Sanctuary—Christendom Again? Some Reflections

Last week church leaders all over Australia began to offer sanctuary in their church buildings to 267 people seeking asylum whom the government is planning to deport to the detention centre on Nauru. The offers have increased in number over the weekend, and it is now approaching 50 congregations involved.

One blogger suggested this offer was, “Invoking a practice from the Middle Ages during the height of Christendom.” His comment reflects numerous criticisms that have appeared on social media. So, is the Christian invocation of sanctuary an appeal to a dying age of Christendom?

I don’t take these critiques lightly—after all, I am an Anabaptist. But critiquing particular acts of churches and Christians as being rooted in Christendom is fraught with difficulty. “Christendom” is a complex reality, denoting multiple dimensions of a lengthy historical situation. It can simply refer to those lands in which Christianity was dominant from Constantine, through the Medieval period, up until the present day. It might also refer to those arrangements between the church and state during this period that bestowed on the church a privileged status in society.

Is sanctuary a product of this latter definition of Christendom simply because it arose during the height of Christendom? The premise is itself doubtful, as the concept of sanctuary has Old Testament roots. But even accepting the premise—that sanctuary arose during Christendom—so too did Western hospitals, universities and the Nicene Creed!

The obvious different between sanctuary on the one hand and hospitals, universities and the Nicene Creed on the other is that sanctuary involved arrangements between the state and church that gave the latter special legal status, specifically to override the regular law on account of a penitent fugitive who had sought asylum. There can be little argument that such an arrangement is rooted in the dynamics of Christendom. But to apply this historical dynamic directly into the early 21st century is problematic.

In the study of logic, the genetic fallacy describes a flawed line of reasoning in which the origins of a concept, claim or thing are thought to discredit its contemporary form. It’s the same line of reasoning used by some to denounce the use of Christmas trees because they originated in pagan religions. To argue in this way is to suggest, at the very least, that the concept, practice or thing has not changed over time.

We ought to keep in mind that the Medieval form of sanctuary required from the fugitive penance and exile, and neither of these is being suggested by Australian church leaders. In fact, sanctuary was offered to criminals, and people seeking asylum are innocent of any crime. The point in naming these dissimilarities is to show the substantial modification of the concept of sanctuary over time.

Church leaders have simply stated that sanctuary is a concept that existed in the Medieval period, but they have not said they are invoking the concept in the same way. The media may have gone further in seriously discussing the legal aspects of sanctuary, but this cannot be confused with the intentions of church leaders. If anything, the form of sanctuary that the church leaders are invoking is much closer to that of The Sanctuary Movement, a U.S. religio-political movement in the 1980–90s providing safety for Central American refugees fleeing the civil conflicts in their home countries at that time. The movement was part of the anti-war movement opposed to U.S. foreign policy in Central America and at its peak there were over 500 U.S. congregations from varied denominations declaring themselves sanctuaries.

Indeed, the fact that church leaders have openly stated that their offer of sanctuary to people seeking asylum is an act of civil disobedience (at least potentially) suggests they do not see their act as an appeal to special treatment by the state, but as a challenge to the secular authorities to cross a symbolic line of sanctity. That the High Court of Australia has decided that the government’s approach is legal, and the church has rejected this decision and resolved to risk arrest and prosecution by “getting in the way” reflects in this instance a vast separation between church and state.

If Christendom implies the special legal standing of the church in society, it is difficult to conclude that Australian churches offering sanctuary in opposition to the government and courts is a reversion to Christendom.

If, however, lawyers do find a way to make a legal case for sanctuary (based on, say, English Common Law), the question of church privilege will take on a new dimension. Still, there is a vast disparity between invoking a law because it carries the weight of institutional privilege, and simply making use of the legal system as it is (and accepting the risks and consequences that go with doing so). The former may well reflect Christendom, but in the latter we can see reflections of St Paul’s use of his Roman citizenship.

And tradition tells us that the relationship between Paul and Rome didn’t end well.

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Posted on February 8, 2016, in Current Events, Mission, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt – good thoughts (and given the pingback on my blog I thought I might reflect on them here!). In my post I was commenting more on the nature of hard secularism as it rises, in the sense that it will find it increasingly difficult to allow alternative ethical communities to co-exist in its midst. In a sense there is a certain “media-stunt” about the whole sanctuary activity, but my point is more that the two increasingly distinct sides of the Christian spectrum have little time for Christian ethical communities with which they disagree, and hence have a divided, and weaker voice. Political partisanship plays a larger role in their struggles than they care to admit. And yes, the relationship between Paul and Rome did not end well, but many of the post-Christendom (if we can call it that) Western secular state’s ethical framework were inconceivable in pre-Christian Rome. I wonder what Charles Taylor would say!

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for your comment! In my rush to get these thoughts down, I admit I was probably not careful enough to make clear that the quote I lifted from your blog is not its central idea.

      I definitely agreed with the overall thrust of your post, and am sensitive to the way dominant political binaries shape Christian political vision. I’ve been reading Alasdair MacIntyre, and am convinced by his argument (from 1981) that contemporary Left and Right ideologies agree on the same basic political and anthropological presuppositions, but disagree on how to manage them. Christians ought to question the presuppositions, but co-opted imaginations and all that.

      Now, I think I was told you’re in Perth, true? We’ve got to work out how to meet up some time soon.

  1. Pingback: Sanctuary—Christendom Again? Some Reflections | On The Road

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