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An ethical analysis of the ‘New Sanctuary Movement’

The “New Sanctuary Movement” is under considerable discussion these days. What exactly people mean by “sanctuary” is not always clear, but the basic idea is to help undocumented immigrants in their struggle to avoid deportation under US immigration laws.

I encountered the first “Sanctuary Movement” in the 1980s, when some churches organized to shelter Salvadorans and Guatemalans who were at risk of being sent back to their violent and repressive homelands during the Reagan Administration. Since then the concept has never really gone away, and it is spiking today as the new Trump Administration has made clear its intent to heighten immigration-law enforcement.

In my role as interim pastor, I have been asked to consider affiliating our church with an organization called the “New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta” (SMA). Moral issues look  different when you are not just cogitating but have leadership responsibility for a community or an organization.

I have decided to make public my reasoning process related to this request. Perhaps this may be helpful to others. I invite your feedback on this post, which will be longer than usual.

First, a preliminary word. Considering requests such as this can take up a surprising amount of time when you are a pastor. People within and outside the church regularly approach me with requests for us to host events, sign on to causes, or align our church with other organizations.

This has created in me a certain reticence. How much pastoral time is rightly devoted to examining various requests, when they come in pretty much every week? If you say yes once, where do you stop? What are the internal congregational implications of saying yes to some causes and no to others?

This time I decided to take the time to study the “ask” letter closely. It came to me via email and appears to represent a new organization, Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta (SMA).

I don’t see this organization online but the basic concept is easily accessible. Today there are  sanctuary cities and also sanctuary churches. I think sanctuary efforts raise very different issues depending on whether they are civic or religious. The request I received was to consider aligning our church with an “interfaith, multicultural immigrant rights organization” involving individuals and congregations.

The stated core beliefs of SMA are the following:

  • “All human beings are loved by their creator and deserving of a safe place to live, work and worship without fear, without regard to nationality, ethnicity, religion…immigration status,” etc.;
  • “We have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of all in our decision making, and to hold…governments…accountable”;
  • “We reject laws that seek to unjustly discriminate against persons or limit their rights”;
  • “We reject using power or speech to bully, intimidate, threaten, or cause emotional or physical violence.”

The reasons to become an SMA member are the following:

  • “Your congregation will become a visible, prophetic witness and leader in our community by making an intentional public stand that declares your faithful commitment to ‘welcoming the stranger’ in our midst”;
  • Your congregation can make a “faithful response to an invitation from the immigrant community to walk with them and follow their lead as they fight for and insist on justice”;
  • Affiliating will “connect you to a dynamic social justice movement and a diverse network of Atlanta congregations and individuals”;
  • Affiliating will “put your faith into action”;
  • Affiliating will give you “the opportunity to journey with an immigrant and/or family facing deportation.”

The specific acts requested of SMA “Member Congregations” are the following:

  • “Provide visibility for immigration issues…within your congregation by amplifying the moral imperative to stop deportations…”;
  • “Organize with SMA’s immigrant justice campaigns”;
  • “Provide support to an immigrant and/or family living in a Safe Sanctuary Church.” Under this heading is included apparent plans for housing (hiding) immigrants facing deportations in churches or church-owned properties, and meeting all their relevant needs on site.

Finally, there is an SMA Pledge, or covenant, in which the SMA congregation “pledge(s) to resist the newly elected administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities. We will commit to support the work of sanctuary for those targeted by hate, and work alongside our friends, families, and neighbors to ensure the dignity and human rights of all people.”

My own social-justice commitments are no secret to those who know me or my work. But in this case, I am troubled by what I consider to be questionable assumptions and conceptual confusions in the letter I received. I would like to try to sort through them.

If you ask me, as pastor, whether my church is or should be a “sanctuary church,” I say:

Yes, in the sense that in the preaching and teaching of our local congregation, we teach the equal dignity and worth of each human being, their status as beloved by God, and the Christian obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our church is a sanctuary from racism, indignity, and grading people’s worth based on their citizenship status or ethnicity.

I say Yes, again, in terms of the membership and life of the local congregation, because “Any baptized person receives an unrestricted privilege to participate in all areas of communal life of the Body of Christ” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). The church is a community of those who have committed their lives to follow Jesus. In this faith-community, citizenship status is irrelevant, as are all other earthly identity markers. No one checks driver’s licenses or passports at the baptistry or the Communion table.

I say Yes, a third time, in the sense that in all ministries of the local congregation, citizenship status is irrelevant. When people come to our church looking for sack lunches or a coat, we don’t check their papers. If someone participates in one of the dozens of programs on our campus, we don’t check their documents.

I say Yes, a fourth time, in the sense that if immigration-enforcement officials ever seek to enter our buildings to check papers, interrogate, or detain people who are participating in the life or services of our church, we would cooperate only to the minimum extent required by law. Even though the state apparently has the legal right to come into a church to enforce immigration law, actually doing so would be a highly provocative act.

So that is four ways in which I would think that any church, certainly our church, could be said to be a “sanctuary church.”

And here’s a fifth way. If we, or some of our members, feel a strong tug of compassion toward aiding those negatively affected by enhanced immigration-law enforcement, we are free to devote resources to providing aid.

For example, we could support legal aid efforts to immigrants facing deportation proceedings. We could support or directly offer childcare in tragic cases in which a citizen-child loses a parent to arrest or deportation. We could meet all kinds of material needs. As pastor, I will urge my congregation to consider devoting missions dollars and personal resources, time, and expertise to such efforts.

However, if by becoming a “sanctuary church” one means sheltering possible deportees in our building or organizing our membership to do the same in their homes, it is a very different question.

This sixth approach moves into the category of lawbreaking. If we announce that we are planning to break the law by sheltering people facing deportation, and then do so, that’s classic civil disobedience in its public form. It would be an open violation of an obviously unjust law, in which the lawbreaker invites prosecution in order to highlight the injustice of the law. If we did that at our church, I would probably end up in jail, and those we were (loudly) sheltering would likely be caught and deported.

If on the other hand we were to covertly break the law by providing our church or our homes as sanctuary, we would still be breaking the law, and subject to prosecution.

The general Christian obligation to submit to government authority (Rom 13), and the grave possible consequences of flouting federal (and perhaps local) law, mean that any move to covert or overt civil disobedience raises the most serious questions.

One way to frame those questions is this: does US immigration law, or the government’s current enforcement of it, represent such a clear and profound violation of the purpose of law, of justice, and of human rights, that conscientious Christian churches and individuals are permitted or even obligated to violate the law in response?

There are many such cases in human history. Despite my sympathy for undocumented immigrants, I do not believe this is one of them. We have to draw a distinction between laws that we think could be improved versus laws that are an inversion of the very purpose of law, and therefore fundamentally unjust.

While for over a decade I have supported a much different approach (“comprehensive immigration reform”) for dealing with our broken immigration law and its haphazard enforcement, I cannot agree with the SMA’s blanket claim that heightening the enforcement of our existing immigration laws is obviously “unjust” and “discriminatory” or motivated by “fear” or “hatred.”

The problem surfaces very early in the SMA request letter, when it states that “all human beings are loved by their creator and deserving of a safe place to live, work, and worship,” so therefore US immigration policy is immoral.

It is undoubtedly true that God loves everyone, and that people need a safe place to live, work, and worship.

But this cannot mean that every human being has a right to live in any country that they might choose. This would imply that either there should be no immigration laws in any country, or that such laws should never be enforced.

Consider this example: God loves me and wants me to have a safe place to live, but this does not mean that, say, Finland has a moral or legal obligation to let me live there indefinitely in violation of their immigration laws. Finland would certainly not agree that I have such a right. No country would agree. There is a category confusion here that matters a great deal.

What our nation’s policies should be on immigration, and immigration enforcement; what to do for, with, and about eleven million immigrants who are here illegally, along with many of their children and family members who are American citizens, is a highly complex matter of public policy that has remained unsolved for decades. Congress tried and failed several times over the last two decades to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which included a path to citizenship for many of the eleven million along with enhanced border security. I far prefer that approach and hope it makes a comeback. But it is too simple just to say that the United States is violating “justice” and “rights” if it simply enforces its existing immigration laws. Undoubtedly there are many violations of justice and rights in the immigration-enforcement process, but I cannot agree that any immigration-law enforcement is by definition unjust.

If our government were to start targeting and deporting a group of its own citizens, such as Baptists or Jews or Mormons or Muslims or citizens of Swedish or Somali descent, then we would have a clear, flagrant violation of the Constitution and American laws, and the strongest forms of protest and resistance would be demanded of all of us. But we are talking about non-citizens, who are here illegally. That is a very different kind of public policy question, and the difference should not be missed.

I have named five ways in which our church could and should be viewed as a “sanctuary church” and one way which seems to go too far and which I cannot advocate. I urge all advocates of the New Sanctuary Movement to become clear and precise in exactly what you mean to advocate and the grounds on which you are making your case.


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