News Articles

‘Churches of refuge’ a bad idea

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Churches in five major American cities announced recently that they have begun a program of sheltering illegal immigrants from federal authorities. This move is both unwise and unbiblical, and may be more about striking while the political iron is hot than about demonstrating true compassion.

The so-called “churches of refuge” in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, New York and Chicago claim that by harboring illegal immigrants they hope to awaken “the consciousness of the human spirit” and bring a “human face” to complex immigration law. If they’re attempting to formulate a specifically Christian response to illegal immigration based on the Bible, their actions show a striking level of unfamiliarity with what the Bible has to say about the responsibilities of the aliens among us –- and about the church’s relationship to government.

Christians have for many centuries in American life drawn political philosophy from the Bible. From Roger Williams’ fight for religious liberty in New England in the 1640s to Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I, politicians have drawn inspiration from the Bible about the ideals of freedom, fair economic play and peace. But illegal immigration in its current form is not primarily a religious issue. It is a matter of law and order, and since Sept. 11, 2001, an issue of our nation’s health and well-being. Protecting lawbreakers, in fact, only undermines the communities these churchmen and women are supposed to serve.

Granted, there are verses in the Bible that address care for aliens (Exodus 22:21) and even God’s care for those who are strangers in a society (Psalm 146:9). Those individuals, not being Semitic peoples, would have been easily recognizable among the Hebrews in the days of the Old Testament. They would have had their own languages, customs and even their own religious rites. It is for that reason that the law, given by God, required those who were aliens to obey the same laws as the community of Israel (Leviticus 24:22).

Israel was, of course, a theocracy in the days of Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, and the people were then bound by a covenant of law to establish spiritual hegemony and eliminate pagan worship in Israel. In that sense, the ancient community is unlike the democracy of the United States. But the American people today are bound by a civil covenant –- the Constitution –- which prescribes laws regulating citizenship and the rights and privileges of it.

If we take this important counsel of the Old Testament and apply it in our modern democracy, we have at least a first precept for a Christian approach to immigration. Law must prevail. Aliens must obey the same laws as the people among whom they dwell. They should be treated well and fairly, even if they are here illegally. But as with any American who breaks the law, there must be legal retribution for undocumented aliens -– even if it includes deportation.

The same clergy who have harbored illegal immigrants conjure comparisons between their houses of worship and the ancient cities of refuge in the Old Testament. This comparison falls far short, unless the churches are harboring someone who has accidentally taken a life.

In Numbers 35 and Joshua 20, God designated six cities –- three to the West of the Jordan River and three to the East –- as places of protection against blood vengeance if a killing was unintentional. The guilty party could enter the city and then appeal to its elders for sanctuary. Most important to note, however, is that the elders of the city would then try or test the individual to ensure that the death was, in fact, accidental. If found guilty of murder, the individual would be handed over to the relative of the slain for punishment.

Cities of refuge were open to both the citizens of Israel and aliens, and those who found sanctuary there could not leave the cities until the high priest died in Jerusalem. Until then, however, no protection was offered outside the walls of the refuges.

This glimpse into ancient life offers us a second precept for the modern American church dealing with criminal activity. Drawing analogy between these ancient cities of refuge and American churches is not possible –- unless the same churches begin to harbor those who have killed someone accidentally. But local and federal authorities would hardly honor sanctuary in such cases. Nor should they do so in cases of illegal immigration. The church must obey the law and refuse to harbor those engaged in criminal activity.

In the New Testament, both Jesus and the author of the book of Hebrews taught that the poor should be cared for by the church, with Jesus –- the master Teacher -– saying in Matthew 25 that a mark of true love is taking in the stranger and providing hospitality, clothing and food. Clearly the church today is expected to respond to the aliens in our midst in such a manner. The author of Hebrews even instructed his readers to entertain strangers for “by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hospitality is an important New Testament principle.

These teachings, however, do not trump the New Testament’s instructions on the Christian’s and the church’s relationship to human government. In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul commanded submission to the secular authorities of his day. As brutal as the Romans were, Paul instructed the church at Rome to “give to everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” The Apostle Peter also instructed in 1 Peter 2 to submit to “every authority instituted among men.”

This, of course, does not mean that Christians cannot challenge laws that they feel are unjust. They certainly may, but they may not break immigration laws in order to change them. There are today appropriate legal forums in which to pursue change. The only possible exception for defying immigration law would be to protect a life -– and today no undocumented immigrant is in danger of being gunned down solely for entering the country illegally.

The best thing churches can do for undocumented aliens is encourage them to abide by the law and accept the responsibilities all American citizens and hopeful citizens accept in our shared covenant community. But churches cannot expect immigrants to obey the law if the clergy themselves violate it and harbor illegal immigrants. When immigrants come to our country legally, they should find the church and the nation welcoming them with open arms and caring for them along the path toward the American dream.
Gregory Tomlin is a national correspondent for Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin