Laws are not always just. Power is not always wise – Jesse James DeConto

Jesse James DeConto
Jesse James DeConto


What a chameleon of a word.

It’s essential meaning is simple: a holy place. But even those words themselves are manifold in their meanings, so that even “a holy place” lends itself to versatile service.

It’s such a shape-shifter, in fact, that President Trump and nearly a dozen Republican attorneys general across the nation have given “sanctuary” quite an unholy stain. In a speech this summer, Trump said sanctuary cities harbor violent Latino gangs like MS-13 who will “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die.” The AGs are fighting the courts, who have said the federal government can’t punish municipalities who refuse to help enforce immigration laws.

If you grew up anywhere near a church youth group in the 1980s or ’90s, you probably sang the praise chorus, “Sanctuary.” In that song, we were the sanctuaries for God. It echoed St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians: “Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” This song was an effective weapon in the war against teenage sex, or at the very least reminded us how impure and unholy we were.

As much as we were sanctuaries for the spirit (in theory), our spirituality also offered sanctuary for us. The churches where I grew up took seriously the notion of holiness as being set apart. In an everyday, practical sense, that meant making different choices than our secular peers about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. At its theological apex, it meant that on Judgment Day, God would separate the “sheep and the goats,” the holy and the damned.

I believe this separatism, this us-and-them outlook on life, lies at the heart of the rejuvenated Culture War of the past couple of years. It’s easy to name the hypocrisy and inconsistency of religious support for a presidential campaign and administration defined by selfishness, greed, arrogance, sexism, racism, isolationism and environmental recklessness. “Welcoming the stranger” is one of the oldest moral teachings of the Jews and Christians, and yet white evangelicals have supported a campaign centered on rejecting the stranger.

Having grown up in the Religious Right and been trained as a culture warrior, I can see the coherence of this apparent incoherence.

You have to go back to that concept of sanctuary as “holiness.” It’s not a safe space where we can find spiritual respite and refuel to fight against the injustices of a broken world. Rather, it’s an escape, a retreat into the special, proprietary sort of relationship that some religious people think they have with the Creator.

If you believe in heaven as an ultimate kind of sanctuary, where the holy will find eternal protection from all things unholy, then you’re unburdened from the task of making this world a sanctuary, safe and peaceable for all people. You might think that the Religious Right is aiming for some kind of theocracy, where Mike Pence and his ilk will legislate sin (fun?), licentiousness (freedom?) and moral ambiguity (reality?) out of our public life.

But I don’t think any of them actually believes that’s possible. Rather, I think it’s all part of turning themselves into “sanctuaries” for their conceptions of God. The outcome is not important. It doesn’t matter whether their policies make a more holy society. What matters is that they have used what power they have – their votes, whether in the ballot box or on the floor of Congress – to show themselves to be set apart. One day, they will escape to the afterlife. In the meantime, they can escape, over and over again, from the impossible and yet critical task of working together with the rest of us to restrain the violence of a violent world. And they can keep more of their hard-earned money while they’re at it.

Accidentally pregnant? Don’t tell me about your dreams for your life. I need to demonstrate my holiness by restricting your access to abortion. Hungry? Leave it up to us, the holy ones; the government is just a fallen power of a fallen world. Maybe we’ll feed you, if you become holy like us. Desperately poor and foreign-born? I’m sorry, but we’re holy people of law and order. Go home.

On a daily basis, I’m tempted to give up completely on my childhood faith. But I’m also daily reminded of a different kind of sanctuary, the kind that faces up against the violent powers of this world and says, “No.” All across the U.S., North Carolina and here in Durham, religious communities are playing leading roles in the sanctuary movement. My friends at CityWell church and The School for Conversion are each sheltering undocumented immigrants from deportation in their buildings in Lakewood and Walltown.

This conception of sanctuary goes back millennia. The ancient Greeks and Romans and eventually the medieval Catholic church shielded fugitive criminals from arrest within the walls of sacred buildings. Laws are not always just. Power is not always accompanied by wisdom. Sometimes we have to talk things through, rather than blindly enforcing the rules.

The world doesn’t need sanctuaries that help some of us escape the dirty work of solving our complex problems. But we sure as hell need sanctuaries erected right in the middle of the mess as colonies of resistance.

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham. Contact him at jesse@jessejamesdeconto.com.