By The Rev. John R. Long
On Feb. 17, two Buffalo churches declared themselves to be “sanctuary” churches, to try to provide protection to immigrants in danger of being deported in the Trump administration crackdowns. They know there is no provision for “sanctuary” in U.S. law, but it has biblical roots and a religious tradition.
The expectation is that the federal government would respect the churches, and their strongly held beliefs, and not send armed, uniformed forces to break down church doors and invade space dedicated to God.
While “sanctuary” is a biblical concept, there is a far stronger mandate from the Bible that speaks to every Christian and Jew and every church and synagogue. That is the biblical mandate to care for the “stranger,” the “foreigner.” I had been aware for a long time that there were biblical passages urging kindness to people who were from elsewhere living in the land of Israel. I had not understood how completely the Bible stresses this. My seminary recently sent out documentation from a biblical scholar named Joel Baden that includes seven pages of references from the beginning of the Bible to the end.
This is not just a good idea in the Bible, or a recommendation. This is a biblical mandate. It comes up in Bible narratives, and in teachings. It comes up in biblical law: When a stranger [or foreigner] resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
Also: There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you. That sounds very relevant for now!
Baden includes 54 passages, of which some are narratives or teachings, but 20 are mandates. When a church or synagogue declares sanctuary it is following its religious beliefs, obeying God. When the religious community rallied to help the 25 Mexican restaurant workers whose work and homes were raided in November, assuring that there were lawyers on the cases, helping with financial support, even providing Christmas presents, they were being sympathetic, but they were responding to their own biblical beliefs.
People protesting immigration raids may be liberal, compassionate, sympathetic or responding with help for people they know; but they may be obeying biblical requirements. Conversely, supporting the administration’s deportations and immigrant raids is not just political for believers, both Christian and Jewish. It’s un-biblical.
I can’t speak for Islam or other religions. I do not have the knowledge. But for people whose religion and life is based on the Bible, there is a requirement that puts us on one side of this issue.
The Rev. John R. Long is a Presbyterian minister, former director of VIVE, convener of the Interfaith Peace Network and board member of the Western New York Peace Network and the Network of Religious Communities.