In connection to Acton’s recent coverage of the New Sanctuary Movement, which shelters illegal immigrants in churches to protect them from deportation, see this fascinating Christianity Today piece that explains the history of the church sanctuary concept.
A few excerpts….
“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.
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?”