Sanctuary! – a Theological Appreciation of an Old Practice

If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie, or read Victor Hugo’s book – you know […]

Todd Brewer / 10.11.11

If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie, or read Victor Hugo’s book – you know about the practice of Sanctuary given by the church to those seeking asylum. While the actual practice of asylum has varied since its first attestation in the year 343, the basic gist is that anyone who was pursued by secular authorities to be punished for crimes committed could find protection by fleeing to the knocker of the church. The idea behind this practice was primarily the maintaining of the distinction between sacred and profane; the boundaries of church were sacred and must not be sullied by the reach of imperial authority.

However, I believe this practice also illustrates something about the economy of grace in relation to secular (read: worldly) values and authorities. It’s common to conceive of the church as separate from the worlds’ standards of justice and peace: grace and the world exist in separate but equally valid spheres of influence (though practically, the political sphere seems to be ubiquitous…). Yet the theological implication of the practice of Sanctuary is that the church’s realm is not separate to the worldly authority, rather it is hostile to the world. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Within the walls of Notre Dame the prisoner was secure from molestation. The cathedral was a place of refuge. Human justice dared not cross its threshold”. It is more than revealing that the greatest opposition to the practice of Sanctuary came from governmental authorities who rightly saw it as an incursion of their sovereignty.

In other words, the practice of sanctuary demonstrates that the sovereignty of Christ’ forgiveness ultimately extends beyond and overturns human implementations of fairness and justice. The church in the present is the very place where Christ overcomes the world to rule according to his grace.

In Christ not just the sinner, but the criminal too, that finds forgiveness and pardon. The Kingdom of God is and will be something far better than any kind of temporal, human fairness. The practice of sanctuary realizes in the present an eventual future where unconditional grace has triumphed over the conditionality of law – in all its forms.

The practice of Sanctuary is a medieval relic from a time long, long ago. And while I do not necessarily mean to imply that it should (or better- could!) be re-instituted, it is a reminder of the universality and unconditionality of Christ’s forgiveness and a challenge for integrative thinking about grace as the central theme in every aspect of life.