Scriptures in the Sanctuary Movement: The New Testament, Qur’an, and Torah

Jorge Rodas | May 2020

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” –Luke 10:27

After much prayer and reflection on the immigration crisis in the United States and the various moral and legal obligations their country openly disregarded, on March 24, 1982 clergy in Tucson, Arizona decided to declare sanctuary for immigrants escaping war, hunger, and political persecution in Central America. Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church and Quaker Jim Corbett knew the United States was not upholding its own immigration and refugee laws and decided to declare sanctuary because “Obedience to God requires this of us all.”  They implemented a “radical hospitality” found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament, following what their moral compasses already knew to be true: God and the State were at odds with each other, and to follow one was to defy the other. The scripture they looked at for guidance included verses such as Matthew 25:37, in which Jesus commands his followers to treat the least of God’s people with dignity. Included in the list of “the least of these” is the stranger. This tradition of hospitality drew upon a deeper scriptural tradition from the Hebrew Bible. Leviticus 19:33 more specifically instructs, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” These, including Luke 10:27 above, are just three of many biblical lessons that Tucson’s ecumenical council used to justify their thwarting of unjust deportations.

Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church set into motion the U.S. immigrant sanctuary tradition that in recent years has witnessed a reawakening. For example, in 2017 First Church Amherst, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, took Lucio Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant, into sanctuary. What unites the First Church of Amherst today with Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian’s four-decade tradition is their source of inspiration and guidance: the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament. Believers take scripture as truth, and when truth collides with secular law, the faithful have a difficult decision to make: denounce either their state or their scripture. Sanctuary is one of many examples where this occurs.

To be sure, Christian denominations aren’t the only religious groups to declare sanctuary and seek guidance in scripture. The Qur’an and Torah serve at the main source of scripture on sanctuary for Muslim and Jewish communities respectively.

In the era of the New Sanctuary Movement (officially launched in 2007), Mosques throughout the U.S. denounced the actions of the Obama and Trump administrations against immigrants, a rebuke that had been shaped in the immediately post 9/11 context. Joining the immigrant rights struggle, they put forward the following passage as the religious backing for declaring sanctuary:

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful: And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with [definite] preference” – Qur’an 17:70

This verse calls for the honorable and humane treatment of “the children of Adam,” or of all people. One might draw similarities between this verse and Matthew 25:37; both call for the fair treatment of stranger, but the former introduces the idea of family as a powerful tool for the justification of sanctuary. Not only does the verse introduce family values, but it also calls followers of the Qur’an to put others ahead of their own need. The Matthew passage does not go as far. Another passage used by mosques to justify sanctuary solidifies this.

“They love those who migrate to them…and give preference to them over themselves, even though they are also in need”  Qur’an 59:9

The Qur’anic verses provide clear guidance for the protection and compassionate treatment of immigrants, further adding family and preference to others as religious and moral grounds for sanctuary. The actions of recent administrations against immigrants run contrary to these values, so much so that it forces the followers of said scriptures to declare sanctuary.

Synagogues use the Torah as their scripture and then interpret the transient and vague properties of Talmud, the oral commentary of the Torah, to justify sanctuary. Biblical scholar Christiana Van Houten argues that the Hebrew word, gēr, closely translates to “immigrant” or “stranger.” This is pertinent to the Sanctuary Movement because the Talmud discusses the gērîm (plural of gēr) in depth. Van Houten cites three Hebrew word roots for gēr: to sojourn, to stir up strife, and to be afraid. She pulls these three roots for ger into a single definition: immigrant. She deduces that an immigrant is afraid of the country they sojourn to and the people of the country they’re in are likewise fear them. If this definition is accepted, the Torah then has three passages that guide synagogues to sanctuary. Exodus establishes rights for gērîm and mandates that hospitality be extended to gērîm who come live among the Israelites. Also in Exodus, the idea of an “outsider achieving insider status” through cultural and or political assimilation is established. And in Deuteronomy, caring for gērîm becomes a societal priority. The passages in Deuteronomy call for making gers economically self-sufficient. One such passage is as follows:

“Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.  Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise, they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14

Combined, these three passages establish the holy and sacred precedence of providing hospitality and self-sufficiency for gērîm, or immigrants. The Torah quite clearly points to helping immigrants receive radical hospitality in the Sanctuary Movement.

Despite the differences in scripture depicted here, actors from all three religions came to the same decision and took the risk to declare sanctuary. The real risk arrives when they look the other way. Churches, mosques, and synagogues instead looked to their sacred scriptures and arrived at sanctuary as a legitimate answer to the current immigration crisis. This is a testament to the sacred universality of sanctuary; regardless of religious differences, the stranger will always find an olive branch.