It’s hard to believe that it has been roughly 30 years since the sanctuary movement in the United States made headlines with congregations offering sanctuary on their grounds and in their buildings to immigrants at risk of deportation.  Now, despite some of the lowest deportation levels in recent memory, the movement is getting attention again.

The Church has a long history regarding the concept of sanctuary.  God instructs his people in Numbers 35 that they will establish cities of refuge where those accused of serious crimes – and liable to blood retribution – can flee to until they can receive a fair hearing.  These cities of refuge were not to serve as havens for criminals – if someone was guilty of murder, then their own life was forfeit regardless of whether or not they reached a refuge city ahead of the retribution seekers on their trail.  Sanctuary has rules, in other words.  It is not a blank check.

The Church continued to function in this way.  The idea of church grounds being holy and therefore those within them safe from violence has quite deep roots in Western history and literature (think of Thomas Becket in England, or Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Sanctuary has not always been respected, by the idea runs deep in our history.  Thirty years ago a handful of congregations utilized this precedence to protect people from feared deportation.  The various branches of state and Federal law enforcement never (to my recollection) risked the feared backlash of storming a church to physically drag out alleged wrongdoers.

I wonder if the State is as worried about public opinion on this matter today as it was thirty years ago.

Sanctuary is an easy idea to claim, but a tricky one to define.  What may the Church legitimately (speaking Biblically, not just politically) grant sanctuary to someone for?  Does disagreement with civil law entitle a congregation to invoke sanctuary?  Any civil law?  Am I free to flee to my church if I’m being pursued by an officer after he catches me doing 45 in a 25 mile per hour zone, and can I claim sanctuary there?  How does immigration law differ from this?  It’s a slippery slope both uphill and downhill.

And whether you’re Biblically validated in invoking sanctuary or not, there will come a time when the State simply doesn’t worry about the backlash any more.  This isn’t a reason to not claim sanctuary in important situations, but it’s a reminder that the Church’s ability to do so is only at the tolerance and discretion of the State.  The same State that increasingly demonstrates a willingness to side with a tiny percentage of the population against freedom of religion for a very heavy majority of the population.

In other words, sanctuary outside of a God-centered society is not really sanctuary.  Not for very long at least.


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