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 idea...at 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.