Changing clothes would have been safer than going to church for Christopher Peterson. His distinctive shirt had appeared in the newspaper, in a surveillance camera photo of an August 16 bank robbery, worn by a man who looked a lot like him. When he wore it four days later to Crossroads Grace Community Church in Manteca, California, another attendee recognized him, called the police, and told them the man in the photo was sitting in the back pew. Officers came in during the service, tapped Peterson on the shoulder, asked him to step outside, and arrested him as the rest of the congregation worshiped obliviously.
Conventional wisdom holds that church sanctuaries are, well, sanctuaries where lawbreakers can take refuge. We learned about it from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Zorro movies, and Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act. But as a legal principle, it's a bit dated: King James I abolished it four centuries ago.
The right of sanctuary had a good run. The Pentateuch repeatedly stakes out refuges at the altar and at special cities (Ex. 21:12-14, Num. 35). In the first few centuries after Constantine, church and state officials codified sanctuary in detail: How much of the body needs to be within the sanctuary? Do church graveyards count? What about the bishop's residence? Can you claim sanctuary if your crime is blasphemy?
Judeo-Christian laws weren't unique. Greek temples worked the same way, as did the Hawaiians' sacred pu'uhonua sites. But the reason for such sanctuaries was the same. "As a product of a time when justice was rough and crude," law professor Wayne Logan summarized in a 2003 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article, "sanctuary served the vital purpose of staving off immediate blood revenge." If the church could be convinced that the sanctuary seeker's life was not in danger, it would turn him over. "The church, in short, played a foremost role as intercessor," Logan writes. Fugitives in medieval English sanctuaries, about 1,000 a year, were able to negotiate financial compensation or a punishment like scourging or exile.
Abuses (sanctuary cities tended to be characterized by disorder rather than by sanctification) grew as public faith in civil law rose, civil punishments became more diverse, and kings lost their fear of ecclesiastical retribution, especially after the Reformation. Henry VIII severely curtailed sanctuary in 1540. Less than a century later, it existed only in civil matters. (France maintained the right of sanctuary until the Revolution.)
Roman Catholic canon law continued to regulate the right of sanctuary in principle, but even this was dropped in 1983. Too bad: That's when churches rediscovered the principle. Hundreds of congregations across denominational lines joined the 1980s Sanctuary movement, assisting and sheltering Central American refugees, largely from El Salvador and Guatemala. The U.S. government called it alien smuggling and convicted several of its leaders (they received probation, not jail time).
Today, it's public relations, not law, that keeps the idea of sanctuary alive. And this year, it is very much alive. In June, the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma opened its doors to an Army officer who didn't want to go to Iraq, with an offer to any likeminded service members. The action got a lot of press, but the limitations didn't: Beds were only offered for a maximum of three nights. In August, the church of 60-80 active members vacated its building because it couldn't pay for insurance and upkeep.
Meanwhile, Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago is housing Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico whose son is a U.S. citizen. "It seemed like a good option to give her a holy space to continue a campaign of civil disobedience against an unfair law that is separating families throughout this country," explained pastor Walter Coleman, who banned opponents from attending his church's services. "I fear God much more than I fear Homeland Security."
"Faith provides no warrant to break laws just because we disapprove of them," Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet responded in the Chicago Tribune. Coleman, he argued, is no heir to abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, who offered sanctuary to escaped slaves. "As sympathetic as we might be to Elvira Arellano's plight, there is no natural human right to enter or remain in the United States, or to live in one country as opposed to another."
Some congregations in Canada (where offering sanctuary is common enough that the United Church of Canada has a guidebook warning how difficult it can be) have stronger cases. In 2003, a church took in an Iranian Pentecostal after an immigration judge denied that Christian converts in Iran face persecution. The Iranian wasn't a real Christian anyway, the judge said, since she could name only one sacrament.
Another Canadian church is offering sanctuary to a Shi'a Muslim family from Pakistan, saying a judge was wrong to claim that Shiites do not face persecution in the country (which is 90 percent Sunni). "Since Canada abolished capital punishment, this refugee and immigration process is the only process left in our legal system where we might actually be sending people into their death or a very dangerous situation with no recourse," pastor Barb Janes told the CBC.
In other words, sanctuary properly understood is not about protest, but about offering refuge and help. Medieval churches providing sanctuary didn't argue that the broken laws were unjust or that sanctuary seekers were heroes. They just wanted to save lives, show grace, and offer room for repentance. Sanctuary as political protest undermines the moral authority that it invokes, for it is just a form of hospitality to like-minded allies. "If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?" someone once asked. "Do not even pagans do that?"
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In August, a Slate "Explainer" asked, "Can Criminals Hide in Church?"
Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy argued in The American Spectator that "sanctuary is chic again," but that it is "usually championed by well-heeled liberal elites hunting about for a politically palatable cause du jour.
A shorter version of this column originally ran in the October 2006 print edition of Christianity Today. The column "Tidings" was formerly called "Weblog in Print." Earlier columns by Ted Olsen include:
We're Not Spectators | Mideast Christians writing for our website expressed their anguishand anger. (Aug. 28, 2006)
Latter-day Complaints | Mormons and evangelicals fret over movies, politics, and each other. (Jul. 6, 2006)
Peace, Peace | From the front page to the obits, one day's news about Christian peacemaking. (Apr. 18, 2006)
The Art of Abortion Politics | A unanimous Supreme Court decision opens the door to real change. (Feb. 20, 2006)
Time to Get Judicially Serious | Evangelicals and the possible Supreme Court Catholic majority. (Dec. 28, 2005)
The Katrina Quandary | America questions the role of Christian charity. (Oct. 20, 2005)
Abolishing Abstinence | Telling underage kids not to have sex is surprisingly controversial (Aug. 24, 2005)
Dirty Qur'ans, Dusty Bibles | If Leviticus or Jude suddenly disappeared from Scripture, would we notice? (June 20, 2005)
Who's Driving This Thing? | Everyone is asking who leads the evangelical movement. (Feb. 21, 2005)
Bad Believers, Non-Believers | Do religious labels really mean anything? (Oct. 19, 2004)
Pro-Abortion Madness | The abortion lobby has abandoned its rationales amid pro-life gains. (Aug. 17, 2004)
Grave Images | The photos from Abu Ghraib have reopened debate on the power of pictures.
Misfires in the Tolerance Wars | Separating church and state now means separating belief and action (Feb. 24, 2004)
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