Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Practicing Entanglement,” by Elizabeth Aeschlimann

Excerpts from Harvard Divinity Bulletin

Practicing Entanglement,” by Elizabeth Aeschlimann, Harvard Divinity Bulletin (HDB), Spring/Summer 2017 (Vol. 45, Nos. 1 & 2, pp. 11-13).

Elizabeth Aeschlimann 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. In September she became the new Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life at Vassar College .

Read her entire article on the HDB website.

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Aeschlimann begins with a story from Reverend John Fife about the beginning of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. A friend of his, 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.”

As she writes:

André and Magda Trocmé, Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon 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.

Aeschlimann writes that what struck her most was Fife’s explanation for how his community grew bold enough 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.”

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During the summer of 2016, Aeschlimann interviewed thirty-three community organizers and activists in six states about spirituality in their work, as research for her masters thesis.

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….

Though cloaked in different languages, [they all described] a basic view of humanity’s deep and profound entanglement that is a wellspring of strength and compassion in their work.

This profound entanglement is nonetheless very easy to forget. As Aeschlimann says, “Our interdependence is obscured by the dominant culture’s insistence that we are autonomous, separate selves driven by our own self-interest.”

She cites the work of neuroscientist Joshua Greene on cognitive “moral machinery,” which he argues has evolved to distinguish in-group from out-group and encourage in-group cooperation.2

Salvadorean refugees during the Reagan Administration
Aeschlimann observes that “the delusion that we are not connected is pervasive, even among people working for justice.” She quotes one interviewee, Diana Flores, formerly a leader of Causa Justa/Just Cause:

I think a lot of our movements become individual protagonists, very self-centered, ego-driven…. 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.”

What do we need in order to transcend our common delusional notions about helping?

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.

Aeschlimann concludes with this assertion:

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.


Notes & Image Sources

Image: Elizabeth H. Aeschlimann, Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life, Vassar College, from Vassar Info/News (8/24/2017).

Image: “André and Magda Trocmé, The Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon,” from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.

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.

Image: “Salvadorean Refugees,” from “How CARECEN Got Involved with the Sanctuary Movement” by Patrick Young, Esq., on https://longislandwins.com/ (10/24/2013).

3 Roberto S. Goizueta, Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Orbis Books, 1995).

Additional Resources

No More Deaths: An Interview with John Fife,” from Yale University Reflections (2008).

Joshua Greene’s ‘Moral Tribes’: The Minting of a New Morality,” from ??Helian Unbound” (1/24/2014).

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