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Beyond Sanctuary

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

| Hannah Roebuck |

“Sanctuary" means a holy place or a place that offers refuge. The concept of sanctuary is clearly linked to the divine, but sanctuary’s safe harbor is not restricted to any one religious tradition or one people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have origin stories rooted in sanctuary—Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing King Herod’s order to kill all young male children and seeking refuge in Egypt; and Muhammad and the early Muslim community fleeing persecution in Mecca to find sanctuary in Medina. The Abrahamic faiths in particular have explicit directives to provide sanctuary for the stranger, to care for the downtrodden, and to embody a communal welcome. Sanctuary practices* also have legal, historical roots in the Greco-Roman and early Christian era, under Roman Catholic law, and under seventeenth-century English common law. Civil authorities recognized religious authority and space as outside of the jurisdiction of the government or ruler, so people wanted by the state for a variety of reasons would seek sanctuary in religious spaces under the authority of the clergy. U.S. history also provides examples of sanctuary, namely the Underground Railroad and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Acts. More recently, the sanctuary movement of the 1980s began among interfaith religious groups in response to the government’s refusal to grant asylum to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans fleeing civil war, economic turmoil, and violent repression.

A new sanctuary movement emerged in cities across the country in earnest since 2016 in response to former President Trump’s persistent threats and attacks on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Click HERE for an interview with faith leaders working in the heart of Atlanta’s sanctuary movement.

The concept of sanctuary and subsequent sanctuary practices—welcoming the marginalized, protecting people from harm, providing means of survival, advocating, and resisting—draw from a rich and varied history, and the meaning of sanctuary has adapted over time in specific contexts and locations.

Through sanctuary practices, religious groups, nonprofits, organizations, and local governments work to build a social context in which defending community members from exclusionary, criminalizing, and unjust federal laws becomes common sense. However, even while offering support and certain protections, sanctuary practices are fundamentally limited. They stand in defiance of and deeply embedded within political and legal structures. Some organizers, lawmakers, and advocates denounce the border wall, family separation, and attacks on sanctuary cities while simultaneously calling for enhanced border security, increased immigration detention, and police tactics that increase criminalization and fear. Despite these limitations, sanctuary offers a critical mode of resistance that can connect intersectional struggles for social justice when paired with an abolitionist framework.**

An abolitionist approach to sanctuary marries the conceptual breadth and rich religious history of sanctuary work with the Black radical tradition of abolition that as Angela Davis puts it “grasps things at the root.” An abolitionist sanctuary is interested in building communities that fight systemic oppression and advance a shared liberation. This framework connects sanctuary’s radial welcome to abolition—social justice organizing that seeks to tear down oppressive power structures and build a just, equitable world in their place. These two related movements share a commitment to taking care of one another and cultivating a shared fate or belonging. Sanctuary demands that we recognize every person’s full humanity without exception, and abolition seeks to create a society where no one—regardless of their citizenship status, criminal record, poverty, ability, sexual or gender identity, or any other factor—is deemed unworthy of safety, economic means, affirming social relationships, or political participation and power. Both sanctuary and abolition work to open our relationships with one another beyond the grip of nationalism, racism, patriarchy, capitalism, and other divisive ideologies.

An abolitionist sanctuary framework exists in internal tension. By working to transform the world and societies entirely, an abolitionist sanctuary seeks to eliminate the need for sanctuary spaces altogether. The goal is to create a world that is a sanctuary for all—where cages, removals, exploitation, criminalization, and policing of immigrants, migrants, people of color, gender nonconforming people, people experiencing poverty, or any others no longer exists.

* Cunningham, Hilary. God and Caesar at the Rio Grande: Sanctuary and the Politics of Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

** The concept of an abolitionist sanctuary is informed by and adapted from—Paik, A. Naomi. Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020.

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