Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger: The state used to respect value of sanctuary

Westminster Abbey was historically a sanctuary church.
Westminster Abbey was historically a sanctuary church. Special to The Star

For more than 1,000 years, the notion that Christian churches could and should offer sanctuary to lawbreakers of all kinds was respected throughout the civilized world.

The practice actually goes back even further, to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. And by the mid-300s, Christians felt that if pagan temples were considered sacred spaces, well then their churches should be all the more naturally recognized as refuges for the condemned.

“Christians vigorously embraced an obligation to protect fugitives,” says Karl Shoemaker, a medieval legal scholar and author of “Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages.”

This was not some early-day Innocence Project. On the contrary, the thinking behind Christian sanctuary was to shield the guilty — those on the run from the state and the angry mob — beause the redemption of the sinner was more important than law and order.

Respect for church sanctuary was also seen, even by kings themselves, as a sign of strength and a rightful check on the excesses of government.

When the practice was finally abolished in the 1600s, it was as the church was losing even more power to the state, and secular concerns won out over spiritual matters.

I mention all this, of course, by way of noting that the party opposed to government overreach isn’t as worried about that — or about federalism — when it comes to sanctuary.

Those most likely to see the United States as a Christian nation, tragically unmoored from its early traditions, might recall that for early Catholic bishops, sanctuary was a top-of-mind concern. Even for that architect of orthodoxy, Augustine, that was the case. According to Shoemaker, he not only got his community of believers to chip in and pay the debt of a deadbeat to whom his church had given sanctuary, but he argued, too, that the more serious the crime, the more forcefully Christians had to intercede.

The tradition of sanctuary has also “played an important role in American history,’’ says Rockhurst University religious historian Joanna Carraway-Vitiello. And a noble role, as when “before the Civil War, some parts of the U.S. offered sanctuary to refugee slaves,” and refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

Among the last places in the world where the tradition of sanctuary was codified, according to Pierre Timbal’s 1939 “Droit d’Asile,” or Right of Asylum, were Malabar, Tahiti, and the “région du Missouri.” He didn’t elaborate, unfortunately.

Or live to see a time when Missouri churchmen and churchwomen would be afraid to speak publicly about their desire to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants amid quite rational fears of mass deportations.

One local faith leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, described his community in Kansas City as “very afraid, very angry and very much trying to figure out what our role is and how we hold on to our values.” Values that he sees as under attack from a president who ran on local control and on religious liberty and who was supported by many people of faith as a result.

The anxiety of local church groups only grew after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this week that the government will deny and even “claw back” federal funding from any jurisdiction that offers safe haven to the undocumented.

“Unfortunately, some states and cities have adopted policies designed to frustrate the enforcement of immigration laws,” Sessions said. “Failure to deport aliens who are convicted of criminal offenses puts whole communities at risk.”

In practice, self-described sanctuaries aren’t that different from most places in cooperating with immigration officials in handling real criminals and leaving otherwise law-abiding people with no papers alone.

Even in the Middle Ages, Rockhurst’s Carraway-Vitiello says, “it was probably frustrating at times” for the state to give so much latitude to the church. Yet “they seemed to recognize the value of the church’s role” as a negotiator, guardian against violence and force for reconciliation.

If the feds make good on their threats and force the church into its ancient role, let’s hope that’s still the case.