Do Bible teachings apply to today’s “sanctuary” movement?

JULIA’S QUESTION:

(In light of news about efforts of U.S. churches and others to shield immigrant aliens from arrest) she asks “whether teachings from the Old Testament on ‘sanctuary’ apply today.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many nations, including the United States, struggle over their moral duty in the midst of impossibly huge floods of refugees and other immigrants desiring residency and citizenship, alongside matters of border security. Those challenges obviously relate to the Bible’s many admonitions to love one’s neighbor and offer special help to the poor, the oppressed, and the wayfarer.

So it’s no surprise that churches are active in aiding new U.S. immigrants, whether legal or “undocumented” (a.k.a. “illegal”). A religious conservative, First Things Editor R.R. Reno, says Christians shouldn’t “check immigration papers before helping those in need.” But he nonetheless asserts that citizens still have the “obligation to uphold the law” on immigration controls. Other conservatives cite biblical Proverbs 28:4: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.”

Yet some religious communities — and some U.S. cities and entire states — actively spurn federal law by providing “sanctuary” to shield undocumented aliens from apprehension by law enforcement. They can cite the historical example of the evangelical abolitionists who defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

A typical defense of activism was provided in a March 1 Christian Century interview with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra. She’s a veteran in the religious sanctuary movement of recent decades and now leads a California “welcoming congregations” network for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As the above question suggests, she states that the understanding of modern-day “sanctuary” stems from the Bible, specifically Numbers chapter 35:9-34 (paralleled in the summary of the law in Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-10).

Biblical law was cleverly enlightened in a cultural context thousands of years ago when family members were expected to carry out blood vengeance if one of their own was killed. The late Jacob Milgrom of the University of California, Berkeley, provided this description in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers:

Biblical law prescribed execution for those guilty of premeditated murder because each human life is invaluable as the bearer of God’s own image (see Genesis 9:6, a key proof text for present-day supporters of capital punishment). Milgrom said this concept of each person’s divine sanctity is not found in any other law code from the ancient Near East. Note the cautious requirement that testimony from more than one witness was needed for conviction and execution of a murderer (see Deuteronomy 17:6).

The Bible then distinguished cases of premeditated murder from accidental, unintentional killings in Exodus 21:12-15, and the principle was applied and spelled out in Numbers 35. Six “cities of refuge” were designated where those who committed inadvertent killings could flee for protection from vengeful relatives of the victim. These were distributed through the land so they’d be available to those fleeing for protection before avengers could overtake them.

Because each life is precious, even the person who mistakenly killed another human being needed punishment and was consigned to ongoing exile in a city of refuge, “uprooted from his family, home, and livelihood.” The killer was stuck there because he’d be fair game for vengeance if he left the designated city. Exile was not permanent, however. It ended when the high priest died and his term in office concluded. Milgrom notes that biblical law did not treat killings as criminal in situations of self-defense, judicial executions, and combat.

Milgrom underscored these aspects of the “cities of refuge” system: Punishment applied only to the killer and other family members were protected from vengeance. Intention was all-important, with involuntary homicide not punishable by execution, which was a “revolutionary principle” in those ancient times. Ransom payment was not an acceptable substitute for execution with intentional murder. The verdict on deliberate versus involuntary homicide was made not by kinsmen of either party but the “congregation.” Since the cities were assigned to the Levite priesthood, that meant a tribunal under national law, not local tribal justice.

Importantly, the law applied both to Israelites and temporary “strangers” or “sojourners” living in their midst, a basic principle expressed by God in Exodus 22:21 and elaborated in Leviticus 19:33-34. Later on there were biblical instances of protection provided at the altar of a religious sanctuary (see 1 Kings 1:50-53; 2:28-31).

Salvatierra believes biblical precedent means that “if someone has broken a law, either an unjust law or a law for which the typical punishment is unjust, the people of God have said ‘we will shelter you until you can get a fair hearing.’ That’s the core meaning of sanctuary.”

Her movement was critiqued February 15 in Religion News Service by James K. Hoffmeier, Old Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible. He  says the Numbers example applies only to cases of unintentional homicide and, moreover, biblical refuge “was never intended as a place to avoid ‘the law’ and the consequences of criminal behavior.”

He thus contends that those breaking laws that regulate entry into the U.S. “cannot claim to be following the practice described in the Bible. Rather, they are twisting biblical statutes for political ends and subverting federal law.”

Important secular sidelights on this discussion come from Wayne A. Logan, a criminal law expert at Florida State University, in a detailed 2003 article for the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review. Logan surveys the ways ancient sanctuary concepts developed into zones of special exemption from the reach of criminal law regarding: 1) child and spousal abuse within the family, till the late 1800s. 2) wrongdoing within business corporations, till the early 1900s. 3) sexual molestation and other misconduct within the church, till quite recently.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.