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Haven on earth: the first "safe space" program can be found in the earliest chapters of the Bible.


WHERE DO YOU GO WHEN YOU NEED A PLACE to hide? When I was a kid growing up in a bustling household of 10, finding some alone time was tough. But I soon discovered a place where I could sneak away for a few blissful hours of undisturbed private time with my best pal Nancy Drew. In fact, the girl sleuth would have appreciated my hiding place, since it was a regular of hers: the attic.

Nobody went up there, for a lot of good reasons. It was packed end-to-end with shabby old furniture and knickknacks no one wanted. It was grimy with decades of dust and cobwebs. It was wicked hot in the summer and deathly cold in winter. The lighting, to be honest, was terrible. But it was all mine, and for a juvenile isolationist like myself, the silence up there was truly golden.

The concept of sanctuary goes back a lot longer than my childhood, as I've come to appreciate. Refuge isn't just something offered by modern heroes like Corrie ten Boom or needed by the likes of Anne Frank.

As far back as the biblical record, it's documented that people sometimes required a place to hide out. If you were a prophet, for example, you were well acquainted with every spider hole from Galilee to the southern Negev. But even normal citizens might find reasons to make themselves scarce. From the time ancient Israelites settled into the promised land, whole cities were dedicated as sanctuaries in the midst of the nation. It was obvious to somebody--Moses, the wise elders, or God ultimately--that at times we all need a place we can run to and be guaranteed safety.

Even the Holy Family had to retreat to Egypt, baby in tow, to escape the wrath of a power-mad king. And the adult Jesus would find it necessary more than once to high-tail it out of Jewish territories into Gentile lands (Tyre, Sidon, Gerasa, the

Decapolis) when the heat was on. The desert wilderness would at times seem more hospitable than towns and cities full of righteous folk irate at the suggestion that God might expect more from them than they were already giving. Being the Son of God, apparently, didn't exempt you from the need for refuge from hostile crowds time and again.

SO WHERE DOES THE IDEA OF SANCTUARY BEGIN IN THE BIBLICAL story? After paradise is declared off limits and the garden gate of Eden is officially shut, life in a hostile world is a given. The human environment quickly became a place where murder was thinkable, flood and famine possible, and even war doable.

Cain got a divine mark that made his body a form of roving sanctuary: No one could kill him, even though he himself had proven capable of violence. Noah's ark was another buoyant form of divine sanctuary, and much later in the story Moses is instructed to create a sanctuary for God's glory in the carefully measured and tailored Tent of Meeting. It's a place too holy for the average person to enter, and any unauthorized folk who so much as touched its utensils were endangered. One could say this kind of sanctuary was a safe place for God and a few well-chosen friends--but no one else.

Sanctuary takes on a very special meaning once the people of Israel settle into the promised land: It becomes precisely identified as a place of refuge for the unlucky perpetrators of accidental homicide. Say your ox gores your neighbor, or your shed falls down on the hired man. Under the ancient laws in force, the family of the deceased could and would come after you looking for blood. Remember the saying, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." These so-called honor killings were routinely enacted and entirely expected.

Eye-for-eye justice worked very well for nomadic people much of the time. In a society without police or standing armies or courts, there had to be a dear understanding between tribes what the consequences were for breaking the social contract concerning persons and property. Retributive justice would require each wanderer to be a little more careful about where he set his traps, how securely he set up the tent or dug the well. Knowing what would result if you were sloppy was incentive to take a bit more responsibility--and to keep your hands off another fellow's wife and goods as well, needless to say.

Most of the time tribes lived in proximity only for a season, and then moved apart again when rains were scarce or flocks fertile. Sanctuary didn't hold much meaning when distance itself created the buffers necessary to secure the safety of the group. But when the tribes of Israel hunkered down on the land east and west of the Jordan, the spacious, gracious pastoral lifestyle gave way to urban realities. Now citizens were stationary, jammed into towns and cities, stall to stall and house to house. Rubbing elbows was the new normal. And accidents do happen when living situations are congested.

It was grimly acceptable to cause a fellow's death in the next tribe over and suffer a loss in kind when his family would be gone in a season, providing a stopgap to the animosity. It's hard to live together in tight constraints, however, with conflicts that could go on indefinitely--for generations, as we see in the Middle East today. Your ox stabs the neighbor's boy, his father comes after your son, your nephew goes after his daughter, and the nightmare of honor killings has no end in sight.

The answer arrived in the establishment of cities of refuge (for example in the books of Joshua, Deuteronomy, and Numbers). Now when social relations threatened to go south because of an accident, there was a place for the unhappy perpetrator to run while impartial judges could be gathered and cooler heads might prevail.

What's remarkable about these sanctuary cities is that they functioned for Israelites and resident aliens alike, even for strangers just passing through. Kedesh, Shechem, Hebron, Bezer, Ramoth-Gilead, and Golan were designated for refuge: one city for every two of twelve tribes. In the pre-temple era, these cities roughly correspond to up-and-running shrines where judges or prophets already presided.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SANCTUARY CITIES? ONCE KINGSHIP is introduced and David consolidates all temporal and celestial authority in his new capital, Jerusalem, it's harder to sustain the significance of the ancient shrine cities. When the kingdom splits in two, no place seems secure for the children of Jacob. There really is safety in numbers, and the destruction of both kingdoms is inevitable.

Yet the idea of a divinely appointed safe house is not lost with the original cities of refuge. As recently as the 1980s, Christian churches revived the ancient understanding of sanctuary as more than merely "the holy of holies" beyond the communion rail.

The movement within churches to protect Central American refugees in that decade was galvanizing. Recently Catholics leaders have spoken out again declaring the intent to create zones of shelter and protection within parishes for undocumented people threatened by our government's broken immigration laws.

When the blind application of legal principles makes the hope of genuine justice seem impossible to grasp, the people of God always manage to find a way to protect those vulnerable to retributive punishment. For all of us who may need a place to hide someday, this is good news.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to the Old Testament and other titles available at
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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