procrastination, heresy, and navel-gazing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sanctuary - first secular or sacred?

In Australia at the moment, in response to the dehumanising treatment of refugees under our care, not a few churches have offered sanctuary to any refugees the government may want to deport against their wishes. Which led me to think about the origin of the word sanctuary.

Sanctuary in the Bible renders either the Hebrew word מקדש (miqdash) or the Greek word αγιος (hagios); sanctuary is the Latin version of a word which means holy place. You may be familiar with the word sanctification which means 'to be made holy.'

Some time in the middle ages, any church which had been sanctified and was thus a sanctuary could offer safe haven in the pattern of Numbers 35. There were to be cities in the land nominated as refuges (the word sanctuary is never used to refer to such a town) so that those worried they would be the victims of retributive justice after an accidental murder could flee and be assured of a fair trial.

What I am interested in is the order. The idea of sanctuary is that God is the true judge; his faithful officers are most able to administer justice when the other powers may have lost their way (think Psalm 2!). So the idea of sanctuary flows from our knowledge of God, and it is in his name that safe have is offered these people vulnerable to the whims and excesses of our governments.

Whether they have any legal status in this country or not is another question; despite the evils uncovered in the royal commission against institutional child abuse, the imagery of churches protecting the people is thankfully an even stronger statement, and one which most Christians will be ready to identify with.

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