes and those who continue to benefit from those crimes, have to honestly confront their deeds and heal from the psychic wounds that come with being the cause and beneficiaries of such great pain and suffering.”

This is why understanding racism through the lens of trauma healing is so helpful. Trauma is not just a thing that individual victims experience, but a collective dynamic that whole societies and communities are impacted by, including those communities responsible for the traumatic events. Trauma impacts us all because we are all connected. 

Rachel MacNair’s work on Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), draws our attention to the impact on the perpetrator of violence. MacNair compiles studies revealing that a high percentage of soldiers in war either avoid shooting or intentionally shoot off target when in close physical contact with the assigned enemy, especially when eye contact is involved. In an effort to adjust for this, the U.S. Army altered training methods to desensitize and condition soldiers with denial and defense mechanisms (2 of those 4 Ds). While this adjustment resulted in more efficient shooting “in the short term,” according to MacNair, it “also contributed to greater psychological costs in the long run.”

Which may help explain why Mennonites can’t dance.

One of the problems with the racialization of white in this unhuman system of value is that being more than human is impossible. To be human is to be imperfect. So of course a system of racialization results in the constant fear of not being enough. As long as our value lies in the extrinsic measurement of an inhumane system, we can and we will never ever be enough. 

Whiteness too, as it turns out, was founded on fear.

We know on the individual level that fear can induce a traumatic response in the human brain, triggering flight, fight, freeze, or fawn mechanisms and that, as psychologist Bessel van der Kolk identifies,  “traumatized people cut off their relationship to their bodies[AG3] .” But what does that mean for the bodies of those of us navigating a culture that was founded on fear? The work of expressive arts therapist and somatics practitioner Tada Hozumi scales up this understanding of traumatic dissociation to the cultural level in unpacking the cultural somatic context of white culture. That is: 

“…how bodies move, breathe, think, feel, and know themselves within a culture.”

I’ve begun to realize how my cultural somatic context has been shaped by whiteness through exposure to embodied spiritual practices that don’t come from my ancestry. Recently, I was at one such training that was all about being in body. I love to dance, which is something I’ve cultivated more or less at different times in my life. I was at this training addressing trauma and healing and we were being taught samba and house steps and I was loving it and building confidence and fully participating. 

At the end we formed a circle and each person danced in the middle, something done in slightly different ways in many cultures. It was a freestyle moment—to share and celebrate each of our human individuality in the middle of the collective circle with everyone watching and cheering on. Needless to say, it was a very supportive environment. 

When it was my turn, I froze. I refused to jump in the middle like a stubborn four-year-old. Panic set in. Then, after everyone had had their turn, it came back to me, again. I reluctantly schooched to the middle and did whatever came to my body. There was instant release and I burst into tears and fled the space. It was uncomfortable in so many ways.

As I was outside in the courtyard bawling white lady tears of humiliation and release, I reflected on dancing in my tradition, or rather the absence of it. The trainer shared about how the Black Panthers would celebrate together after an intense day of organizing by dancing. I was furious and incredibly sad that there was no such tradition of dancing for me to draw on. In fact, Mennonites of Swiss German ancestry historically forbade dancing. 

For generations we have lost this profoundly human way of knowing… and healing. In my Mennonite subculture, so much of celebration and pleasure is seen as evil—sex, play, really anything that is not productive is either sinful or a waste of time (which is also sinful). Under the cultural somatic context of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy all of our bodies in one way or another have been reduced to being valued in terms of work—reproduction, physical labor, competitive sports, pragmatic nurture. Our bodies are forced to prove their worth.

The circle moment was both terrifying and liberating for me and there were many witnesses. 

And some of us wonder why white Mennonites can’t dance. 

This is not to say that individual white Mennonite can’t dance—there are many exceptions we could name. I, myself, although not a skilled dancer, have decent rhythm, am quick to pick up new dance moves, and generally enjoy dancing, even though my ancestors swore it off and there is no cultural tradition in my family. 

I attribute my affinity to dance mainly to the multiculturalist and Afro-centric movements pervasive in Atlanta’s pre-K–12th grade during my childhood. And even with a childhood of multicultural exposure, the confidence and ability to freestyle (especially with witnesses) generates in me initial alarm and lingering dread. For the collective of white folks, there is a way that the inability to dance and dance without inhibition (yet still in rhythm with the music) is a direct product of embodied racism.

Tada Hozumi draws connections between trauma and anatomy and especially the role of the iliopsoas, which they describe as:

“the muscle responsible for engaging us in our stress reactions of fight, flight, and freeze. White-ness [is an] energetic imbalance… Emotional energy becomes concentrated in the upper body, particularly gathering in the mind. To live in a world dominated by white-ness is to live in an environment that denies and protects white-ness as embodied trauma.” [AG4] 

The deeper I dig, the more I am feeling how white womanhood, as a microcosm of whiteness, is trauma in the form of dissociation from the body. Uncomfortably for me, healing means getting out of the comfort zone of my intellect and into the awkwardness of my body. It means less reading and more public hip wriggling.

What I get most from Hozumi’s article is not the identification of embodied trauma (although this is certainly a helpful framework) but rather the invitation through their own experience to discomfort in our bodies as a means of healing.

This call to discomfort flips a white-centric understanding of healing on its head (like a breakdance move or a headstand). The vulnerability of appearing unskilled and out-of-control, the awkwardness of getting it wrong, the discomfort in not being dominant or centered in the ways we have been taught to expect, and the call to notice, feel, and be fully in the icky newness that comes with dancing while white Mennonite will not be found in a how to manual, or the diligence of hard work. The revolution is not in perfecting an anti-racist Beloved Community. It is in the embarrassing, unpleasant, uncoordinated movements of Mennonites, in community, learning to dance[MOU5] .

For me, this is directly connected to relocating discernment as integrated with the body, our individual bodies, and our collective ones. We can, like Solomon ask for discernment. But will we be able to feel it? Discernment towards Beloved Community is not just a cognitive exercise, it is the knowledge of our guts, the history of who and what brought our guts into being, the guts of others that all around us keep our guts fed and healthy, and the future of our guts when we are dead and gone. 


 [AG3]https://onbeing.org/programs/bessel-van-der-kolk-how-trauma-lodges-in-the-body-mar2017/

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