This morning, I heard the story on NPR about a woman who has sought sanctuary in a Denver church in order to avoid deportation–here is the link: Colorado Church offers Sanctuary. In the story, the concept of religious freedom was mentioned, which the new administration has promised to uphold; but a spokesperson who opposes the idea of sanctuary argued that this is not a “religious freedom” issue, but the furthering of a political agenda–as though those two things are ever entirely separable. (Only the most naive would think abortion is a purely religious issue, for example.)
So, what is “sanctuary”? It’s an interesting concept: the word comes from the Latin word sanctuarium, which basically refers to a container for holy things–or, in this case, holy people. The history of sanctuary in Europe goes back millennia–at least in England–and from the fourth century up through the seventeenth century, there were laws that dictated which fugitives could seek safety in a church, under what conditions, and for how long. This was especially true for churches that were thought to be built on holy places–they, then, were holy because of what had happened on that ground. In being build on sacred ground, the church itself becomes a sacred space, and those who are in it participate in and are protected by the holiness of the place–by God’s blessing and presence that rests there.
There is no longer any legal standing for sanctuary, of course–that ended centuries ago–but it clearly still holds some sway in the popular mindset. (I find it fascinating, and somewhat ironic, that the explicitly pro-Christian policies that the new administration seems to be supporting might come back to bite them on this issue.) On some basic level, Christians believe in the holiness of their churches–which is why everyone is particularly outraged when an incident of violence happens there (like the Charleston shooting). One should be safe in church: one comes to church to confess one’s sins and be forgiven; one comes to church to commune with God; and for Lutherans, one comes to church to meet Christ in Word and Sacrament and be fed there for service in the world. So, when that space, that relationship, is violated, everyone feels attacked. (Incidentally, this is why Christians should be equally outraged when there is an attack at a mosque, or a synagogue.)
However, what is different about the concept of sanctuary–and why I find it particularly compelling–is that it is an example of the church using something traditionally reserved for “insiders”–its members, and extending it to “outsiders”–particularly the vulnerable and the marginalized. Or, to use Luther’s terminology, it is an example of a Christian practicing the 8th Commandment–“covering” the neighbor with her own cloak of honor and respectability. Clearly, Christians are called to do that–no question. So, for me, I think this concept of sanctuary is a fundamental Christian practice, and certainly an expression of religious freedom. In this case, this particular church is using its “holiness” for the sake of those who are outcasts (some might even say those who are considered “unclean” by some in society), and to highlight what many see as a discriminatory and racist political agenda.
In exercising its right to offer sanctuary, churches and individual Christians are putting their own bodies on the line to protect the bodies of the vulnerable. Just like Jesus did. If we think about it that way, each of us is called to be “sanctuary” for others in whatever ways we can–and individual churches (seminaries, institutions) are called to be sanctuary for others, too. This gets at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Our holiness is not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.