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What is the sanctuary movement?

sanctuary movement

The sanctuary movement describes itself as “a growing movement of immigrant and over 800 faith communities doing what Congress and the Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation.” The sanctuary movement traces its U.S. beginnings to the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. In 1980 Southside was the first to declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and corrupt governments. But supporters of the sanctuary movement claim that the idea of sanctuary can be traced to the beginning of the Old Testament and has continued through movements such as the Underground Railroad and housing Jews in World War II.

In recent years, the popularity of the sanctuary movement gained momentum due to President Trump’s determination to bring order to the United States’ immigration policies and to enforce existing U.S. law. The government has recently stepped up its efforts to slow down the river of humanity flowing into the country and deport those who’ve entered illegally. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an increase of tragic stories: families separated, children abandoned, and good people torn from their homes.

Of course, illegal immigrants are human beings, created in God’s image and worthy of care and respect (Genesis 1:27). In response to that truth, some Christians and churches have joined the sanctuary movement and are pushing back against what they consider to be the government’s hard-hearted policies. The year 2014 saw a resurgence of the sanctuary movement in the same Tucson church where it began thirty years ago. Since then, hundreds more churches have declared themselves to be sanctuaries where undocumented foreigners can go for help and protection. Some churches physically hide families or family members who have been targeted for deportation. They consider their actions on par with hiding Jews from Hitler’s Nazi forces.

But can providing sanctuary to illegal aliens be equated to hiding European Jews in the 1940s? Are ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents modern Nazis? Such comparisons are hyperbolic and trivialize the horrors of the Holocaust. The Jews in Nazi-controlled countries were being kept from exiting their homelands and faced death if caught. The illegal immigrants of today are entering a sovereign country illegally, which means they are breaking laws, and no government is trying to kill them.

Scriptural support for the sanctuary movement is sketchy at best, but the motivation for many in the sanctuary movement is a belief that God commands their actions. They cite Old Testament passages such as Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” But were these commands from the Mosaic Law intended to set governmental policy for the United States of America? Does God expect that His commands to Israel be made the standard for all nations?

If the answer is yes, then we must also ask, “Why only those commands?” If we’re going to claim that this civic instruction is God’s law for every culture, then we must treat all the Mosaic laws equally. Ironically, a large percentage of churches participating in the sanctuary movement also embrace homosexuality. So they claim to obey Leviticus 19:34 while they decry Leviticus 20:13. They also ignore Leviticus 25:44–46, which says, “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.” Are we to believe that God’s command to love the foreigner is more binding than His command, just a few verses later, to take foreigners as slaves? While citing Levitical law sounds authoritative to those who don’t read the Bible in context, the inconsistency is too glaring to ignore.

Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a people ruled by God alone and established for His own glory (Judges 8:23; 1 Samuel 12:12; Jeremiah 13:11). The foreigners accepted into Israelite culture were expected to become Israelites. They were to follow the same laws, offer the same sacrifices, and worship the same God (Exodus 12:49). In fact, in 2 Kings 17:25–26, a group of immigrants neglected to worship the Lord in the way He had commanded, so He sent lions among them to kill them.

There is nothing immoral about a country having defined borders. To avoid chaos, countries must have laws, and, for laws to be meaningful, they must be enforced. Laws should be just, and they should promote morality. But nothing in the Bible prohibits a country from having borders, and Scripture never forbids a country from enforcing its own laws. Just the opposite: Romans 13:1–7 indicates that the government has God’s authority to punish lawbreakers. Whether the punishment is imprisonment, deportation, or even something more severe, it is within the rights of the government to determine. Christians, in the sanctuary movement or not, should work to ensure the laws of the land are just, but they should not work to circumvent existing law.

There are many ways concerned citizens have helped immigrants desiring to assimilate into American culture. Personal sponsorship of families and volunteering with immigration agencies are ways to get involved. There are plenty of good Christian ministries that reach out to immigrants, sharing the gospel while helping with housing, job training, and language skills. Churches have the right to intercede on behalf of illegals in their communities, but they cross the line when then interfere with due process.

The sanctuary movement within the church is fueled by a misguided zeal based on passages of Scripture that were never intended to be the foundation of public policy. There is no quick and easy answer to the immigration crisis. Christians must have love for their neighbors, but they must also have respect for the law; neither should negate the other.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022