In the midst of increasingly turbulent politics, we are witness to the return of an old-fashioned and pious concept: sanctuary. By combining the sacred with a hint of radical resistance, the word is becoming ubiquitous at a time when liberal values are under siege. The ways in which it is used tell us much about different perceptions of this threat, and about the nature of ‘rebellion’ and ‘resistance’.
Traditionally, ‘sanctuary’ refers to a sacred place, inviolable by representatives of temporal powers. Pope Leo I gave the notion papal sanction in 460, and in England the Sanctuary Laws that protected anyone accused of a crime were passed in the year 600: from then on all you had to do was head to the nearest church, seize the sanctuary knocker on the door and you were safe – or at least immune to arrest.