Shepherds and Sheep

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Spencer Means, Wikimedia Commons

The murders in Charleston this week are part of an epidemic. The members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church join, unfortunately, a growing list of victims of hate. Not only hate, but that subspecies of hatred that calls the unstable to attack in a church, or synagogue, or mosque, as if to defy the very gods with their misanthropy. Growing up we used to be taught that any place of worship is sacred. Then we believed it was because God had made it so, but now it is clear that sacred space is made so by the intent of those who worship. We find places where we believe we’re safe from the trials of the everyday world. A place where God will look over us. A place, dare we call it, of sanctuary. Sanctuary is a concept that has gone extinct. As children we all knew of the concept of “home” in chasing games—the place where you were free and need not worry about someone coming after you. Amnesty was granted at the cry of “olly olly oxen free.”

In the biblical world, we’re told, those in danger could flee to the temple and grasp the horns of the altar and be safe. It wasn’t that someone couldn’t be pulled off, but it was that an inherent respect attended sacred places. No place is sacred any more. Hatred has a way of overriding what we all recognize as civilization. Well-armed youth and a culture of hatred have never led to peace. Xenophobia may be natural, but it can be disarmed through education. Unfortunately, in this country at least, education is not valued. In fact, in the culture wars, those who have the most sympathy for those who commit hate crimes will be among the first to cut education spending. It’s a luxury we can’t live without. We need to teach the meaning of sanctuary again. We need to teach the meaning of love.

Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on sanctuary to be safe. No matter what our racial heritage or gender or orientation, we are all simply people trying to make our way in the world. As a child I knew “olly olly oxen free” meant that nobody would try to tag me if I came out from hiding. I was also taught that the word “hate” was as bad as any swear and that it should not be said. While my mother was teaching me the virtue of love, we were sending young men to kill foreigners in Vietnam. I grew up with no doubts as to which was the superior way. One way leads to life and peace, the other to constant fear and death. The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have told Dylann Roof that they have forgiven him. They are offering sanctuary to one who has done nothing to earn or claim it. They, like children, lead us.


Sanctuaries are often difficult to get to, but are often even more difficult to leave. Various religions make use of the concept—a sanctuary is a safe place, somewhere away from the normal world. Perhaps this is one of the reasons humans devised religion to begin with; the world feels heartless and threatening much of the time, and a place where the unseen parent will keep us safe is a desideratum anxiously quested. The problem with sanctuaries is that too much safety inhibits growth. As history repeatedly demonstrates, sequestered religions grow stagnant and antiquated—frequently hindering more than helping.

The concept of a sanctuary is of a piece with the amorphous idea of sacred space. The idea that some places are different, special, or spiritually vibrant is one that admits of no testing or verification. Nevertheless pilgrims will seek out such places in order to recover a sense of balance or peace. Even scientists know the feeling, although it is frequently consigned to the psychologist’s couch. Finding that spot that gives momentary tranquility is big business, as any travel agent knows. While we may invest our sanctuaries with divine trappings, the practice is, at its roots, very human.

The world was not created for us. Congealing from a rapidly spinning mass of superheated rock and dust, it took a few billion years before life might even manage to float atop the cosmic embers. As part of this fascinating development called life, we have learned its hard lessons. Nature is beautiful and dangerous. We are its masters and its slaves. Some of us take great pains to escape to it and when it is time to leave we are ripped from it like a crying babe from its mother’s arms. Sanctuary is a human concept with divine implications.

A sanctuary