Practicing Entanglement

The work of justice cannot succeed without deep, authentic relationships.

By Elizabeth Aeschlimann

For weeks now, there has been an image I cannot get out of my head. A man has walked through the Sonoran Desert and crossed the line that divides Nogales, Mexico, from Nogales, Arizona. He has been traveling for weeks, from brutal war in El Salvador to the country that has sponsored it. In the little town of Nogales, he sees the highest steeple: the Catholic Church. With relief, but still uncertain, he goes in. Someone drives him to Tucson, to another church. He cannot remember the name. They make a bed for him on the floor.

On Sunday, the congregants swell through the doors, singing and praying in a mix of Spanish and English. He is invited to stand. He comes before the pews. The pastor introduces him, and he explains why he left El Salvador, tells the outermost layer of a story he may never fully speak.

More singing. The Eucharist is sanctified, and the people come forward to receive it. When the service ends, a man and a woman with three small children approach him. “You can’t stay on the floor of the church,” says the man. “You’re coming home with us.”

This is what I imagined as the Reverend John Fife sat across the table from me in Tucson, Arizona, eating soup and telling me about the Sanctuary Movement that began in the 1980s. Fife and a small group of religious leaders launched the Sanctuary Movement almost by accident when they and their communities began to shelter the flood of refugees who were being threatened with deportation in their homes and congregations.

It began, Fife said, when his friend, a Quaker man named Jim Corbett, came to him. “I don’t think we have any choice but to smuggle refugees across the border,” Corbett told him. The failure of Christian churches in Nazi Germany was on their minds. “We can’t let that happen on our border in our time.”

Compassion, I have come to believe, is much less often an act of will than a refusal to be overcome by the reasons that would dissuade us from it. When Jewish refugees fled to the little French town of Le Chambon and knocked on the door, villagers like Magda Trocmé gave simple explanations for their heroism: “Those of us who received the first Jews did what we thought had to be done—nothing more complicated. . . . How could we refuse them?”1 When someone knocks on the door, you open it.

But the knock is rarely as straightforward as a person standing physically on our doorstep. In 1980s Tucson, refugees were standing at the border, but Corbett, Fife, and others heard the knock anyway. They went to get them. And when the refugees stood up to tell their stories, the families of the church opened their doors. Inevitably, said Fife, “somebody would come up after church and say, ‘They can’t sleep on the floor of the church! They’re coming home with me.’ ”

What struck me most was Fife’s answer when I asked what gave him and his community the strength to offer refuge in the face of legal threats. “The whole congregation got mixed up with the refugees and their stories and why they fled,” he said.

During the summer of 2016, I traveled across the country interviewing community organizers and activists about spirituality in their work, gathering material for my thesis. Over two months, I interviewed thirty-three individuals in six states. I attended protests, rallies, barbeques, meditation sittings, and performances. I talked with Christians and pagans, Buddhists and Jews, Latinx, indigenous, white and black organizers. What sustained them, I wanted to know. What made their work effective? How did their organizations integrate spirituality and justice?

I had carried these questions with me for a long time. Over the four years I worked with churches and synagogues as a community organizer, I struggled to balance the goal of making concrete policy changes with the vision of building transformative relationships among volunteers and staff. Too often, I felt that faith was not a force moving through everything we did but a coat we put on at press conferences or at the beginnings of meetings. Too often, getting someone to show up at a meeting overrode my concern for the individual sitting across from me.

The whole congregation got mixed up with the refugees and their stories. Fife’s words stayed with me because they captured something at the heart of what I learned from so many that summer: doing the work of justice requires that we get mixed up with each other.

Practically, this work cannot succeed without deep, authentic relationship. As I met with organizers and activists in offices and backyards and coffee shops, I heard from many a theology of mixed-up-ness that awakens us from the constant temptation to divide and separate. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic advocacy group NETWORK, sees our inherent relatedness in terms of common and constant creation. “The thing that I’ve learned in all these years is that God, the divine, makes us at every moment. It’s not like God is separate. My image is God hums us all the time . . . [and] that means God’s humming the person that I want to shake by the neck and change their mind. So if God’s humming that person and God’s humming me, well, where do we meet?”

For Micki McGee, an evangelical organizer who leads the healing justice efforts of Nashville-based organization FaithMatters, a trinitarian view of God speaks to the inherently communal nature of the universe. “In the Christian tradition, it’s three in one, so you come to this idea that there’s always been some kind of community. And if we’re made in the image of God, we don’t exist outside of community.”

Influenced by the Buddhist teaching of Joanna Macy, Anne Symens-Bucher described the world as a living system of radical non-separateness. “Because I’m not separate from you or from suffering or from anything, I respond from a heart that can’t not be impacted,” she told me.

Though cloaked in different languages, Campbell, McGee, and Symens-Bucher describe a basic view of humanity’s deep and profound entanglement that is a wellspring of strength and compassion in their work. “It’s the ground upon which I stand to know that I’m not alone,” said Symens-Bucher.

And yet, this profound entanglement, which has the capacity to be a source of power, is profoundly easy to forget. Our interdependence is obscured by the dominant culture’s insistence that we are autonomous, separate selves driven by our own self-interest. Our cognitive “moral machinery,” writes neuroscientist Joshua Greene, has evolved to sort in-group from out-group and encourage greater cooperation with others in our in-group.

For example, in studies of French and English children, Katherine Kinzler and her colleagues found that infants as young as six months preferred to look at speakers without foreign accents. At ten months, infants more readily accepted a toy from native speakers; at five years, children preferred playmates without foreign accents.2 Overcoming our tendency to give preference to “us” over “them,” in other words, is an uphill battle.

Where we are positioned within culture and society may make us more or less aware of our entanglement, but the delusion that we are not connected is pervasive, even among people working for justice. “I think a lot of our movements become individual protagonists, very self-centered, ego-driven,” said Diana Flores, lead organizer of the San Francisco housing organization Causa Justa Just Cause. “If you think you’re doing this work, and it’s coming from you, you’re going to break down. . . . But if you see yourself as part of this larger puzzle, you understand that there’s a purpose way beyond what you will be able to benefit from.”

To overcome the forces that drive us apart, we must practice what I call conscious entanglement—becoming more aware of our entanglement, and winding the tendrils of our lives more securely around each other.

Conscious entanglement means approaching each encounter as réunion, the Spanish word that, Roberto Goizueta observes, carries an association of preexisting relationship, though it means simply “to meet.”3

Conscious entanglement means knowing that we are waypoints in the stream of history through which something much larger flows.

Conscious entanglement means eating and praying and singing together. It means showing up when you say you’re going to show up and bringing soup when someone is sick.

Conscious entanglement means getting so mixed up with each other that the only thing we can say is, “They’re coming home with me.”

We enter the world like strands twisted into a spool of yarn that is long with ancestors and tangled with everyone. The tangle is not neat, nor is it complete. It pulls and chafes. Within it we are kind and cruel, we ignore and oppress each other. Dynamics of power and privilege persist. But the particular tensions and connections between us are also the source of power from which liberation emerges. Seeing through the lens of our entanglement, I believe, can help maintain the wholeness and generosity of our relationships, support us in taking courageous risks, and sustain us for the long haul.

In October 2016, the Harvard University Dining Services workers went on strike to demand affordable health insurance and living wages. One warm morning, I walked with about twenty students from Harvard Divinity School to a tent on the main plaza. We were singing, and we each carried a yellow daisy. Before a crowd of workers, student leaders from a dozen traditions stood and spoke words of support. A few days later several of us returned with coffee and a sign that said “We’re here to listen.” Sometimes standing quietly, sometimes talking to men and women about their children or looming mortgage payments or the weather, we returned each day until the strike was won.

In this moment when tribalistic hatred has been given a megaphone in the United States, the need for solidarity is indisputable. Such a time as this demands justice built on conscious entanglement: getting mixed up—messily, humanly, uncomfortably—in each other’s lives and stories.

Above: The struggles of economic refugees traveling through the Sonoran desert are depicted in Paseo de Humanidad (Parade of Humanity), a painted metal mural on the Mexican side of the U.S. border wall in Heroica Nogales, Sonora. By Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0


  1. Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York University Press, 1986), 102.
  2. Joshua David Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013), 50.
  3. Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Orbis Books, 1995).

Elizabeth Aeschlimann graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master of divinity degree in May 2017. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, she holds a BA in cognitive science from Carleton College.

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