President-Elect Trump announced his plan to carry out one of his campaign promises. He will deport two to three million undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes. Out of this arises sanctuary cities, like Seattle, Portland and others. These cities refuse to turn over these immigrants to the federal authorities. As a result, Trump is threatening to remove federal funding.One the one hand, he’s targeting only criminals. Seems like a legit move. But, is this how God would have us react? How should Christians respond? Lets find out what the Bible says.
In the early Hebrew society there were six cities set apart for a specific purpose: refuge. Miqlat, the Hebrew word for refuge, meant a place of protection. When your nation is tiny, protection matters. The Hebrew people were always under threat by a bigger nation. History shows that the Assyrians, Babylonians, and others powerful nations destroyed them. They looked to God as their refuge and strength.
These six cities were special and set apart for a purpose—“where you shall permit a slayer to flee” (Numbers 35:6). If someone killed another person, they could flee to that city and take refuge. Three of these were on each side of the Jordan River, so each Hebrew people had access to at least one of them.
This is how it worked: if a person committed murder, they were a criminal. The closest kin would then be free to avenge their dead loved one. They became known as go’el (meaning redeemers or avengers) and had the right to avenge their loved one by killing the murder. It sounds barbaric by our modern terms, but for their period it was normal.
What is amazing about the Hebrew people are those six cities. A murderer could seek refuge in them to escape from the go’el. If they ever left that city, they were fair game. But the go’el were not allowed to avenge their loved ones in those cities of refuge.
Ok, that sounds like escaped justice, right? Well, kinda. It allowed the offender a new kind of life. Call it an ancient rehabilitation. In our modern way of thinking, those cities would provide the offender a place in which to make up for their deeds. They could start over.
What about those offenders accused of murder who were innocent? Is the death penalty (so to speak) the best answer? These cities of refuge provided places of peace and hope. They were an ancient way of saying that people are innocent until proven guilty. Sound familiar?
This idea carried forth into the Christian church. From the fourth century through the sixteenth, churches were places of sanctuary. Criminals could escape violent punishments by retreating to the church. The would spend the rest of their lives in service there. Keep in mind that this included services for the poor and destitute. Criminals would find a kind of ancient rehabilitation by serving others.
What do these ancient practices teach us today? There is an interwoven thread of ensuring humanity for the accused and criminals. Though stuck in their sanctuary, they could start over in a way that benefited other people.
Christians today find themselves in contradictory camps. Some want to protect immigrants in our country. Other want illegal immigrants to enter through legal channels. Neither want to kick people out. We are a nation of immigrants, afterall. But what do you do with criminals?
This complex issue may be at the core of the American argument, but God seeks a different path. The Hebrews and Christians taught us that people had a right to life. They believed even criminals deserved a chance to start over. Those cities of refuge provided criminals in their day the ability to find new hope.
My fellow Christians, are we providing sanctuary for people in our world to find hope? Sanctuary cities appear to be carrying the tradition of refuge. We find our hope in the new life of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we can extend that new life to others as well. These illegal immigrants who have committed crimes need refuge. We can provide them a place to start over.