Jim Corbett, Sanctuary Prophet of Post-Desert Quakerism

Chuck Fager

Friend Jim Corbett, of Pima Meeting in Tucson, died on his Arizona ranch August 2, 2001 after a short illness. He was 67. With his passing a quiet giant of Quaker resistance departed.

    He was a founder of the 1980s Sanctuary movement, which helped save many Latin American refugees from the bloody, U.S.-supported wars and massacres, especially in Central America. I for one am grateful to have lived in the same two centuries as he. For those who become familiar with the important strands of Quaker thought and action of our time, I believe Jim’s life and work will loom even larger with time. Indeed, in our current distress, his example is overdue careful scrutiny, as events similar to those in which the 1980s Sanctuary movement emerged seem to be surrounding us, calling for updates and renewal.

    Not that we’ll see a lot of monuments to Jim Corbett; he deserves them, but that wasn’t his way, and Quakers aren’t much into it

    But a tribute is due, and here’s mine. It’s an adaptation of a profile of Jim from my book, Without Apology.

Quaker Liberal “Prophecy”

    In a treatise entitled Goatwalking, you might not expect liberal Quaker “prophecy” to be a prominent theme. But in the case of Jim Corbett’s stunning, original book, you would be mostly mistaken.

    I say mostly because it’s hard to characterize Goatwalking or its author. If I call him a prophet, it is not because he penned jeremiads. Corbett was a gentle man, retiring, soft-spoken, grizzled by desert sun and wind. He worked as a rancher, cowboy, horse trader, librarian, shepherd and wilderness guide. He also breezed brilliantly through college in three years and finished a master’s in philosophy at Harvard while spending most of his time partying. He cited the classics of Western and Eastern thought with the same familiarity and confidence that he explained how a human can become part of the society of goats.

    In the course of his “errantry” (one of his favorite terms, which means a quest for personal and spiritual adventure, best exemplified by Don Quixote), there were ups and downs: Corbett once considered suicide, he says, after a series of personal setbacks in the early 1960s. But instead, after an unexpected mystical experience, he chose to live, and then “turned Quaker” as the best expression of his renewed view of life. He eventually settled south of Tucson, Arizona with his wife Pat, and attended Pima Meeting.

    Corbett was by no means a conventional social activist. But one night in the early 1980s, he volunteered to help find legal assistance for a Salvadoran refugee arrested by the Border Patrol. But before he could file the required forms, the Salvadoran was abruptly deported, sent back to a country sunk in civil war and blighted by ethnic cleansing massacres that had killed tens of thousands, and sent tens of thousands more fleeing as refugees. The Reagan administration shrugged off their plight and deported many – including the one Corbett had agreed to help – in defiance of the U.S. government’s own laws.

    Corbett was shocked when he found what had happened, then galvanized. From this spontaneous effort to respond to the refugees’ plight sprang what became the Sanctuary movement.

    The movement was not unlike the later Occupy Wall Street upsurge, only more low-profile, based in religious communities. Decentralized and officially leaderless (Corbett was the inspiration and catalyst, but he never held any formal position in the movement, and worked to keep it a decentralized network), Sanctuary eventually involved hundreds of churches and synagogue across the U.S., and helped thousands of refugees who fled massacres and wars in Central America – wars that were mostly supported by U.S. government policy. As part of this policy, officials denied there were any human rights violations in the war-torn countries, and the refugees were routinely mischaracterized as “economic migrants.” Thousands were deported back into settings where more war and death were waiting for them. (If this scenario sounds familiar in 2018, it is.)

    The saga of the 1980s Sanctuary movement is something of an underground epic, a counter-narrative to the triumphalist “Morning in America” posturing of the Reagan-George H.W. Bush years. And predictably for the times, as the movement developed, it first put Corbett’s weatherbeaten visage on national TV, and then got his name on the FBI’s wiretap list.

    Federal prosecutors worked long and hard to put him behind bars, in one of the more significant political trials of the 1980s. In his case, the effort misfired, it turned out, because a telephone wiretap recorder had run out of tape just at a point where Corbett was on the line making self-incriminating plans to rescue more refugee families.

    Besides the accounts in Goatwalking, Corbett’s unique career of “errantry” had the makings of a fascinating, offbeat suspense thriller (which I’d like to write someday). But it was a particular discovery made in the course of his Sanctuary work that I want to feature here: along with making friends and jousting with the feds, he unexpectedly found the Church, and with it what he called “the prophetic faith.”

    Before these encounters, however, Corbett spent years marked by the practice of Goatwalking’s title: wandering arid borderlands with a herd of goats. On these excursions, he and the herd became a part of the natural landscape, moving outside the standard, schedule-obsessed, nature-dominating way of life most of us lead most of the time.

    The practice of goatwalking is quiet enough, yet is not for the faint of heart: once he was asked to bring along some teenaged students from John Woolman School in California for a week’s trek, but they only lasted a few days. There was, they complained, “nothing to do.”

    This was precisely the point, of course; but they couldn’t bear it. How many of us could?

    Yet Corbett notes that the reflective, often mystical experiences evoked by goatwalking, though formally “useless,” are hardly unproductive, especially in one important field:

    “Leisure, solitude, dependence on uncontrolled natural rhythms, alert concentration on present events, long nights devoted to quiet watching – little wonder that so many religions originated among herders and so many religious metaphors are pastoral….As a way to cultivate a dimension of life that is lost to industrial man [and woman], goatwalking may put us in touch with a mystery more real than we are.”

    (The religions which originated in wilderness experiences include not only Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but also a little-known sect which germinated in the wanderings of a youth who in 1643 “left my relations, and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with young or old…[and for more than three years] fasted much, walked abroad in solitary places many days….” If England lacks deserts, it still had its share of wilderness, both outward and inward, in which George Fox wandered alone for several years.)

Sanctuary Movement for Salvadora and Guatemalan Refugees

    It was Corbett’s intimate familiarity with the Arizona- Mexico border country that made him invaluable in the early days of what was to become the Sanctuary movement. Indeed, it made him the movement’s founder, as much as anyone. And it was the religious encounters he had then, while working to help Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees crossing the Arizona border to escape from the bloody wars raging there which brought about another major personal turnaround for him.

    Fleeing imprisonment, torture and death in their home-lands, the refugees all too often faced imprisonment, torture and death in the Mexican underworld, or prisons there and in the U.S. – not to mention the prospect of deportation back into the hands of bloodthirsty military governments from which they had fled.

    As the refugees kept coming, Corbett kept working with them. Soon he traveled anonymously through Mexico and into Guatemala, tracking hunted exiles. More than once he narrowly escaped capture by hostile authorities. In these journeys he came to know not only the victims, but also people from many different churches who were dedicated to aiding them.

    Once he joined a priest in a visit to refugees in a filthy Mexican prison. The priest introduced Corbett as “Padre Jaime,” and explained that the gringo’s non-clerical language and gestures were characteristic of his peculiar order, La Sociedad de los Amigos. Later the priest even introduced him to an archbishop as un quakero muy catolico –a description which the early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay would likely have approved.

    It was among such people of faith within outwardly quite different sects that Corbett began to sense the presence of some-thing beyond the visible denominational structures – what he called “the church.” And not just any church, but the “catholic” (or universal) church:

    “During recent weeks,” he wrote in a letter to friends in mid-1981, “I’ve been discovering this catholic church that is a people rather than creed or rite, a living church of many cultures that must be met to be known.

    “I’ve been discovering the Catholic Church, not by studying Catholicism but by meeting Catholics. Whatever our creedal differences, we meet as one people by virtue of our allegiance to one kingdom. And my discovery is that the church is truly catholic, a people of peoples that incorporates not only a multiplicity of nations and cultures but also divergent beliefs, rites and perspectives….”

    Still, one outcome of this discovery, he noted, was that

 “After having been Quaker for almost two decades, I decided to seek formal membership in my meeting, in order to join the church….Until I began discovering the church, I had no intention of becoming a member, because I thought of denominational membership as separative rather than unitive…. [But] Just as there’s no generic form of marriage that transcends and precludes marriage to someone in particular, there’s no generic form of membership in the church I’d come to know.”

    His experience of the Church both resembled and differed from that laid out in Robert Barclay’s classic Quaker theological treatise, The Apology. It is similar in its indifference to institutional boundaries, and the shift from capital to small “C”. For Barclay, the church

“is nothing other than the society, gathering, or company of those whom God has called out of the world and the worldly spirit, to walk in his light and life ….There may be members of this catholic church ot only among all the several sorts of Christians, but also among pagans, Turks [i.e., Muslims], and Jews.”

    Corbett differed from Barclay on one major point, in that for him the church is not primarily a collection of individuals, but rather “a people of peoples.” It is an organic network of persons working from within traditional structures that are meaningful to them, with people in other faith groups, for common purposes, or in a common pilgrimage in response to a common call. Perhaps a useful metaphor for this might be a patch of wildflowers, variegated in color, size and form, yet all leaning under the breath of the same invisible wind.

    Corbett doubted that this notion of church can be adequately expressed intellectually: “This is the kind of meaning one discovers only in meeting those who share it, much the way a language lives among a people rather than in a dictionary’s afterthoughts.”  

    Many another eminent Friend would have understood what he was driving at, I think. And as to what or who it is that animates and moves them, what lies behind the word “God,” Corbett paraphrased Job (38:2), “This is where words darken counsel and all names are blasphemy.”

    Yet if words are hazardous, we are not without images. The model for this process also comes from the Bible, in the molding of the heterogenous Hebrew tribes into the people Israel at Sinai by their response to the divine calling mediated by Moses. This models the committed community, cutting across lines of culture, denomination and philosophy, which constitutes “the church,” Corbett concluded.

    Furthermore, his explorations in the Bible, particularly in the prophets and the Book of Job, began to make plain to him that the experience and community of the Church, as reflected there, was one which could “bridge differences of creed, rite and culture. It even transcends the division between believers and unbelievers.”

    Unbelievers, he added, like himself.

A Quaker “Unbeliever”

    Jim Corbett, this quakero muy catolico, an “unbeliever”?

    Yes. Shortly after his 1985 indictment on federal charges of conspiracy and “alien-smuggling,” Corbett was feted at an interdenominational religious program featuring Holocaust historian Eli Weisel. When Corbett’s turn came to speak, he startled the admiring crowd by describing himself as an “unbeliever.”

    “That is,” he explained, “I don’t believe selfhood survives death, and I consider any conceivable God to be an idol.”

    And yet, his “unbelief” was not conventional agnosticism or atheism, he explained. “As I read the Bible, this kind of unbelief is entirely consistent with the faith of Abraham and Moses and achieves classic expression in Job.” Corbett pointed out that the biblical faith, as embodied in the first three commandments brought down from Sinai by Moses, put opposition to idolatry at the top of the list; and in the Book of Job, the smooth conventional theologizing of Job’s friends is relentlessly debunked, showing that idols, false gods, include not only statues or golden calves, but concepts of God, dogmas and theologies as well.

    Corbett illustrated this conviction of biblical anti-theologizing by citing the prophet Isaiah, through whom God declares,

    “I am the Lord, and there is no other…. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7)

    This is in stark contrast to many other passages, and to orthodox theology, where God is spoken of as all-Good.

    Such biblical demythologizing of the Bible itself, Corbett said, reaches its zenith in the Book of Job, where the notion that God must be only the source of good is completely undermined. In a modern parallel, Corbett noted a report that some rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for injustice and pronounced a guilty verdict.

    What are we left with then? Not with atheism, Corbett said, but without much formal theism either; this is, instead, the basis of biblical “unbelief,” namely that

“…the biblical faith has always required honest God-wrestling….Consider: Abraham, the ‘father of believers,’ was the ancient world’s trail-breaking unbeliever and iconoclast, rejecting all of humanity’s purported Gods….The prophetic faith has never ceased to need its idol-breakers who question all authority. Over many centuries, it has also developed a profoundly seasoned piety that can be amused by the Yiddish punchline: ‘If You forgive us, we’ll forgive You.’” (Goatwalking, p. 6)

    This was a process Corbett understood; it was much of the basis of his own self-identification as an “unbeliever.” And it had a lot to do with his attraction to the Society of Friends. He was drawn by Quaker attempts at radical simplification of the business of religion, the stripping away of outward paraphernalia on which new forms of idolatry can hang as on hooks; and our emphasis on letting lives preach through faithful response to leadings, rather than being bound by dogma or ritual. He cited with Quakerly approval Psalm 62:1: “My soul waits in silence for God only,” and the rabbinical comment that Silence is “the worship least likely to make an idol…silence is the height of all praises of God.”

    But Corbett was also critical, quietly but firmly, of the illusion shared by many liberal Quakers that they (we?) are now somewhere “beyond” any need of serious engagement with the biblical texts and traditions. To grasp why, we shall let him speak at some length:

“To understand the idiom and mythology at our origins– that is, to understand the symbolic forms used by earlier Quakers– we need to know the Bible. For similar reasons, ethnic groups commonly study, teach, and revive their traditions in order to maintain their identity. The Bible is also our most important source of a shared idiom for ecumenical conversations and for outreach to other branches of the church. But our Biblical taproot involves much more than this, because the prophetic faith is distinctive, as a faith that is centered by the people’s covenanted task rather than individual insight. If, as a community, we lose our historical dimension, we lose the prophetic faith; individuals and communities can practice the faith only as members of a covenant people.

    “Many religions are primarily concerned with the discovery of timeless wisdom, but at the center of the prophetic faith is a covenant that we are to fulfill in history.The Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer put it much the same way; the community dedicates itself to serving the Kingdom, that shalom may prevail on earth as it does in the high heavens, through our lives, and in our days: and through the life of the entire people. . .

    “We Quakers may be among the last and least of the covenant peoples, but nonetheless our adopted mothers and fathers agreed at Sinai to become a holy people [that is, a distinct group with a particular identity and misson] – a people through whom shalom may reign on earth. And in our gathered meetings we, too, stand at Sinai and renew this covenant.

    “Many of us find greater wisdom in the Gita and a higher personal morality in the Dhammapada than in the Bible. The Bible is unambiguoudly patriarchal, and trying to fix it by calling YHVH ‘Mother’ and dressing Him in liturgical drag is a joke. The God of the Bible is also a zealous warrior who commands genocide to safeguard His cult and to create Lebensraum among the Canaanites. As timeless wisdom, many Biblical passages are worse than questionable.

    “But where else should we start, to turn humanity in all our diversity toward the task of becoming a people that hallows the earth? The covenanted task concerns us as we actually are, unreduced, in all our historical specifi-city. “I am the LORD, and there is no other,” Isaiah’s God proclaims. “I make light and create darkness; I fashion shalom and create evil. I, the LORD do all these things”. (Isa.45:6-7) The prophetic faith has no place for the Babylonian dedication to serving good by destroying rather than redeeming what is seen as evil. It also has no place for Hellenistic speculation about evil-free otherworlds to which a spiritual elite might escape. The Bible certainly makes no claim that any people anywhere has completed the covenanted task.

    “The rabbis of the Talmud criticized Noah for just obeying orders instead of arguing with God about the flood, the way Abraham argued for Sodom and Gomorrah. If the first-born of the covenant peoples can insist that the faithful must argue for justice, as Abraham and Job did, even against God himself, it’s certainly no breach of the prophetic faith to argue with the Bible, wherever it promotes what we see as injustice. But Bowdlerizing the Bible to fit our views is another matter. . . .

    “To take the Bible seriously often requires that we argue with it and, with regard to many of its prescriptions, reject its guidance– but also that we learn to listen attentively to what its ancient voices actually say in their own way.

    If we are attentive, the Bible preserves their presence as members of our community. We certainly have no calling to ‘fix’ the Bible for future generations, so that our successors will hear us in the Bible instead of its ancient voices. In using our own morality to winnow down to what we consider to be its timeless wisdom, we winnow out its historical presence. Winnowed Biblical wisdom ceases to be an aspect of torah; ahistorical wisdom detached from our past lacks the sense of direction we need to guide us as a people.

    “Different peoples living through their own unre-peatable histories develop distinct covenants that are then bequeathed to their descendants and that link them, as a people, to the primal Covenant. This is also true locally, among basic communities.

    “For example, a Quaker Meeting agrees on its specific understandings about its faith-and-practice in the form of minutes that are then bequeathed to future business meetings and all new members; these written minutes constitute the point from which any new agreement about the Meeting’s faith-and-practice must start. . . .

    “If I’d known the Bible, I might have explained the practical, communitarian, down-to-earth mysticism I sought and sometimes found among Quakers by quoting the Torah: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of the law.’ (Deuteronomy 29:29)

    “I didn’t know about the prophetic faith because I thought I’d learned all I’d ever need to know about the Bible when I was nine, from a Southern Baptist preacher who tried to save my soul. . . .

    “Deciding I didn’t believe most of the things I was supposed to believe, and concluding the preacher was probably conning me about life after death anyway, I shucked the whole thing. Until I turned Quaker at 28, I was contemptuous of all organized religion –and for almost twenty years afterward. . . .

    “When I did start taking the Bible seriously, it was because I’d begun to study Judaism to fill in the historical dimension that I missed in Meeting.

    “Then, the development of sanctuary led to my discovery of the fully ecumenical church, which in turn led to the integration of the historical and presence-centered dimensions of my faith-and-practice. Almost twenty years after recognizing that I’d turned Quaker, I sought membership in my Meeting.

    “I had to discover the church before membership in a Meeting could mean something other than–in fact the contrary of–a sectarian contraction of my Quaker faith- and-practice. I had to discover the church as a society of peoples before membership in a Meeting ceased to mean joining an organization.

    “Seeing the distinctive role of the sanctuary church, I could also see that membership in Meeting was the way for me to join the religious society constituted by the fully ecumenical church; before that, I’d seen it as a way to distinguish myself as a Quaker from the members of other denominations, which I had no desire to do. I wrote about this personal discovery at the time (and . . . since then, have often quoted myself) as follows:

    “…A place to stand with the dispossessed and serve the peaceable kingdom can only be found in a special kind of community that dedicates itself to such service. During recent weeks I’ve been discovering this catholic church that is a people rather than a creed or rite, a living Church of many cultures that must be met to be known. Out of these meetings, a meaning has opened to me that I’d like to share.

    “…Recently, as I struggled to cope emotionally with having become a peripheral witness to the crucifixion of the Salvadoran people, a suspicion grew that the cross opens a way beyond breakdown–as revelatory depth meaning rather than salvationist egoism. This is the kind of meaning one discovers only in meeting those who share it, much the way a language lives among a people rather than in a dictionary’s afterthoughts. It is also the kind of meaning that binds the generations and diverse cultures into one people and that is accessible to children and the unsophisticated, a meaning that is here among us, historically and communally, rather than being the invention of clever minds . . .” (Reclaiming a Resource, Kimo Press, 1990, pp. 18-20; 30-31)

The Prophetic Faith

    To sum up: Corbett encountered in the Sanctuary movement a new manifestation of authentic religion, what he called “the prophetic faith,” which takes form in communities that respond to the leadings of an unimaginable but real presence which theologians typically call God. These communities, especially as they work together, moving in concert even while maintaining their specific identities, make up the true, “catholic” church, cutting across lines of dogma, denomination and culture.

    The mission of this invisible “church” is, in Corbett’s terms, borrowed from the Bible, the “hallowing of the earth.” To hallow means to make holy; and the holiness we are called on to manifest is capsulized by the prophet Micah (6:8): “He has showed thee, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?”

    In the gospels this task is described in Matthew 25, where we heard Jesus telling of the separation of the sheep from the goats at the last judgment: the division is made not on the basis of belief or denomination, but according to whether a person has, like the heretical Good Samaritan, been “moved with compassion” (Luke 10:33) and fed, clothed, housed and defended “the least of these, my brethren.” (Matt. 25:40)

    For Friend Jim Corbett, and many faith communities in the borderlands of the American Southwest and elsewhere, these texts came vividly alive as they joined in (and soon propagated) the work of providing sanctuary for some of the thousands of refugees fleeing the horror of war in Central America.

    After his trial and his not-guilty verdict, sanctuary work continued, but as media attention faded, Corbett returned contentedly to his home, his goats and other livestock, and his writing. According to one news report, when his last illness, he hurried to finish a new book, which was, according to one friend, “a mixture of cabalistic and Jewish thought and his cow work.”

    I smiled at that. How thoroughly Jim to mix Jewish mysticism with cows. And if anybody could pull it off, he could. And he’d make it good too, I bet. I’m anxious to read it. [Note: Jim’s second book was published in 2005 as, Sanctuary for All Life: the Cowbalah of Jim Corbett.]

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