Modern America, ancient Israel, and ageless Christendom—all have embraced safe cities, cities that provide safe haven for people in trouble. It is fascinating and instructive to consider the similarities and the differences between these cities.
The safe cities of America
Safe cities, known as “sanctuary cities”, have been operating in the United States of America since the 1980s. Today, there are well over 500 such cities and jurisdictions throughout the nation. Their purpose is to provide sanctuary to people who have entered America illegally.
Most of these sanctuary cities are governed by Democrats and most of the illegal immigrants are from Mexico and Central America.
Sanctuary cities flout federal immigration laws either by passively ignoring them or by actively defying them. Either way, they prevent federal law-enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforce-ment (ICE) from apprehending and deporting people who are in the US illegally.
One particularly egregious way that sanctuary cities defy ICE is by dishonouring detainer notices. Detainers are official requests from ICE to other law enforcement agencies to detain illegal immigrants who have been arrested on criminal charges so that ICE can take custody of them. Police, prison and court authorities in sanctuary cities flagrantly disregard such requests from ICE and instead release offenders back into the community.
Testifying in October 2019 before a Senate committee hearing regarding “Sanctuary Jurisdictions: The Impact on Public Safety and Victims”, the Acting Executive Associate Director of ICE, Timothy S. Robbins, complained about the disregarding of ICE detainers by sanctuary city officials:
Unfortunately, in recent years ICE has seen a trend in non-cooperation where some jurisdictions have ceased to cooperate with ICE’s public safety efforts. Some of these jurisdictions have adopted local policies or ordinances prohibiting cooperation, and in the case of states like California and Colorado, have even passed legislation at the state level. Some of these policies restrict or prohibit cooperation with ICE and instruct law enforcement not to actively assist ICE officers, while in more extreme cases, jurisdictions may wilfully decline to honour ICE detainers and refuse to provide basic notification to ICE that they plan to release an alien who has been arrested for criminal activity from their custody. The end result of this failure to cooperate is the release of criminal aliens into the community where they may potentially reoffend.1
Robbins emphasised that the flouting of ICE detainers put law-abiding citizens of sanctuary cities in jeopardy:
A number of aliens who have been released under these circumstances [ie, released despite detainer requests by ICE] have gone on to commit additional crimes, including violent felonies, which could have been prevented if ICE had been able to assume custody of these aliens and remove them from the country in accordance with federal immigration laws. In Boulder County, Colorado, ICE officers recently found and arrested a 56-year-old illegal alien who had been released from local custody twice after ICE detainers were ignored. The alien was arrested on local charges in March 2017 and released, was subsequently arrested for felony sexual assault on a child in November 2017 and again released, was convicted of sexual assault in July 2019, and remained at-large until ICE apprehended him in August 2019. Earlier this year, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, an illegal alien was arrested for a DUI [driving under the influence] and was released after ICE’s detainer was ignored. In June 2019, the same alien was arrested again—this time for assault by strangulation, assault with a deadly weapon, and another DUI. Despite the severity of these charges, Mecklenburg County again ignored ICE’s detainer, released him from custody, and the alien currently remains at-large.2
The harm that sanctuary cities inflict on America was highlighted during the presidency of Donald Trump, who ran for office on a promise to halt the massive influx of illegal immigrants across the Mexican-US border. In his 2020 State of the Union address to Congress and the American people, President Trump declared:
A better tomorrow for all Americans also requires us to keep America safe. That means supporting the men and women of law enforcement at every level, including our nation’s heroic ICE officers.
Last year, our brave ICE officers arrested more than 120,000 criminal aliens charged with nearly 10,000 burglaries, 5,000 sexual assaults, 45,000 violent assaults, and 2,000 murders.
Tragically, there are many cities in America where radical politicians have chosen to provide sanctuary for these criminal illegal aliens.
In sanctuary cities, local officials order police to release dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public, instead of handing them over to ICE to be safely removed.
Just 29 days ago, a criminal alien freed by the sanctuary city of New York was charged with the brutal rape and murder of a 92-year-old woman. The killer had been previously arrested for assault, but under New York’s sanctuary policies, he was set free. If the city had honoured ICE’s detainer request, his victim would still be alive today.
The state of California passed an outrageous law declaring their whole state to be a sanctuary for criminal illegal immigrants … with catastrophic results.
Here is just one tragic example. In December 2018, California police detained an illegal alien with five prior arrests, including convictions for robbery and assault. But as required by California’s Sanctuary Law, local authorities released him.
Days later, the criminal alien went on a gruesome spree of deadly violence. He viciously shot one man going about his daily work. He approached a woman sitting in her car and shot her in the arm and in the chest. He walked into a convenience store and wildly fired his weapon. He hijacked a truck and smashed into vehicles, critically injuring innocent victims. …
Senator Thom Tillis has introduced legislation to allow Americans … to sue sanctuary cities and states when a loved one is hurt or killed as a result of these deadly practices.
I ask Congress to pass the Justice for Victims of Sanctuary Cities Act immediately. The United States of America should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans, not criminal aliens.3
President Trump’s figures (taken from official ICE reports) are staggering: In 2020 alone, approximately 10,000 burglaries, 5,000 sexual assaults, 45,000 violent assaults, and 2,000 murders were committed by people who should not even have been in the country.
Of course, most of the 10 to 25 million illegal immigrants in the US were and are not guilty of such criminal behaviour. And yet … every one of them is a criminal.
All those given protection by the sanctuary cities are deliberate and defiant lawbreakers. Not only did they enter the US in contempt of the nation’s immigration laws, they also remain in the US in contempt of those laws. Their initial act of entering the country illegally is compounded by their continuous act of remaining in the country illegally, and by the ongoing acts of deception needed to cover up their illegal status.
So, concerning immigration, American sanctuary cities break the law of the land to help people who have broken the law of the land to continue to break the law of the land.
Sanctuary cities may be safe cities for illegal immigrants, but they are hardly safe for ordinary citizens.
The safe cities of Israel
Ancient Israel also had safe cities. There were six in all, and they were called “cities of refuge”. Their purpose was to protect a certain kind of fugitive.
Before the government of kings in Israel, a man had a moral duty to avenge the death of his nearest relative. The man on whom this responsibility fell was called “the avenger of blood”, and he was required to hunt down the killer, regardless of whether the killing was deliberate (murder), negligent (manslaughter), or accidental (excusable homicide or manslaying).
While not denying the right of a man to avenge the blood of his nearest relative, the Lord desired that the manslayer should be spared. For while the end result of an accidental killing and of a deliberate killing is the same (and hence in both cases it is proportionate that there should be a life for a life), the motive for each is quite different. And because God judges the heart as well as the act, the motive as well as the outcome, the circumstance as well as the principle, he considers it just to extend mercy to someone who accidentally kills someone else. Hence, he conceived and commissioned the cities of refuge.
These cities were unparalleled in the ancient world and are a breathtaking illustration of the moral beauty of God, the God who made us in his likeness and values us to the extent of sacrificing his Son for us. The Lord God introduced the concept of the cities to Moses in this way:
Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger … [They] shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them … (Numbers 35:9-15)
Upon reaching a city of refuge, a fugitive had hope of reprieve. Certainly, he was safe for the moment from attack by the avenger of blood. But before he was admitted to the city, he had to give an account of what had happened to the city elders so that they could determine whether or not the killing was accidental or deliberate.
He shall flee to one of these cities and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city and explain his case to the elders of that city. Then they shall take him into the city and give him a place, and he shall remain with them. And if the avenger of blood pursues him, they shall not give up the manslayer into his hand, because he struck his neighbour unknowingly, and did not hate him in the past. (Joshua 20:1-5; cf Numbers 35:22-25)
However, only the accidental killer, the manslayer, could gain asylum in a city of refuge. The wilful killer, the murderer, could not:
But if anyone hates his neighbour and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his [home] city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. (Deuteronomy 19:11-12).
For the murderer, justice requires severity—therefore, God commands that he be handed over to the avenger of blood for execution. For the manslayer, justice requires mercy—therefore, God commands that he be admitted to a city of refuge for protection.
As for the cities of refuge, God required them to be evenly spaced throughout the land so that they were within reach of everyone.
you shall set apart three cities … You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land … This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life … lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long … You shall set apart three cities. And if the LORD your God enlarges your territory … then you shall add three other cities to these three … (Deuteronomy 19:2-10).
The officials of these cities endeavoured to make it as easy as possible for the manslayer to get to the city. They made the road to the city level and wide; they built bridges over the streams and rivers; and they put up signposts saying “Refuge” to point the way. They even chose two men, students of the law, to help the manslayer get into the city. These two would run beside him to encourage and support him; and if the avenger of blood caught up to them, they would try to calm him down until the manslayer got safely into the city.4
At a glance, the safe cities of ancient Israel and of contemporary America seem to be sister cities. But on reflection, they have little in common.
They are similar in that they both offer asylum to people in jeopardy. But after that, they are at odds with one another.
Unlike American sanctuary cities, Israelite cities of refuge were established in accordance with the law of the nation, for the Lord himself commanded them to be established.
Unlike sanctuary cities, cities of refuge did not provide protection for wilful law-breakers, for only those who had caused harm by accident could remain in them.
Unlike sanctuary cities, cities of refuge determined a person’s innocence before granting him asylum.
Unlike sanctuary cities, cities of refuge delivered over for punishment any fugitive, whether citizen or alien, found to be guilty of deliberated law breaking.
Unlike American sanctuary cities, Israelite cities of refuge did not favour aliens over citizens, or jeopardise citizens for the sake of aliens, but impartially imposed the same standard on all and extended the same protection to all.
The safe cities of Christendom
Christendom, Christianity, “the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5), has two safe cities. The first is Christ himself.
The cities of refuge are an Old Testament type, or figure, for Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the city of refuge for everyone who wishes to escape the everlasting wrath of God. He is the one to whom sinners can flee to be set free from the power and pollution of sin, and from the punishment that it deserves.
“[W]e who have fled for refuge” to Christ (Hebrews 6:18) can be enriched by looking at him and his work in the light of the cities of refuge. And for the purpose of the analogy, we might view him and speak of him as “the city of Christ” of “the city of redemption”.
The city of Christ is similar to the cities of refuge—and also to the sanctuary cities—in that it offers safe haven to persons in trouble. As with the other two types of city, fugitives from the law and the avenger can find safety in this city. This is a foundational and exhilarating similarity between the cities. But behind this import-ant similarity there are several important differences, and reflecting on these differences can lead us into a clearer and deeper understanding of our salvation.
Both the Israelite cities of refuge and the American sanctuary cities were established for a particular kind of offender—the cities of refuge for manslayers and the sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. But the city of Christ is established for every category of offender. Regardless of the offence, any offender can flee for refuge to Christ.
A further difference between the cities is this: To gain asylum in a city of refuge, an offender had to be innocent of malice and premeditation. The harm that resulted from his actions had to be unforeseen and unintended. He had to be blameless, despite the fact that he was to blame. In a sense, then, the offender had to be worthy to enter the city. He had to deserve safe haven.
The city of Christ, however, does not require a person to be innocent or deserving. Indeed, the unambiguous, undeniable guilt of the offender is the very reason for the city’s existence. This city offers shelter not only to the manslayer but also to the murderer, not only to the pilferer but also to the robber. It offers protection not to the guiltless, but to the guilty.
While this separates the city of Christ from the cities or refuge, it seems to link the city of Christ with the sanctuary cities, for these cities also offer asylum to outright wrongdoers.
But the correspondence is superficial. For the sanctuary cities welcome offenders unconditionally, but the city of Christ does not. An offender can enter a sanctuary city with defiance and with every intention to continue to offend. But any offender who would enter the city of Christ must do so with contrition and with a genuine desire to avoid further offence.
It is not innocence that is required for entrance into the city of Christ, but repentance.
A significant similarity-with-difference between the city of Christ and the cities of refuge concerns accessibility. Just as God put the cities of refuge within reach of everyone in Israel, so he puts the city of Christ within reach of everyone in the world.
Christ is not far off and access to him is not difficult: He is just a prayer away. As the Apostle Paul explains:
the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:6-9).
Entrance into Christ as our safe city is by the simple, sincere confession of repentance and faith. The moment this confession is made, the offender, the fugitive, is transported into the city of Christ and his life, which had been forfeit, is guaranteed.
Having entered the city of Christ, the forgiven offender immediately becomes an heir to the second safe city of the Christian Faith. This city is sometimes called “the city of God”, and at other times “the new Jerusalem” or “the heavenly Jerusalem”, and it will be the ultimate dwelling place of God and his people.
The Apostle John had a vision of this city:
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:2-4)
The book of Hebrews portrays this heavenly city in these terms:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant … (Hebrews 12:22-24)
The safe cities of the Christian Faith—immediately, Jesus Christ himself, and, ultimately, the new Jerusalem—are the only cities that can provide safety now and into eternity. They are the cities we should wholeheartedly desire (and they are the cities against which cities such as the American sanctuary cities should be judged).
Like Abraham and Sarah and all the Old Covenant believers, we should be “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
1. Regarding a Hearing On “Sanctuary Jurisdictions: The Impact on Public Safety and Victims” before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday, October 22, 2019 – www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Testimony/2019/191022robbins.pdf
3. President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, in the chamber of the United States House of Representatives to the 116th United States Congress, 4 February 2020 – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/read-the-full-text-of-trumps-2020-state-of-the-union
4. “Cities of Refuge”, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 208