On the Sanctuary Movement

Beginning in the early 1980s, various political groups on the left, assisted by many religious groups on the left, started ignoring and resisting American immigration laws, viewing them as being immoral and discriminatory to Central Americans. They felt US laws had to be violated in order to help Central Americans seeking to flee their countries for various reasons and settle in America.

That movement continues today. These folks seek to harbour and aid illegal aliens residing in the US, or those trying to get here. Thus they are also involved in the transporting of these folks, seeking to bring them into the country in any way they can. Breaking the law is a big part of this as they seek to bypass normal immigration policies.

We now have over 200 “sanctuary cities” and many “sanctuary states” which are effectively resisting federal laws on these matters. And it should be pointed out that Western Europe is now seeing this occur, and even Australia is hopping on board. See this piece as one example of this: http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/adelaides-pilgrim-uniting-church-prepared-to-risk-jail-for-providing-sanctuary-to-asylum-seekers-facing-deportation-to-nauru-after-high-court-decision/news-story/b3f8b5512a7e23090743050241349136

The history and politics of this movement can be found elsewhere. Here I want to focus not on all the ins and outs of the particular laws and legislation in question. As I have said in other articles, all sides on the political spectrum realise that some major reforms of American immigration law are in order.

But my emphasis will be on the religious arguments being made to justify what is usually illegal activity, all in the name of compassion for these folks wanting out of their home countries. In the 1980s there were hundreds of American churches involved in this, and today there would be many more.

The main set of biblical texts that they appeal to have to do with the cities of refuge. Old Testament law on this is found in places like Exodus 21:12-14; Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-13; and Joshua 20:1-9. These passages speak about appointed places where people could flee to if they were involved in the accidental death of another person.

Six of the 48 Levitical cities were set aside for this purpose: Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth, and Golan (Josh. 20:7-8). There were three of them located on either side of the Jordan river. Thus those in need of such cities did not have to travel too far to get to them.

Numbers 35:6-34 is the lengthiest passage on this matter. Verse 12 offers the rationale for these cities: “The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment.” It is a safe place, a place to harbour these people, until proper adjudication can take place regarding the incident.

At least four things must be said about them and how they so sharply contrast to modern sanctuary cities. First, as just mentioned, their main purpose was to harbour those involved in the death of another. That makes the purpose of the OT cities far different from that of today, where economic migrants seeking a better life, or fleeing politically unstable nations, comprise the great bulk of the people heading north to America.

Second, as N. H. Ridderbos puts it, their main purpose was to “prevent excesses which might develop from the execution of what is usually called ‘blood-feud’.” In his commentary on Deuteronomy J. G. McConville explains: “In essence, they provide a place of escape for the accidental homicide, who is subject to the tribal custom of blood vengeance, which might be exacted before a proper trial can determine whether the killing was intentional.”

Trent Butler, commenting on the Joshua passage, puts it this way:

The law is an attempt to adapt tribal, nomadic practices to the new sociological realities of urban life. The old practices still hang on. Blood revenge cannot be ignored. It stands as a threat to the life of the community. On the other hand, killing cannot be dismissed or handled lightly. The newly urbanised society must find a way to deal with both sides of the problem. The city of refuge seeks to find a middle ground for dealing with that problem.

Third, we only have two passages in which we seem to see something like this actually occurring. One has to do with Adonijah as found in 1 Kings 1:50-53, and the other with Joab in 2:28-34. So we seem to have little historical record of their use.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the OT cities of refugee were a divinely-ordained means to deal with a particular problem for ancient Israel. As such it was of course fully legal, legitimate, and morally defensible. In marked contrast, the American sanctuary movement is overwhelmingly about defying the law and breaking the law. Those involved even proudly urge others to break the law as well.

They claim that US immigration law is unjust and immoral, and therefore it must be broken with impunity. That is certainly not a biblical view of law, which tells us to submit to government authorities (See Romans 13:1-7). Christians urging this are clearly at variance with what Scripture teaches.

Sure, on certain occasion there might be a place for things like civil disobedience, coupled with a willingness to accept the consequences of such defiance, but that is the exception, not the norm. See here for much more detail on this: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/

More can be said about modern sanctuary cities, but let me offer some concluding remarks by a few others. I have often appealed to an excellent book on all these matters in the past, and it is well worth doing so again. James Hoffmeier’s important book has plenty of sound and incisive things to say about this issue.

In The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible (Crossway 2009), he looks closely at the OT towns of refuge. After examining them in some detail, he says this:

From the foregoing review of the biblical laws and passages that deal with the practice of sanctuary in ancient Israel, it is clear that its purpose was limited to offenders who had accidently or unintentionally killed someone, thereby providing a place where their case can be heard. Sanctuary was never intended as a place to avoid the law but to allow the law to take its proper course rather than retaliation when it was not called for. While both Israelite citizens and aliens qualified for sanctuary (cf. Num. 35;15 and Josh. 20:9), being an illegal alien was not a criterion for such protection. Consequently, American cities and churches who offer sanctuary for illegal immigrants cannot claim to be following the practice described in the Bible. Rather they are twisting biblical statutes and subverting federal law.

Image of The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible
The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible by Hoffmeier, James K. (Author) Amazon logo

And in the concluding chapter of his book he offers these words:

The only modern application of the biblical practice of sanctuary is to be sure that an offender gets a fair hearing before an impartial court, and a change of venue should be extended to a defendant if a fair trial cannot be assured. Indeed, in the American legal system a defendant can request a change of venue, a request that is often heeded by the court.

Cities and municipalities who offer sanctuary for illegal aliens do so without the support of biblical law. Because biblical sanctuary was only intended to allow the innocent party to get a fair hearing in trial, and not for the purpose of sheltering lawbreakers from the authorities and agents of the state, cities that provide a safe haven for illegal immigrants, well intending to be a gesture of justice, are in fact violating federal law and are misappropriating biblical law.

But the religious left is not always known for being biblically faithful. It usually prefers to selectively use Scripture to push a particular political agenda. If that means twisting the Word of God to do so, they seem to have no problem with that.

Back in 1985 when the sanctuary movement had only been around for a few years, the Institute for Religion and Democracy issued a report on this. In the article they wrote:

The danger and the sadness of the Sanctuary Movement is that it politically exploits the compassion of thousands of church people, debases the meaning of religious freedom, imperils the well-being of hundreds of thousands of aliens already in this country, precludes serious public debate about a more just immigration policy, and invites a popular backlash against America’s tradition of generosity to refugees. And all this in the name of “solidarity” with the poor and oppressed.

Finally, a much more recent word from Rod Dreher on the caravan now heading north:

The Bible tells Christians to love their neighbors as they love themselves. But who is their neighbor? The man next door? Yes. The people who live across town? Surely. Those who live in another part of their country? Okay. People from another country who want to settle in their country? Erm… . If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.

And what about if that settlement threatens to injure the interests of one’s own countrymen? That is, what if one’s charity to the foreigner takes away jobs from one’s neighbors who already live here? Where is the virtue of taking from the neighbor you already have to give to the one with whom you have no bonds? If you let the 7,000 in, on what grounds do you turn away the 7,001st? These are important questions.

Yep, they sure are.

[1579 words]

7 Replies to “On the Sanctuary Movement”

  1. Excellent article, Bill. The hypocrisy is appalling. Love how the term, “immoral” is thrown around…Immoral by whose standard? Do they believe God is the final authority? Do they believe the Scriptures are the true Word of God? If so, why is abortion okay; why is homosexuality okay; why is capital punishment anathema to them? They don’t march to God’s Word, they march to a different drummer, and often that drummer is Molech or Dagon. They march to all gods that are convenient for whatever their latest cause is. You nailed it, Bill.

  2. Bill The main reason why the left here actually wants these illegal aliens is because of one thing only. They all vote democrat/left. While im not saying there are some on the left who try to be moral, there are cases where the left has revealed that it was never about sympathy but just votes. I read a news article somewhere on a post where in 1975 when Vietnamese people were fleeing communism, president Gerald Ford asks gov jerry brown to accept half a million of vietnamese refugees to which ford ignored him and even blocked refugee flights into travis air force base.This was back when refugees fled communism and voted right/republican. There is also rumors to suggest that former president Obama ended wet foot dry foot out of spite because cuban immigrants voted for trump mostly and helped turn florida red. Not to mention im sure you herd of this,if the left truly cared about refugees, why do they deny refugee status to the white farmers in south africa? This to me and many others shows that this is really about refugees or having sympathy for people, its about votes.

  3. Valid article about the legalities of the situation but in the scriptures the only place that is called “The Sanctuary” is in the Temple. If there are no borders then nations, democracy, taxes, laws etc. are all completely undermined and if you take this to its logical limit you are left with a globalist rule by wealthy tyrants which will inevitably undermine any democratic rule and will see the introduction of such things as slavery and lawlessness as democracy and the consensus rule rule of law are dis-empowered. Democracy is the only tool we have to counter tyranny but if nationhood is undermined by destroying borders then there ends up being no more effective democracy, no taxes so no welfare, no national security, no free education etc. etc. just globalist tyranny.

    The watering down and misuse of Christian terminology is a major problem with the modern tendency, especially from the left wing of politics, to misappropriate Christian terms and for Christians to follow their false usage. For a place to be a “sanctuary” it must first be sanctified and if you follow the scriptures through you see how the Old Testament Tabernacle and then Temple was the first Sanctuary but the Temple was defiled and now Jesus is our only sanctuary. E.g.

    Isa 8:13 Sanctify Jehovah of Hosts Himself, and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.
    Isa 8:14 And He shall be a sanctuary for you, but for a stone of stumbling, and for a rock of falling to both the houses of Israel, for a trap and for a snare to the people of Jerusalem.

    Heb 8:1 Now the sum of the things which we have spoken is this: We have such a High Priest, who has sat down on the right of the throne of the Majesty in Heaven,
    Heb 8:2 a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.

    Heb 9:1 Then truly the first tabernacle had also ordinances of divine service and an earthly sanctuary.
    Heb 9:2 For the first tabernacle was prepared, in which was both the lampstand, and the table, and the setting out of the loaves, which is called Holies.
    Heb 9:3 And after the second veil was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies,
    Heb 9:4 having a golden altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant overlaid all around with gold, in which was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.
    Heb 9:5 And over it were the cherubs of glory overshadowing the mercy-seat (about which we cannot now speak piece by piece.)
    Heb 9:6 Now when these things were ordained in this way, the priests always went into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God.
    Heb 9:7 But once in the year into the second the high priest goes alone, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people
    Heb 9:8 the Holy Spirit signifying by this that the way into the Holiest of all was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing.

    This then changed when the veil was torn (Mat 27:51, Mar 15:38 Luk 23:45). Jesus also referred to this when He called Himself “The Temple” (Joh 2:19). Jesus is now our only sanctuary which is why I believe the prophecies in Daniel are speaking of the church and Jesus’ covering of sacrifice when they prophesy about the end times profaning of the sanctuary:-

    Dan_11:31 And forces will stand from him, and they will profane the sanctuary, the fortress, and shall remove the daily sacrifice, and they shall place the desolating abomination.

    Until you know that Jesus is our fortress and our only sanctuary you will not be able to understand these scriptures which is one reason why the forces of evil misappropriate this terminology.

    Under Old Testament law we were told explicitly that God’s people were to treat foreigners with justice but the point is they were to remain as foreigners unless they were converted and there were some distinct variations as to how foreigners and those within the nation of Israel were to be treated. Acceptance into the nation of Israel required very high standards of entry just as acceptance into the kingdom of God requires a huge price. Problems arise when you claim there is no requirement or price to be paid to be considered as part of a nation. Without this you have lawlessness which is expressly forbidden in the scriptures. The only possible outcome from anarchy is tyranny and if you do not have borders you simply do not have laws.

  4. Thanks Bill, great article and I agree.

    I did however read the quote from Rod Dreher with some interest. This is the first time ever I have heard an opinion that the term ‘one’s neighbour’ does not refer to all persons regardless.

    To take for instance the commandment “you shall nor bear false witness against your neighbour”; surely this means anybody. How could it be wrong to bear false witness against a close acquaintance but OK against, say, an asylum seeker or even the most evil person in the world, if what I said about them was a lie.

    And exactly what does loving another person “as yourself” actually mean and how does it relate to the preceding admonition to love God? Perhaps it means to do what is right at all times both personally and in interacting with others.

    I do not recall having read anything expounding on these verses. This would make for an interesting future article from you Bill (Hint Hint).

    God bless and keep up the great work.

  5. Who is my neighbour (Rod Dreher)? On the basis of The Good Samaritan I would suggest for an individual, the person next to you at any point in time, for a town, the town(s) next to yours, for a nation, the nation(s) next to yours.

  6. Thanks guys. I suppose those wondering about what Rod said would have to ask him! He did say, “If everybody is your neighbor, then nobody is.” But maybe I will do a piece on this one day – add it to my list!

  7. Dear Bill,

    Thank you again for another thoughtful aspect on immigration.

    I remember clearly when the Vietnamese were arriving in Australia on boats but they were clearly genuine refugees fleeing the tyranny of communism and can’t be compared to today’s economic migrants.

    The ignorance in Australia about everyday life under communism was fairly common then. A nurse I worked with even said that some of the refugees might even be communists! I suppose living in ‘splendid isolation’ some Australians had obviously never concerned themselves about the mass deportations from the Baltic States after world war 2. One man even told me the Soviet Union was too far away to worry about even though Australia had had migrants from Eastern Europe and the Baltics since the end of the war. Some had never heard how communists purge countries of ‘undesirable’ elements to create a docile and compliant population as they were then doing in Vietnam.

    I was a member then of an organisation called ‘The Friends of the Prisoners’ which was started by a Jesuit priest. With the help of a regular bulletin they encouraged members to ‘adopt a Prisoner’ in the Soviet Union or the Baltic States and send them regular post cards. The belief was that if the prisoners were known in the West they would be better treated. The political ‘crimes’ were minor.

    As James says its really all about votes. The left would better serve economic migrants if they encouraged them to make their own countries better places to live in.

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