Does the Bible Support Sanctuary?

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To understand the role that scripture plays in debates over the New Sanctuary Movement, it helps to be familiar with an insider term: prooftexting — the cherry-picking of Biblical quotations out of context in order to claim scriptural authority for a particular proposition.

Nobody likes to be accused of prooftexting, but in a soundbite culture, it's hard to resist — so darn tasty. Here's a typical exchange: Opponents of gay marriage cite Leviticus 18:22: "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is an abomination." They also like Romans 1:26-7: "For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions... the men... committing shameless acts with men." But gay marriage defenders note that Leviticus also orders the faithful to stone mouthy children to death, and that the "dishonorable passions" passage can be read to equate homosexuality with sins such as envy and gossip that are practiced openly every Sunday in the pews.

On the New Sanctuary Movement, the usual roles are reversed — liberals sling chapter and verse, while conservatives argue that the true "sense" of scripture contradicts them. When Sanctuary proponents cite the verses below, they go to pains to contextualize them, both Biblically and in terms of secular morality. Nonetheless, as a religious movement, a lot of their oomph comes from being able to rattle off the following:

For Sanctuary

Numbers 35:11: "...then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there." Activists cite this as a kind of ancient model for their movement. Various verses in the Old Testament describe "cities of refuge," where someone guilty of causing accidental death can escape the dead man's bloodthirsty relatives. Says New Sanctuary Movement co-founder Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, "This is so relevant to the question of aliens: They have committed a crime, but is the punishment [deportation, and the corresponding disruption of productive lives and families] appropriate?"

Leviticus 19:33: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong... [he] shall be as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Progressive Evangelical leader Jim Wallis refers to this as "the Levitical immigration policy." It reaches deep into Judaism's Exodus saga for its justification. The Israelites were (legal) immigrants in Egypt, but the Egyptians persecuted them when their numbers seemed too threatening; God brought down the plagues. Thus the verse is a warning to Jews never to turn into the Egyptians; a role Salvatierra and her colleagues feel Americans are now perilously close to playing.

Matthew 25: 35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Probably the verse most often cited by those in the movement. In a passage known as The Great Judgment, Jesus explains who will be saved and who damned. Describing those who make the cut, he leads off with the triad quoted above.

Hebrews 13:2: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." This New Testament passage is probably a reference back to Abraham in the Old Testament, who, approached by three strangers, threw them a feast, only to find that they were supernatural. Paul Lim, an Evangelical Christian and Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt Theological Seminary finds special meaning in the fact that the original Greek word for "hospitality" in this verse, "philoxenia," is actually stronger. It means "the love of strangers." Or, as he points out, the opposite of xenophobia.

Against Sanctuary

Interestingly, opponents of the sanctuary movement do not suggest that its prooftexts are taken out of context. Instead, they suggest that the movement exaggerates the obligations the verses place on the believer.

Richard Land, head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the theologically and politically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, cheerfully acknowledges his duty to the stranger. "As Christians we have a responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves and do unto others as we would have them do unto us," he says. He was a supporter of the recent failed comprehensive immigration reform bill.

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