Tuesday, May 26, 2009

peeping Bobbies: Is is Biblical to peer into a city of refuge?

Interesting clash between church and state in this newspaper article: “A Catholic priest has condemned Christchurch police as “tactless” after they staked out a funeral and allegedly stopped a car-load of mourners at gunpoint in an effort to find the dead man’s fugitive son. Several police were at the funeral of Linwood’s Tala Seleni, who was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide this month. At the time Seleni’s son, Tasi, 29, was on the run from police who wanted him on charges of kidnapping and stabbing. He did not attend the service after he got wind of the police presence. Pauline Seleni, Tasi’s mother and Tala’s separated wife, said police had violated the “sanctuary” of the church and prevented her son from making his farewell to his father.”

Where does the idea of a church being a sanctuary come from?

Firstly, probably the sense of a funeral being significant. Good ritual is about making a space, in which emotions can be channeled and expressed. Police presence is piercing that space, constantly reminding participants of the outside realities. Surely the Police could have gone as plain clothes, made an arrest quietly afterward if the person was present?

Second, the notion of a place – the church – being sacred. In Deuteronomy 19 we find cities of refuge. Israel is to build cities and clear roads, to which people flee when acts of violence are committed. Presumably this is tied to a safe legal process, in which the state mediates between offender and victim’s family, testing for accident and assessing innocence. And so this idea emerges, of specific places of sanctuary, in which people can flee.

I love Walter Bruegemann’s insights on this text, in which he points to this as a way in which church reforms society, acting within existing structures (local government, judicial), in order to enact God’s justice.

Which is lofty in concept and wonderful in vision. But can lose itself in the practicalities of life. And lacks clarity on when, where and how the State should be involved. Curiously, despite the detail of much of the Mosaic Law, there is no mention of this particular case-study, of whether the authorities can stake out these places of sanctuary, hoping to catch a son on the run!

Put it another way. Say a person accidently kills their son and flees to a city of refuge. The body needs to be buried (and quickly, in a Middle Eastern climate). Is the person guaranteed immunity so that they can leave the city of refuge to attend the funeral safely?

Our modern democracies are a long way from the theocracy of ancient Israel. So it is fascinating to see this notion of “sanctuary” still at work in our culture, and a grieving family and comforting Priest accusing the Police of peeping, of abusing “sanctuary.”

Posted by steve at 04:34 PM

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