I just love Australia. It’s been my home for well over a decade now and my children, all born here, know no other way of life. We arrived as mature students and now are permanent residents, firmly ensconced and settled.

Of course, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a clear reason for being here – study at theological college – and demonstrable means to maintain ourselves so that we would be no burden on the Australian government. Others are not so fortunate. As I write this our nation is once again thinking through questions around how much safety and space we give to refugees and asylum seekers who want to come here not simply to improve themselves but to save their lives and those of their children.

One interesting response which appears to have gained traction is the “Let there be Sanctuary” campaign by Common Grace

Let There Be Sanctuary

Something deeply powerful is happening. Churches and cathedrals across Australia are making headlines by offering sanctuary to asylum seekers facing deportation to Nauru.

Right now, 267 vulnerable people risk deportation to Nauru, including about 37 babies who were born in Australia. In response, at least 17 churches have invoked the ancient Christian tradition of declaring themselves as Sanctuaries for people seeking asylum, and more churches continue to join.

The profound moral leadership of these churches speaks to the core of our nation’s soul. Imagine if the culture of Australia could be transformed and led by Christian compassion, to be a place not of persecution but of sanctuary for people seeking asylum.

As Christians, we know the power of finding sanctuary in God’s saving grace. Let’s transform Australia into a place of sanctuary for people seeking asylum.

It’s an attractive idea, but is it actually Biblical? If not, then what is the Biblical response?

The principle of sanctuary is an old one, and prevalent in the Middle Ages. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Sanctuary, Right of.  in The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). 2005. 3rd ed. rev., p. 1462. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.) tells us of both ecclesiastical and secular rights of sanctuary. A criminal could take refuge in a church (or similar body) providing that they swore and oath by a coroner that within  40 days he would make his way to the nearest port and never return to the country. If not he could be forcibly extricated and made to face judgement. Secular sanctuaries were also established on similar principles. The protection, which didn’t extend to cases of sacrilege or high treason, dwindled out by the 1700s.

In practice, sanctuary became in part a means to ensure that fair process was carried out. The hue and cry of an angry lynch mob was a fearsome thing to face and so you would get yourself as quickly as possible to a safe place and wait for the legal process to follow it’s normal course.

In this way sanctuary was actually an extension of the Old Testament model of the Cities of Refuge; six walled citied (three either side of the River Jordan) where someone who had accidentally killed another could flee to to escape the wrath of a blood-avenger. (Deut. 4:41–3, 19:1–13, and Josh. 20). Again, the person seeking sanctuary was implicated in a crime and the purpose of the sanctuary was to make sure that proper justice was not circumvented. It allowed everyone to calm down and for a fair procedure to be followed.

Understood this way, it’s difficult to see how the modern concept of sanctuary put forward by Common Grace is a simple forward translation of these Medieval and Biblical models. The sanctuary that Common Grace are calling for is something slightly different; it is the guiltless (at least in terms of the causes of their seeking asylum) looking for, well, asylum; refuge, safety, dare we even say sanctuary in its broader sense.

So how to respond? Despite the fact that this modern call to sanctuary is a little out of step with its historical precedents, I think two things need to be said:

  1. The original principle of sanctuary as a means to obtain fair process is surely something as Christians we must be fully in favour of! While we may be uncertain about opening up our church buildings (and I imagine most of us are simply not well enough resourced to actually look after someone under those conditions) we ought to speak out with clarity and insist upon fair process for those asylum seekers that Australia is currently dealing with. The Scriptures speak abundantly of both generosity towards the marginalised and the alien and of the requirement to uphold justice. It is hard to see how the current conditions and lengths of stay that asylum seekers are detained under meet either of those basic conditions. If the Church is to uphold the principle of sanctuary then we should first and foremost speak up all the more loudly for fair process.
  2. The current asylum seeker crisis doesn’t fit neatly into either the “fair process for criminals” model of the Cities of Refuge or the gospel model of free forgiveness to the worst of sinners (since asylum seekers are not so much on the run like Ned Kelly as fleeing themselves from wrongdoers). The gospel, however, is not only expressed in that penal paradigm of justice, punishment and forgiveness. It is also a story of rescue from the most wicked of oppressors and the blackest of evil regimes (e.g. Col. 1:13). I’ve argued previously that, viewed this way, a gospel response to the refugee crisis would see Christians getting into boats and heading out to the home countries of the oppressed to rescue them, just as our Lord left His own comfort and mounted a rescue expedition to this place of tyranny evil. Our churches (our entire Christian communities, not just the buildings) are, in turn, places of refuge in which the great rescuer Jesus is providing sanctuary. If that is the case, then it’s hopefully not too far a stretch to ask what aspects of that great sanctuary we ought to be reflecting in our own response to the asylum seeker question.

Does Common Grace’s call for sanctuary accurately reflect older models of sanctuary and refuge? I’m not sure it does.

But are they onto something when they call us as Christians to respond with compassion? I’d be hard pressed to say anything other than a clear “yes” and add to it the clarion call for justice. Justice for those seeking safety and fair process. And then the warm invitation and embrace of justification for those same refugees who do not yet know quite what a wicked place they have yet to be rescued from.

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4 comments on “How to Think Safely About Sanctuary

  1. Hi David, from Criminal law sanctuaries, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, vol. 38, “Historically churches afforded sanctuary to those seeking refuge from private vengeance for alleged wrongdoing…his [the alleged perpetrator] contention that the death was accidental was evaluated.  If confirmed, the individual could avoid retribution so long as he remained at the site.  If deemed guilty of intentional homicide, he was delivered to his avenger.” (pp. 323-324).

    So granting sanctuary was never a given by default – only the offer.  It tells us that one can flee persecution, but not justice.  If you were deemed culpable, you were sent back to where you came from, so to speak.  If asylum seeker policies were modelled on the actual historical practice of Sanctuary, I don’t think it would be an open borders policy.

    I appreciate your line, “Justice for those seeking safety and fair process.”  This speaks volumes. “Safety” is key to the principle of asylum seeking, as is “fair process”.  And the “fair” aspect must include, what is fair from/for the host, and what is fair for/from the recipient (reciprocity).  Priority is important too. For example, is it fair to step over the homeless man sleeping on your church’s doorstep to go roll out a red carpet for asylum seekers?  While you may argue this is a false dichotomy, I simply mention this to highlight that the asylum seeker issue does not operate in a vacuum.  There are causes and effects, internal and external to this country that ought be considered, which are often overlooked by Bleeding Hearts.

    A triage approach to asylum seekers in their home countries and here, I would definitely endorse.

    At the back-end of the process, I think refugees, once in this country, ought be facilitated into work, for the Bible teaches:  2 Thess. 3:10-12 “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.  For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.  Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

    Thanks for writing on this, as few Christian bloggers have touched on the historical application of Sanctuary.  When I first heard of churches invoking this practice, I did a bit of reading (hence the quote above), but was keen to see bloggers explore it too.

  2. Hi David, another point I wanted to make separately from my first, is this: the problem I have with Common Grace is reflected in this line, from their article:  “Imagine if the culture of Australia could be transformed and led by Christian compassion, to be a place not of persecution but of sanctuary for people seeking asylum.”

    This seems to be the Social Gospel all over again.  That failed in the early parts of the 20th Century because it operated like Caritas, leaving the Gospel on the side of the road.  Core to Christianity is the Gospel, not compassion. While the Gospel and compassion are not mutually exclusive, I would argue that the Gospel should always trump compassion. When we put compassion ahead of the Gospel (or ignored all together), we get practical charity, but can too easily ignore the opportunity to talk about Christ and his offer of salvation.

    Under the principle of the Twofold Kingdom, it can be difficult to know how to relate our duties to both realms (the civil magistrate and the church) simultaneously. Faithful Christians may disagree, but I think the proper discussion is one that revolves around proper application of wisdom and natural law to civil policy rather than a debate about who’s the more faithful Christian.

    As members of the civil polity, as part of a covenant of works, we ought advocate policies that are for the welfare of all citizens, not merely selective exclusive groups. The church does what the state cannot do: show grace to the undeserving and to administer the keys of the eternal kingdom.

    This attitude, I think, can apply to most social issues, including how we engage with homosexuals. Yes we should accept the person; yes we should reject the practice; yes we should be revealing to them the keys to the eternal kingdom.

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