Sanctuary is a biblical tradition with a noble past; let’s hope the concept has a future. Rooted in the word sancta, it means "holy space." The original idea was to offer a place of asylum for people guilty of accidental homicide. Remember, ancient culture was governed by eye-for-an-eye justice and then some. When blood was shed in one family, it was expected the perpetrator’s family would soon be in mourning, too. Nomadic life was isolated and dangerous, and justice had to come swiftly to keep predators at bay.
When the Israelites stopped wandering and went urban, however, the new congested lifestyle made that sort of retribution problematic. Killing a fellow from the next tribe over was efficient when clans lived apart and moved on regularly. But you couldn’t kill your next-door neighbor’s son and not begin an escalating spiral of murders that would consume the town. Folks living in close proximity couldn’t abide that kind of communal conflict.
So six cities of asylum were established to correspond with up-and-running shrines in Israel. (This was before the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.) Now, if your ox gored a neighbor, you could run to the nearest shrine and stay there until the case could be heard and judged by the leadership. In this way, sanctuary provided a stopgap for instinctive violence until cooler heads prevailed.
In Catholic tradition, “the right of sanctuary is rooted in the reverence for places of worship and an abhorrence of any violation of sacred space,” writes theologian Richard McBrien in his Encyclopedia of Catholicism. That implies that our modern employment of sanctuary depends on an ancient understanding of sacred space. We have to believe there are places where God’s presence is uniquely manifest or honored. In congregations that view contemporary churches more as polite gathering rooms for the morally convinced, the sense of God-space the ancients had is lost. If a place isn’t “God-haunted” in a primal way, what’s to violate, and why not cross the line?
Catholicism maintains the notion of holy ground in churches, monasteries, retreat centers, even cemeteries. Once consecrated for sacred purposes, our holy places take on a character that sets them apart from the ordinary sphere of activity. For a church leader to offer sanctuary to an endangered community is to suggest there are still lines we can’t cross, places where God’s justice remains higher than our passion for legal solutions.
• Numbers 35:9-15; Deuteronomy 19:1-13
• A TIME magazine article on churches and the “new sanctuary movement”
• This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees by Ignatius Bau (Paulist Press, 1985)
• Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino (Frances Lincoln Books, 2009)
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