No Sanctuary from the Secular State

The statement today by Australian Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, that churches are not above the law, reveals two things.

The first thing it reveals is obvious: The secular state won’t allow religious sensibilities to get in the way of its goals.

In case you missed it today, the High Court of Australia decided that the Government’s desire to return a group of refugees, including 37 infants, back to offshore detention on the island of Nauru is legal.

Hence back to Nauru they will go. A legal decision, but hardly a moral one surely.  Indeed an immoral one definitely.

This has led to a push by a number of churches to invoke the centuries old idea of sanctuary, in which churches and cathedrals are deemed placed safe from the arm of the state.  The idea is that refugees will be housed in churches, and the state will be challenged to cross the threshold if it wants to do anything about it.  That’s guaranteed social media suicide right there for the government.   You can read about the sanctuary idea here.

Peter Dutton pushed back, stating categorically:

 “Churches provide lot of assistance to refugees and they feel very strongly about this issue. In the end, people have to abide by Australia law, regardless of who they are.”

Let’s be frank. The secular state does not recognise sanctuary.  It does not recognise sacred spaces because the secular state does not recognise the sacred.  All must be subsumed under the secular.  Invoking a practice from the Middle Ages during the height of Christendom just won’t cut it.

But the second thing that Dutton’s statement reveals, is that the conservative Christian Right and the progressive Christian Left have both been complicit in allowing the secular state’s over-reach on religious freedom and practice.

How? By each side’s marked silence on matters pertaining to religious freedom with which they disagree that the other side holds to dearly. Such silences have simply emboldened the state’s push to fill every nook and cranny of religious life.

Here is how this has happened. When the secular state threatens over-reach on a so-called conservative matter, the so-called Christian progressives seem strangely silent: One arm of the church goes MIA.  And when the secular state threatens over-reach on a so-called progressive cause, the so-called Christian conservatives seem strangely silent: The other arm of the church goes MIA.

So when it comes to the issues of sexual ethics at the forefront of the culture wars at the moment, the social media platforms of the Christian Left rarely if ever (and I check this stuff) vocally supports continued state sanction of alternative ethical communities (Catholic Adoption Agencies, certain Christian schools for example).  The Christian Left seems happy to let their Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with them on this matter to swing in the secular breeze when it comes to the legal ramifications of laws that threaten religious freedom of expression and practice.

And conversely when it comes to issues of human rights such as the pressing matter of decent living arrangements for asylum seekers and refugees , the big guns on the social media platforms of the Christian Right often fall strangely silent.  Those most opposed to Government overreach on sexual ethic matters, probably won’t register a Facebook protest if the immigration department heavies break down the church doors and drag people out. The Right seems happy to let their Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with them on this matter to swing in the secular breeze when it comes to the legal ramifications of laws that threaten religious freedom and practice.

And all the while the secular state is playing both sides for suckers.  Our silence to speak up for those we disagree with within the church is akin to a decision to dine with the devil with a short spoon on the off-chance he’ll be too distracted by the dining guest seated on his other side to bother us.

Psalm 24, quoted in 1Corinthians 10:26 cuts across our personal Christian fiefdoms, and lay down a direct challenge to the secular state:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.[a]

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob.[b][c]

Lift up your heads, you gates;
    be lifted up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord strong and mighty,
    the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    lift them up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
    The Lord Almighty—
    he is the King of glory.


  1. Thanks Steve.

    While I don’t expect a Secular state to operate on gospel principles, it’s more than disappointing when a legal judgement is not just immoral but I would suggest amoral. What about the United Nations 2015 report finding that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers violates the Convention Against Torture? “The Torture Convention prohibits subjecting people to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The report confirms that by leaving people locked up indefinitely in appalling conditions on a remote island, Australia is failing to meet this basic standard,” said Daniel Webb Human Rights Law Centre Director of Legal Advocacy. . Returning them to this situation is even worse!! How the Government manages to defend its position I’m not sure.

    Australia once had a reputation as a fair, rights-respecting nation but the asylum seeker policies have seriously damaged this. Daniel Webb also said that the report’s findings made it clear that the Australian Government’s actions breach international law.

    As Christians whether on the conservative right or on the progressive left should we not be significantly disturbed by this? (Have just read Leviticus for Left Wingers and Right Wingers post by the way.) Imagine if we all protested together about this issue and all others including those relating to sexual ethics!

    Are we not all called to “Love our neighbours as we love ourselves” Mark 12 v 31

    1. Yes, “amoral” seems to be the right term. I think it’s disturbing that they are returning them – and spending a lot of legal money to ensure they are. What is the Govt possibly gaining by making this decision. I do wonder how the legal argument was presented. it’s obvious that the High Court makes a legal finding not a moral one – and I guess that’s what the court’s role is, but it is taking a sledgehammer to a gnat.

  2. Agree with many of your points here Steve, except I’m not sure that the increased “secular reach” is caused so much by a splintering of the church’s message as by the increase of secularisim in Australia.

    That said, it is the role of the church to speak out loudly for social justice, and I am pleased to see churches invoking ancient rites to make that happen . The church should not have the ‘power’ to stop it, but it should try to influence those who do.

  3. Sorry Stephen, but there’s a few elements of your post that I have issues with (at last, a disagreement!!!).

    First, to describe the decision of the High Court as “amoral/immoral” is to misrepresent the position & work of the Court. We have seen judicial activism elsewhere (Middle-east decisions, SCOTUS decision on SSM, for example) where the law has been ignored/dismissed for political purposes & it is something we DO NOT want to see here. The Court has made a determination about a law – that is, quite rightly, its job. We may not like the law, but if that is the case it is our job as part of a democracy to change it, not the court’s.

    Second, I find the whole children “good”/politicians “bad” approach to be disappointingly simplistic. It reduces the complex, widespread (global even!!) issue of human trafficking to a shallow, emotive, reactionary equation & tries to win the argument by demonizing those we disagree with. It also manifestly fails to take account of what our experience of this issue has already graphically and tragically taught us throughout the world. Whilst it would be wonderful to assuage our own sense of nationalistic guilt over the plight of these children by taking a particular action (ie. not returning them to detention), it is irresponsible and self-indulgent if in doing so we merely increase the danger, despair and death of larger numbers of other children as an immediate consequence. We have already seen that human traffickers have very flexible business plans & can take quick advantage of marketing opportunities that present themselves. I have no doubt whatsoever that should these children not be returned to detention, many more will be exploited by evil people to make a buck. Families with young children will be manipulated into believing that they have a chance of residing in mainland Australia & piled into vessels for that chance (for a large fee of course!) no matter how remote it might be.

    Third, discussing the suggested use of church sanctuary in this particular issue as a matter of religious freedom is very long bow to be drawing indeed. The law/practice of sanctuary that you refer to has not existed in British/Australian society, neither formally nor informally, since the 17th century. The suggestion that it should be invoked now (even though it has no current legal or religious basis) as a reaction to the government’s policy merely presents such an action as expedient political subversion not as a genuine matter of religious conscience, practice or freedom. It also raises more problems than it would solve. Should the idea of sanctuary be reserved for Christian churches only, or should it be available to all religions? If so, should mosques be regarded as religious sanctuaries? And we can then see where this can go! Surely, there are other real, current issues of religious freedom in Australia that should be debated rather than focusing on something that is, at best, a rather frivolous suggestion.

    Fourth, whilst I think your view of the respective silences of “Progressive Left” and “Conservative Right” Christians has some substance, I also think you have conflated some very different positions of silence. I don’t remember any of the so-called “progressives” being threatened with jail for expressing their views or legally protesting, &, by & large, they enjoy widespread media support for their positions. Indeed, our governments themselves are more than happy to harness their opinions & activism when it suits them. Consequently, silence from the “conservatives” is quite understandable & natural. On the other hand, we have laws being enacted around our country to directly prevent Christians from expressing or practicing their faith -laws that are very obviously targeted at “conservative” Christians & their views. We have seen individuals arrested/prosecuted for public preaching, standing in silent protest, articulating Biblical positions, & even disseminating Christian material to their own members! Indeed, the Christian freedom to pray is even regulated in Victoria!! These ARE, without any doubt whatsoever, matters of religious freedom & there are even more extreme examples overseas – ie. UK, Europe & USA – coming to our shore sooner rather than later. But we hear nary a word from the left or liberal end of the Christian spectrum about these restrictions/attacks. Ironically, we have more secular/atheist commentators beginning to express their concern for Christian freedom than “progressive” Christians – even Peter Thatchell has joined in!!!!

    However, one thing we do agree on is your use of Psalm 24 as a challenge to the secular state. The Lord God is the King of Glory and sovereign over all things and ALL are accountable to Him – whether we like it, think so, believe it, or not. And whilst the world continues to create a bigger mess of itself, all things can be & will be made new in Christ.

  4. always stand with human rights , see the U.N. charter see the Canadian welcoming refugees clips so close detentions and making innocents humans sick, or self suicide in detentions , its good sound to raise for human rights / saving human lives

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