Sunday, March 23, 2014

Refuge for the Unintentional Manslayer (Joshua 20:1-3)

Joshua 20:1-3

King James Version (KJV)
1The Lord also spake unto Joshua, saying,
Speak to the children of Israel, saying, Appoint out for you cities of refuge, whereof I spake unto you by the hand of Moses:
That the slayer that killeth any person unawares and unwittingly may flee thither: and they shall be your refuge from the avenger of blood.

Cities of refuge were intended to provide a safe haven for those who unintentionally killed another. The need of a safe haven for those endangered by avengers seeking their life is a relevant principle for all nations. 

The concept of refuge/sanctuary has a rich history in Christian societies, and dates back to the days of the early church: 
The practice of allowing Christian churches to extend rights of protection to criminals and fugitives within their precincts is said to date from the time of Constantine's Edict of Toleration, 313 A. D. Undoubtedly the introduction of Christianity as the state religion, which soon followed, wrought a great change in regard to the right of asylum. The protection afforded by the Christian churches was greater than that given by imperial law to temples and statues. The custom of resorting to churches soon became well established in cases of wrongdoing, for when, in 392 A. D., Theodosius the Great made a law concerning church asylum, it was to explain and regulate the privilege. 
Fifty years later another Theodosius, the Younger, made a new law by which the then existing privilege was extended from the altar and nave of the church to the buildings, courts, and parts adjacent, contained within the walls. An enactment of a temporary nature excepted the Isaurian robbers from the privilege. The constitutions of Theodosius the Younger were confirmed by Pope Leo I., with the added provision that the steward and advocate of the church should act as inquisitors and examine all persons seeking asylum and then take action on the evidence produced.
The early Christian Church was strongly opposed to the shedding of blood and ready to do all in its power to prevent violence which might result in bloodshed. Thus the clergy speedily became the great  intermediaries between criminals and those who desired vengeance, and acted as ambassadors of mercy before the throne of justice. Fugitives who had taken refuge in Christian churches were interceded for, slaves fleeing from cruel masters were protected, unfortunate debtors in danger of imprisonment were allowed temporary shelter until a compromise could be reached. All this, no doubt, besides tempering the administration of public and private law, increased the reverence for human life in the popular mind and associated the Church and religion with ideas of sanctity and mercy.[1] 

The concept of refuge/sanctuary is a crucial aspect of a humane society; societies that highly value it naturally highly value human life. 

How can the concept of sanctuary apply today? While we don't think church buildings are currently practical, here are some ideas for those whose lives are endangered by vigilantes seeking to take it:
  • The state can provide physical protection in a safe location with bodyguards. 
  • Something like the witness protection program, where one would be able to get a new start in a new location with a new identity. 
  • Relocation to a country where one is unknown and can live without fear of attempts on his life.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect much from our current society in matters of biblical sanctuary. Ours is a society that highly devalues life—with the most obvious example being abortion. If our society is unwilling to protect the unborn—its most helpless members—then no one is safe. Only by a return to Christianity can we expect to return to a reverence for human life that is conducive to biblical sanctuary.


[1] Norman Maclaren Trenholme, The University of Missouri Studies: Volume I: Number 5: The Right of Sanctuary in England: A Study in Institutional History, ed., Frank Thilly (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri, 1903), 7, 8.