Friday, February 17, 2017

From Here

The final question we have to ask as relates to modern-day sanctuary cities, citing the biblical example of the cities of refuge, is what to do with the persons who have ended up here.

The cities of refuge were never meant to be home; at the death of the high priest, men went back to the places where they belonged - their homes, their families, their lands, their lives. So how do we deal with the thousands of illegal immigrants who now live in our sanctuary cities? At what point are they free to leave and to inhabit their own homes with their own families on their own land and live their own lives? 

That depends, of course, on the conclusions that you've reached to this point. 

If a criminal law has been broken, then it is not as simple as saying that we should just round them all up and ship them out. When someone leaves a sanctuary city, they get their land - and their life - back. So if we are going to send them to the countries from which they came, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that they're going back to a life there. We cannot just send them "away." 

This will bring us face-to-face, however, with the origins of illegal immigration. In trying to secure a land and a life for those we are deporting, we come to discover the very factors that led them to flee in the first place. We see the poverty. We see the insecurity. We see the war, the famine, the disease, the corruption, the trouble that makes a man pick up and leave everything, taking a chance on a better life even when that life begins with the breaking of a (criminal or covenant) law. 

As Christians, witnessing this trouble cannot be a neutral event for us. It must spur our compassion. Thus, we work either to restore the conditions to which the immigrant is being deported or we re-evaluate our position of the man who has come to dwell in our city of refuge.

If a covenant law has been broken, then our duty is to figure out how to restore the man to the covenant community that he has violated. This means making a way for him to leave the sanctuary city and establish himself in a place of his choosing.

This is the kind of thing that makes a lot of persons upset about the current system. They refer to all of the "handouts" that illegal immigrants receive, or even to the "handouts" that refugees receive. They don't understand what it takes to start a life all over again, what is necessary to establish roots in a new community. It feels like it's too easy, like it's too free, but this is the nature of covenant, is it not? Men must have a way to be restored to the community. In the case of illegal immigration, this sometimes means we have to give them a good deal of help in accomplishing this.

But men were never intended to live as refugees forever. So we have to do something.

This, I think, is enough to get us thinking about the idea of sanctuary cities from a theological point of view. It's not all politics, and it's not all humanity; it's love. It's love for the immigrant and love for our community and love for our country and love for our world and love for our God. It's love for each other. It's love at its core. And it's not easy. 

The questions are not easy, and they are not limited to just the few that I have been able to present this week. But hopefully, this can be used as a launch pad for learning how to think about some of the tougher issues that are facing us in our modern times. I have drawn no conclusions and have tried to give ear to both dominant sides of the issue; the conclusions are yours to draw. The only thing we cannot do is to ignore the issue entirely. It is real. It is here. And it demands a response. 

Whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever conclusions you draw, let it be done in wisdom, in grace, in compassion, and in love. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Law

Simply deciding that the law was either covenantal or criminal does not end the discussion about what to do with the illegal immigrant...or the sanctuary city. There is yet another question that must be answered.

If you determine that the law that was broken is covenantal - that is, that it has to do with relationship more than with "right" or "wrong." Then you have to ask yourself how this broken covenant can be restored. 

Essentially every law that God ever gives us in the Scriptures is a covenantal law. And overwhelmingly, the solution to the breaking of the law is some way by which the offender is able to come back into the community. This is true of the covenant between man and God, where God consistently pursues the faithful in order to bring them back into relationship with Him. This is true of the covenant between men, where God always seeks to figure out how to atone for the offense and bring the two back into the same community. It is true of the accidental murderer in the city of refuge. Only on very rare occasions is there no way for the offender to be restored to community, whether the covenant he broke was between men and God or between men and each other. 

Thus, if you have determined that the law broken in the immigration issue is covenantal, then the next question to ask yourself is how this covenant relationship can be restored. (And note that God's answer is never, "Go back and do it the right way." God always meets persons where they're at and provides a way forward.)

But let's say that you determine that the law that was broken was criminal - that is, that it has to do with the ordering of society more than with communal relationship. Then you have to ask yourself whether the criminal law is a good one or not.

It offends most of our sensibilities to think about breaking a law at all. Most of us drive close to the speed limit, pay for everything we take from a store, register our vehicles properly, etc. But the testimony of Christian history is that sometimes, in order to do the right thing, we have to do the wrong thing. 
For a long time, Christianity was illegal. Yes, illegal. Even before the widespread persecutions began, the New Testament records for us that the apostles were ordered not to preach the Gospel. Not for any reason. Not anywhere. Not to say a word about it. And their response? "We couldn't obey that law even if we tried." It was a law binding upon them, issued by the governors and courts, but they refused to obey it. (And that's how most of them ended up dead.)
Christians in Nazi Germany refused to obey the government's orders and assisted their Jewish brothers and sisters in escaping persecution. Churches offered safe harbor during the Civil Rights movement. Christians provided safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Over and over and over again, the history of the church is that it has stood on the front lines of social justice in the face of the law of the land. 

So the question is - is immigration one of these issues? Again, I'm not going to tell you what to decide; that's up to you. But the question is: are the current laws regarding immigration good ones or are they ones that stand in the way of our living out grace and love according to God's laws (covenant laws)? We cannot just say the law is the law is the law; that's not what church history tells us to do as Christians. We have to determine the merit of the law and where it falls within God's plan for redemptive love. 

These are not easy questions, but they are necessary ones. The issue, like all other issues, is not black and white; it's a thousand shades of grey. What are the laws? What kind of laws are they? Are they good laws? How do we reconcile them? What ways have been made for a man to come back? Where is community life in all of this? What is criminal? 

What is Christian?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Against the Covenant

The other legal issue that we have to consider, biblically, when talking talking about the idea of sanctuary cities in our modern time is what kind of law we are talking about. When someone says that an immigrant is illegal, what does that mean? 

To some, a law is a law is a law. Illegal means a law has been broken. Thus, a crime has been committed. Thus, justice demands penalty for the trespass of the law. But in Israel, at the time when cities of refuge were first established, the people weren't really talking about a criminal code. In fact, God never really talks about a criminal code. To God, the law is covenantal.

And it's covenantal in two directions. First, it is covenantal between man and man. These are the rules for living together in community; these are the expectations of mutual relationship. I don't steal your ox and you don't steal mine. I don't charge interest on a loan and neither do you. These laws were created not because they formed an orderly society, but because they established the groundwork for an authentic relationship.

Second, the law is covenantal between man and God. It's a reminder of what faithfulness looks like. When we talk about covenantal ideas, we're talking about agreements in which one party's breaking of the faith does not free the other party from keeping it. So if you steal my ox, this does not free me to steal yours - stealing an ox continues to be wrong because it is anti-covenantal. If I take your ox anyway, it disrupts the relationship between you and I because we begin to exist in a tit-for-tat rather than respect and love, and it disrupts the relationship between me and God because I have precisely done the very thing that He desires me not to do.

So that brings us back to the question of the illegal immigrant. What is the law that is being broken here? Is it a criminal law, one that has been issued for the purposes of ordering society and making something civil? Or is it a covenantal law, one that has been established for the purpose of establishing authentic relationship?

The argument here could go either way. (Remember when I said I wasn't going to tell you what to think about this, but rather how to think about it?) Some may say it's a criminal law, for the purposes of nothing more than ordering society and making a way for certain things to occur, like record-keeping, taxation, national security, whatever. Some may say it's a covenantal law, that the laws on immigration are meant to ensure a personal investment in the American way of life and therefore, obeying those laws is the first sign of respect that an immigrant shows in coming into this covenant. 

Fair enough. Both arguments have some strong support to them, depending on which way you lean. That then introduces, does it not, a second question: to what law are you bound?

Imagine yourself living in a sanctuary city, or in a city that is thinking about becoming one. Civic duty, perhaps, bounds you to the criminal law in a certain way. Just as it is incumbent upon you to report someone who is breaking any other law, it is incumbent upon you to report someone who has immigrated illegally. But you are also bound by a covenantal law, one that commands you to look other human beings in the eye and love them. 

I don't imagine everyone in the cities of refuge was comfortable with the idea that murderers could live there scot-free. And that's what they were - murderers. Unintentionally, of course, but they had killed someone. Most of us would be a little uneasy about that. Most of us are a bit uneasy about immigrants living next door. It's a natural human reaction. But that's why we are given the minds to consider what it is that binds us. Is it civics? Is it covenant? Is it a mixture of the two? Is it something else entirely?

Again, I'm not going to tell you what to think. But this is something that we have to consider when faced with this issue. What law binds us? In what way does that law bind us? Are we living here civically or are we living here covenantally? What do these things demand of us? What do they require? 

And what if...well, stay tuned. There's something more to say about criminality. Tomorrow. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


The first question we have to ask ourselves when talking about sanctuary cities is whether or not a law has actually been broken.

Men in the Old Testament did not run for refuge unless they had actually killed another man. Thus, when we talk about the idea of refuge in the modern day, we have to ask whether those who are seeking refuge have come across the border illegally. In most cases, this seems to be a fairly simple question to answer. 

But the question is rarely so simple as it seems.

Men who murdered someone and ran for refuge had not intended to murder anyone; it was an accident. Something went terribly wrong, and someone ended up dead. In order to not complicate the matter unnecessarily, and in order to prevent an actual crime from being committed in revenge, the accidental murderer was given refuge. The refuge, then, was not a shelter from the law; it was a protector for it.

If a man who showed up at a sanctuary city was actually a criminal - that is, if he had intentionally done wrong - even the city of refuge would not protect him. 

Now, it's easy to say that this is apples and oranges. No one accidentally ends up sneaking into a foreign country and trying to establish a life. Those who have come here illegally knew exactly what they were doing. Therefore, none of this applies, right? 

Not necessarily. In most of these cases, we are talking about persons who didn't intend to be in this position. For those that take a hard black and white view of this issue, that will be hard to hear. But overwhelmingly, people tend to want to stay wherever home is. They don't want to leave their families behind. They don't want to leave their homes. They don't want to start all over with whatever they can carry on their backs. They don't want to live a secret life of sneaking around, always worried about being caught. They didn't intend to be immigrants at all. 

But something, somewhere, went terribly wrong. Their home was overrun by drug cartels. Their opportunities were taken away. Their fields were stripped bare by enemies or natural disasters. Their homes were ravaged by nature herself. Something went wrong and life where they were wasn't working any more; it not only wasn't working - it wasn't possible. Maybe their children were being kidnapped. Maybe their husbands were being threatened. Maybe their wives were being raped. There are as many reasons to leave home as there are immigrants, and for most of them, it's not because they want to live as secret refugees in a new land where their very first act will be to break a federal law. 

Thus a very real human element is introduced into the discussion. Are these bad persons? Is the man who dropped his stone and accidentally killed a passerby a bad person? If a man is swinging his hammer and the head flies off and hits his brother, killing him, is the man swinging the hammer a bad person? If a man's entire life and home comes under siege and he flees to a new land under cover of darkness to save his childrens' and wife's life, is he a bad person? 

One of the arguments being raised right now is that there is a faction of criminality among illegal immigrants. Fair enough. There is a faction of criminality in every population, including non-immigrants. The sanctuary city is not a refuge for that. These cities of refuge do not protect those who are intentionally doing harm. They are not shelters for the drug trade. They are not safe places for sex offenders. They are not free reigns for murderers. The sanctuary city does not protect the criminal. So this argument is null. 

There is another consideration to be made when we start to look at the law in relation to this issue. That's coming up tomorrow. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sanctuary Cities

There's a lot of talk in the news right now about so-called sanctuary cities, a handful of places in America that have declared themselves to be refuges for illegal immigrants. Most of the talk is highly political, but this provides an excellent opportunity to step in and talk about how we, as Christians, need to think about some very Christian ideas in our very modern world.

And sanctuary cities are a very Christian idea.

(Sort of. Since the idea of the sanctuary city is actually an Old Testament idea, it should more properly be called a Jewish least until and unless we can bring it into the New Testament a little bit with the testimony of Jesus.)

When Israel moved into the Promised Land after an entire generation of wandering in the desert, they divided the land up among tribes. Larger tribes got more land; smaller tribes got less. And scattered among them all, the tribe of Levi got towns and cities here and there. (As the servants of God, they did not get a whole parcel of land as their own as the other tribes did.) Among all of this land, six cities - six in all the land of Israel both east and west of the Jordan - were set aside as cities of refuge. Sanctuary cities. And all of the sanctuary cities belonged to the tribe of Levi. 

This was not a coincidence, but we'll get to that later.

The idea was pretty simple: anyone who accidentally committed a murder could run to the sanctuary cities and be safe from the vengeance of those who might be after him. He was free to live in the city of refuge with his family and property, establish a home there, and live without fear. The city, and the Levites in charge of it, would protect him; the tribes, and the faithful among them, would respect the city. As long as the man stayed inside the city's walls, no one could touch him. All told, it was the safest place for a man to be.

The sanctuary city presumed the man's guilt; it was never a question whether he had done what he was accused of doing or not. Innocent men did not need to seek refuge. The question was whether what he had done was a criminal act or something less. If he intended to do what he had done, then it was a criminal act, and even the city of refuge would not protect him. If he did not intend to do what he had done, then the act was something less and the city was his new home.

The city was not, however, his permanent home. After the death of the high priest, the man was free to leave the sanctuary city and return to his home. This was true whether the high priest died seven hours after the man reached the city or seventeen years. He could leave the city and those who would come after him would have no recourse to do so; if they took revenge on him after this point, they would be guilty of murder themselves. And with intent behind their act, they would have no refuge to turn to.

If you're paying attention, you already have about a hundred questions about how this works - or doesn't work - in the frame of today's debate about such things. Maybe you're thinking that illegal immigrants are guilty; they broke the law intentionally, so none of this applies to them at all. Maybe. (Maybe not.) Maybe you're wondering when it will be safe for illegal immigrants to leave these cities and set about establishing their homes in their own places. Maybe you're thinking it's time for them to go to their real home, the places they came from. Maybe you're trying to figure out if places like San Francisco are really full of modern-day Levites; are these the servants of God? Maybe you feel like you're a servant of God, and you're trying to figure out how to create a refuge. Maybe you're wondering about the truly guilty in the midst of the guilty innocent and how to tell the difference...and what to do with it. 

My aim this week is not to come to any political conclusions. Sorry. But I do recognize that there are Christians on both sides of this issue trying to figure out how best to love God and love His people in the midst of all of this, and I think there are some distinct ways that we can, as Christians, begin to think about these issues. So I'm going to step into some of these questions - not because I have the answers to them (you will come to your own answers), but because it is important that we learn how to think about them (not what to think, mind you; only how). So stay tuned for all of this. It's going to be fun.