Gimme Shelter: The Biblical Roots of Contemporary Sanctuary Cities

The fine line between prosecution of the guilty and persecution of the innocent is a perennial problem, and a major theme in the Bible. It is addressed in many Biblical injunctions. A fascinating variation, surprisingly relevant to today's world, is the requirement to create cities of refuge (orei miklat). I shall show that some of the US cities disparagingly labeled "sanctuary cities" by their critics are actually contemporary versions of Biblically mandated cities of refuge.

What are cities of refuge?

Cities of refuge are places where innocent killers (and killers who have not yet been given a trial) can flee. Innocent killers?! How can someone be an innocent killer? The Bible is quite clear that people who intentionally or negligently kill others are murderers, and should be executed (excluding self-defense, warfare, etc.). By contrast, the Bible considers people who accidentally kill others to be innocent (and people who have not yet been given a trial are presumed innocent).

However, people who have lost a loved one can be unreasonably angry and revenge-hungry. If Joe kills Bill accidentally, Bill's folks may be so wretched and enraged that they blame Joe. They may delegate a "blood avenger" to kill Joe, even though he is legally and morally innocent. Cities of refuge are places where innocent killers like Joe can be safe from the revenge-hungry family and friends of their victims. The Bible says,

Select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly. (Num 35:11-12. See Num 35:9-28 Deut 19:1-13).

Why establish cities of refuge?

At first glance, establishing cities of refuge seems to be unnecessary. Since it is against the law to persecute the innocent, why add an additional layer of protection? Perhaps cities of refuge are extensions of the pre-Biblical practice of considering people in sacred spaces (e.g. grasping the horns of an alter) to be under the protection of the gods. But that is not the whole story. Often old traditions are adapted to newer uses, so it behooves us to avoid the assumption that cities of refuge are merely anachronistic throwbacks. Instead, we should try to understand how the Bible wants cities of refuge to function.

Laws protecting the innocent fail when people (a) want to persecute the innocent, and (b) think themselves above the law. For example, Bill's family and friends might (a) want revenge, and (b) have enough wealth and/or power to accomplish it by circumventing or suborning the agents of the government designated to protect Joe.

Cities of refuge are partial solutions to the problem presented by such people. If Joe flees to a city of refuge, then he will be beyond the reach of all but the most determined and powerful blood avengers. Cities of refuge are a backup mechanism in case the state cannot or will not protect the innocent.

How are cities of refuge applicable to the modern world?

Cities of refuge are a Biblical solution to a problem which, at a general level, is still with us. If someone is innocent (or not yet proven guilty), and liable to be persecuted, the state should provide protection. But when agents of the law are likely to be circumvented or co-opted by powerful people bent on persecuting the innocent, the state needs to put an extra layer of protection in place.

This problem takes many forms. One variation common in contemporary America is this. There is clearly some prejudice against Hispanics. This prejudice is far from universal, but on the other hand, it would be naïve to deny that it is widespread. In particular, some members of some police forces (a) want to persecute Hispanics, and (b) are in a position to do so with relative impunity. Insofar as this is true, the agents of the government have been co-opted, not by revenge-seekers, but by prejudice.

To the extent that the police are likely to be persecutors rather than protectors of the innocent, it behooves municipalities to find a way to limit their reach. Removing pretexts for harassing innocent Hispanics is one way to add an extra layer of protection.

For example, a policy of prioritizing the prosecuting of illegal immigrants offers prejudiced policemen an excuse to engage in racial profiling in traffic stops and other contexts. Such a policy makes it easy to selectively stop and hassle Hispanics, most of whom are, of course, not illegals. In order to remove this pretext for prejudicial action, some cities have instructed the police to not make prosecuting illegal immigrants a priority. Police are told to detain illegals if they come across them in the course of their police work, but not to go out of their way to find illegals.

Sanctuary Cities are Cities of Refuge

Cities which have deemphasized the apprehension of illegal immigrants have been disparagingly dubbed sanctuary cities by their critics. By using this term, the critics aim to portray this policy as allowing lawbreakers to go free. On this picture, illegal immigrants are the ones given sanctuary.

(The term "sanctuary city" is sometimes used to refer to cities which have a policy of not fully cooperating with immigration authorities. Although many cities have expressed unhappiness with US immigration policy, rather few have actually implemented policies of non-cooperation. In any event, I am not using term "sanctuary city" in this way.)

Sanctuary cities think of themselves as trying to protect innocent Hispanics from persecution, rather than illegal immigrants from prosecution. On this picture, sanctuary cities are modern-day cities of refuge, not against blood avengers, but rather against prejudiced police. Sanctuary cities are actually updated applications of a Biblical mandate.

The irony is that "sanctuary cities" and "cities of refuge" are both translations of the same Hebrew phrase, orei miklat.