Faith and Sanctuary

With churches being in the news for offering sanctuary, the following seems to  continue to be relevant:

Original Presentation: O.I.S.E., November 28, 2003
Revised for Presentation at 1st Unitarian, April 22, 2004

I was pleased to be asked to speak for a bit to provide some personal reflections, historical and biblical, on the providing of sanctuary. My remarks are inherently from a Christian perspective, but there are similar views expressed by people from other faith perspectives.

There is a definitive anarchist streak in the Christian faith, that ultimately puts obedience to a personal understanding of divine will as being more important that obedience to the dictates of the nation state. And there is also an real streak of arrogance—that we are indeed at times morally superior than others, a superiority that demands that we trust our own judgement rather than popular will. While this can be expressed is ways that have lead to oppressive and violent movements, at its best it has inspired movements of liberation and radical compassion and encouraged individuals to take extreme personal risks on behalf on strangers and outcasts, defying convention, laws and threats of violence, imprisonment or death to do so. At this time when our government jails people without charges, sends people to other countries to face poverty, imprisonment or death, works hand in hand with those that believe you can call someone a danger because of whom they pray with, this positive stream of resistance can be found, needing nurturing and encouragement but providing, for a few people, an opportunity for hope in a time of growing hopelessness. We, as a people of faith, are expected to obey the overarching demands of the law of love and resist being an advocate of the human law of violence.

(The above was inspired by Leo Tolstoy. The Law of Love and the Law of Violence).

A. A few brief reflections from Christian scripture:

Deuteronomy 19: 2 – 3
“you shall set apart three cities for you in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess. You shall prepare the roads, and divide into three parts the area of the land which the Lord your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.”

The roots of our understanding of the importance of sanctuary can be found in this passage. People accused of violence had to have a place to flee to in order for them to be able to challenge the accusation they were faced with. This wasn’t a suggestion on how to live in relationship with the divine; rather it is a challenge to humanity to recognise that we need to have places where those facing injustice could be safe.

Isaiah 58: 6 – 7a
“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house”

Expressions of worship, in this passage, include active compassion for those in need —freeing the oppressed and providing a place to live for those without a home. How one free the oppressed if there is no place for them to live? How can one offer a home to one without a homeland without opening up one’s doors?

Matthew 25: 41 – 46
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'”

Ultimately, we will be judged by the way that we directly and effectively meet the needs of those in need—including welcoming the stranger, the sojourner, who comes into our midst. We are not expected to have perfected mediation techniques, become skilled in theological debate or live a life of retreat and prayer. Rather, we are expected to respond to the physical, human needs of those around us.

It is from these, and other, passages that the idea of sanctuary and the call for real hospitality, of being open to providing a haven from refuges, arise. And, as individuals and as people of faith, our living out such basic and inherently conservative values is something that we can be help accountable for.

B. Some 20th century expressions of sanctuary

I have decided not to devote a great deal of time looking at pre-modern examples of communal and church based expressions of sanctuary—it is a fascinating tradition but feels far from our lives. One example that must be stressed of sanctuary in pre-modern times was the welcoming of the Jews expelled by Christian Spain by the Islamic world, and specifically the Ottoman Empire. Thousands were welcomed into a foreign land all at once, a sign of real compassion all too rarely emulated in modern times.

I do want to touch upon offering of sanctuary both under extremely oppressive situations and under stressful and uncertain situations in the modern, Western world. My comments will necessarily be brief, but in the current time of denying sanctuary and dignity to many people from many lands, I do feel that looking at the recent past can be both encouraging and a call to action. Examples of offering sanctuary I’ll touch on are:

(A) under Nazism, Christians offering sanctuary for the Jews
(B) in the 1960s and early 70s, Canadians welcoming U.S. draft resisters (Nancy Pocock, et. al.)
(C) U.S. Sanctuary Movement

It is surprising to hear advanced as serious arguments against providing sanctuary and support to those who come to this land the dangers of losing charitable status, the irresponsibility of breaking the law, even statements that perhaps in these periods of terrorist activity we must not be so concerned with justice. I contrast this with the many who lived on Nazi occupation who risked imprisonment, torture and death to provide sanctuary to declared enemies of the state. As Martin Gilbert wrote: “Those who had hidden Jewish children, saving them from deportation and death, included Roman Catholics…Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Baptists and Lutherans, as well as Muslims in Bosnia and Albania.” (page xvi) One of the more phenomenal examples of offering sanctuary to Jews under the Nazi’s was the French village of Le Chambon. This was a entire community, lead by both protestant and Catholic leaders, that combined to provide effective sanctuary to large numbers of Jewish people. They did so over the objections of their church hierarchies and civil authorities. Some of those offering sanctuary or advocating resistance to the Nazis were tortured and executed. Individual Jews and some Jewish families were successfully rounded up and many were killed. However, from active non-co-operation with efforts to vilify Jewish to specific efforts to interfere with initiatives that fed into the Holocaust machine, this small village provided a haven and remains an example of successful pacifist actions against a violence and oppression structure. Within Germany itself, where the official Catholic and Protestant church leaders actively supported the Nazi regime, offering of sanctuary was seen as the only real way of living out a faithful life by thousands of individuals who took substantive risks to provide shelter and some degree of safety. As one example, again from Gilbert, “Only a few Pomeranian Jews were not deported. They owed their survival, write the historian of Pomeranian Jewry, Stephen Nicholls, ‘either to the loyalty of their Christian partner or to the bravery to those who were prepared to hide single Jews. For example, Joachim Pfannschmidt, vicar of Gross Kiesow near Griefswald and an active member of the German Confession church, hid Gertrud Birnbaum in his vicarage from 1939-1944. This pharmacist from Berlin survived the war. (pg. 285).

(Comments on sanctuary under the Nazis are based on: Irving Abella and Harold Troper. None is Too Many; Martin Gilbert. The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust; Philip Hallie. Lest Innocent Blood be Shed; Anny Latour. The Jewish Resistance in France (especially the sections ‘The Huguenot Stronghold’ and ‘Underground Networks for Child Rescue’); Milton Meltzer. Rescue.)

In more recent times, in the background of my early years of activism, thousands of Canadians opened up homes, church spaces and drop-in centres to provide sanctuary to up to 500,000 young Americans who would not support the U.S. war in Vietnam. To provide an idea of the climate of the time, immediately following the declaration of the War Measures Act in October 1971 (from Hagan, pg. 141) “The mayors of Canada’s largest cities used the law in a backlash against American war resisters. Mayor William Dennison of Toronto claimed that “a few hippies and deserters are Toronto’s only problem.” Mayor Jean Drapeau of Montreal charged that draft and military resisters were part of a “revolutionary conspiracy. Mayor Tom Campbell of Vancouver declared, “I don’t like draft dodgers and I’ll do anything within the law that allows me to get rid of them.” All three expressed a willingness to use the War Measurers Act against war resisters. Mayor Campbell was the most explicit, telling the Toronto Star, “I believe the law should be used against any revolutionary whether he’s a U.S. draft dodger or a hippie.”

For years, most of the difficulties were cultural and emotional—leaving a country at war to find haven in a near-by country is difficult. But illegal extradition, arbitrary decisions by immigration officers and changes in rules around granting landed immigrant status that weren’t debated in the legislature created additional burdens. Those unable to get legal status needed safe housing, financial support and aid in finding employment and other forms of pragmatic assistance. Churches, such as the Church of the Holy Trinity, opened up their doors for draft resisters to sleep. Individuals, such as Nancy Pocock of the Society of Friends (Quakers) provided emotional support, referrals and hot soup. They operated in a space between laws— the government wasn’t actively sending U.S. citizens back to face (in many cases) charges and imprisonment for desertion or refusing to co-operative with the draft. But there was little in the way of support for those that made it to Canada with no resources on their own. In 1965 those providing sanctuary to the first wave of resisters did not likely think it would be a decade before their work was over. This openness to U.S. anti-war refugees is, to me, a highlight of the faith response to those coming to Canada. Jewish activists from Holy Blossom joined with those from Toronto Monthly Meeting to find common ground in welcoming those who would not participate in war. Many active from that time, from Ann Pohl to Frank Showler to Charles Roach, both in and outside of the faith communities, maintain their commitment to ensuring that there be a haven here for those needing sanctuary.

(These comments were strongly influenced by, and include quotes from, John Hagen. Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada.)

There is some danger that our desire to support resisters to war from the U.S. and to provide a haven for refugees from other lands includes an emotional anti-Americanism. One of the more sustained peace time sanctuary movements in modern time was the U.S. movement, primarily based in Arizona, Texas and California, to provide sanctuary to people fleeing U.S. backed brutal regimes in Latin America in a movement that began informally in the late 1970s but formally was active from 1982 to 1987. During this time, from Chile north the U.S. government supplied arms and training to death squads, provided aid to governments that practised torture and extra judicial executions on a routine basis and worked hard to undermine any progressive initiative to improve the lives of people. It was a period in the U.S. when the violence of the U.S. government against internal dissent was very vivid. People remembered attacks on the Black Panther Party and the American Indian movements and read about efforts to claim that groups such as The American Friends Service Committee were dangerous organisations. COINTELPRO, a U.S. government effort to discredit the left, indeed all effective progressive movements, was in full swing. And into this atmosphere individuals in south west United States, almost all from faith communities, stepped forward to state that in their congregations and in their homes, people made refugees as a result of the policies of their government would find sanctuary. They organised an underground railway for those at high risk, some of whom ended up in Canada. There were penalties paid, more personal than severe. Some clergy were removed from their parishes. In once case, involving 8 activists in Arizona, defendants were gives suspended sentences and three to five years’ probation. Very few were convicted of actions and then jailed specifically due to actions directly related to providing sanctuary; those jailed during this period were jailed primarily as a result of public protest such as occupying offices and other acts of non-violent resistance. I think that there experience is what the Canadian sanctuary movement would experience in these current times if it started to be effective. The priest at Church of the Holy Trinity, if she ever opened the church doors to provide sanctuary for U.S. anti-war or Algerian refugees could face sanctions from diocese or might lose her clearance to visit prisons or could even face a fine or probation. If Mathew Behrens and myself went into an Immigration Tribunal office and poured blood on their files, we’d face jail.

(This section was influenced primarily by Ann Crittenden’s Sanctuary and Renny Goden and Michael McConnell, Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad)

The radical risk taking of those providing sanctuary to the Jews under Nazi dominated Europe or the less demanding welcome by those providing sanctuary to anti-Vietnam War Americans do provide examples that today some congregations are following—but all too few—and that some agencies are mimicking—but all too few. People are being sent back to places where they risk torture and imprisonment, possibility even death, while others with almost identical backgrounds are granted refugee status. Some housing providers demand perfect proof of a legal right to reside in Canada while others seek for loopholes in a complex system. And perhaps there is something a little less pleasant in the refusal of some within the faith communities to take risks. This is, after all, a country that refused ship loads of Jewish refugees sanctuary when they were trying to escape Nazi Germany. This is a country that rounded up citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War. And while Canada did welcome U.S. draft resisters, only a comparative small number of the Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees ended up here. Is there perhaps some unspoken message when Canada does not automatically offer haven to gay men facing imprisonment or women coming her to escape genital mutilation? What is the message that we provide to the world when Leonard Peltier was improperly and rapidly extradited to the U.S. while Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel is only now being considered for deportation to Germany? Is there a proposal to the world that Canada is making when individuals within the Islamic community, Canadian citizens, were not being welcomed back to Canada but sent to Syria or Afghanistan against their will? It was a minority of Christians that defied church leaders and the law to provide sanctuary for the Jews. It was a minority of Canadians of all faith backgrounds and from many places on the progressive spectrum that actively welcomed American draft resisters. I do wonder what is in the hearts of the majority who are silent, the majority who are showing by their actions that those in need are not welcomed here.

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