Scripturally the notion of sanctuary can go back to the requirement of the Israelites to build cities of refuge for those who are unjustly accused to flee to and find refuge (Numbers 35.9-). These were, as I understand it, to give a certain breathing space to allow for tempers to cool and a thorough investigation to be undertaken so that innocent lives were not subjugated to immediate legal punishments. However, the person fleeing to such a city was required to contribute to the life of that city and be part of the community. They were there so that people could remain in relationship and not be ostracised. All up there were only a limited number of such cities (six in all) scattered through Israel. As a moral answer to some challenging circumstances the refuge system provided a good route to pursue. Not only did it give safety from prosecution / persecution but it meant that the person continued within relationship and was part of community.
In the Medieval Church, now legally fallen away, sanctuary was given to 'criminals' and 'falsely accused' as a place of safety. This was also usually assigned to select centres / Churches (those given a specific licence / decree) although, at a lower level, by all churches. There were also conditions, a 40 day limit, confession, etc. At the end of which the person had a choice, go before secular authority or be exiled. It was not a long term situation and such churches often had the necessary accommodation or rooms to house the person. For the falsely accused this was a good place to ensure that appropriate investigation and/or for evidence for clemency etc to be collected rather than a hasty trial and the imprisonment of the innocent. For the guilty it meant a breathing space to come to terms with the loss of property and the burdens of exile from home but with ones life!
Sanctuary across the border at St John of Beverley, UK.
So when we promote sanctuary in the church today what are we promoting? and is there a limit? or are we entering into a Julian Assange form of imprisonment that in the long term is detrimental to both the body and soul. Grace is not cheap and must be part of our longer faith journey. Sanctuary should, in modern times and from a human, social and moral standpoint, be something that each country offers freely not just a faith grouping. A grace that is offered to each of us by God. should be reflected in the actions of our leaders in the world. Yet, we cannot agree on who we will accept as our own neighbour let alone who we should accept as being worthy of sanctuary? Our own prejudices are ingrained by ethnic, religious and social relationships that leads to disagreement, violence and heavy legality to protect our 'borders'. The church has not always been as free with regards to its own acceptance of those in need of a place of sanctuary and in some places continues to ostracise through its actions.
Where to from here for those who are religiously moved to offer sanctuary? Is there a moral responsibility that makes the burden fall on the Church or other religious entities? Is there a danger of offering to alleviate the mote while we carry a log in our own eye? Is this offer of sanctuary for the ostracised in faith, those denied relationship as a result of gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion? or are we focused only on the needs of the moment (for publicity, notoriety, etc)? Is it in terms of a re-conceptualisation of the medieval concept or the cities of refuge? How do we make a gesture more than a temporary feel good response so that it helps to integrate the lost into relationship? Questions that should be answered not only by those offering sanctuary but by all faith groups. For me the burden is on those of us who lead within a faith community to demonstrate the acceptance of all of God's people, irrespective of sexual, ethnic or religious persuasion. Our responsibility is, yes, to highlight the moral irresponsibility of our leaders and our citizens, who at the end are responsible for those in leadership positions but also to show what it means to be compassionate of heart. Our places of sanctuary need to be open to all in peace and love not just the select few in response to politics.