A question that's back in the news: Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?


(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.”


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 the following description in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers. I will paraphrase some of his thoughts.

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.”

Continue reading "Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?", by Richard Ostling.

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