A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.

A substantial Holiday Weekend Read:

I always feel uneasy when finding myself in agreement with rightwing Catholic pundit Ross Douthat. But in his August 31 NYTimes column, he nails it, mocking the spectacle of :

”  . . . generals and grand strategists who presided over quagmire, folly and defeat fanning out across the television networks and opinion pages to champion another 20 years in Afghanistan. You have the return of the media’s liberal hawks and centrist Pentagon stenographers, unchastened by their own credulous contributions to the retreat of American power over the past 20 years.

“Our botched [Afghanistan] withdrawal is the punctuation mark on a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.”

But I’m not nodding to Douthat today about Afghanistan. It’s more the “general catastrophe,” or cascading crises, that have been similarly botched and booted by our rulers and most of our reigning “elites.”  And rather than piling on, I’m looking for some help in getting through and making some hopeful sense in the aftermath, if there is to be one. Someone outside the discredited mainstream pundits and bemedaled poseurs.

Which brings me to Jim Corbett.

Jim Corbett, speaking to Quakers, 1986.

Many activists of a certain age (those who can remember the 1980s) may recall Corbett, the weatherbeaten Arizona Quaker who came out of nowhere and quietly set out in 1981 to help refugees from El Salvador get safely across the desert and past the U.S. border. He  thereby catalyzed that decade’s sanctuary movement,  which actually struggled against the awful reign of Reagan and made a difference.

His “evasion services,” as he calls them, were shown on national television, featured in People magazine, profiled in dozens of articles, and outlined in a federal conspiracy indictment (which, ironically, the feds were unable to prove in court.) He was famous for one of those fifteen-minute stints. And his many associates (he declined to have followers) turned hundreds of churches and synagogues into a modern underground railroad that saved many lives.

His is an example that could well offer much insight and creative support for those who face new crises around the borders, and such seemingly disparate issues as plagues and post-Texas abortion.

Also, Corbett’s work with sanctuary makes an exciting and uplifting story. It was the focal point of one 1988 book, Convictions of The Heart, by Miriam Davidson (University of Arizona Press), and a major part of another, Sanctuary, by Ann Crittenden (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). While very different, each book told their story well.

SANCTUARY AS SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

There is another side of this saga, however, that these books touch on only briefly, and which the mass media  missed entirely. That is the story of sanctuary as a spiritual journey for Jim Corbett. This has had its own drama.; but beyond that, it has yielded something very rare among modern liberal Friends, namely a coherent Quaker theology. Liberal Quaker general theological illiteracy does them no credit, and that makes Jim Corbett’s thought even more worth recognizing.

By theology I mean a rethinking of the roots, meaning and form of our faith in the light of present circumstances, a rethinking which leads to a restatement of this faith. Such restatements can be of purely individual, almost private significance, or they can become the pivots around which the direction of a whole faith community can turn. Such pivots, I suggest are much needed by Quakers and others right now.

Robert Barclay’s Apology, though more than 300 years old, is one such theological statement, the first and most influential in Quaker history. While wishing to avoid exaggeration, I believe Jim Corbett’s Quaker theology could deepen the understanding of Quakerism for many Friends and others,  to much valuable practical effect, and others in our hard times. It deserves our careful attention.

Although Quakerism in the last two centuries has produced few theologians, Jim Corbett arrived at this unexpected role rather well equipped, on three scores:

He was, first of all, a brilliant student of philosophy at Colgate and Harvard. Second, he came to Quakerism by genuine “convincement”: after a period of deep, almost suicidal despair in the early 1960s, he had what others would call a conversion, a life–changing experience of transcendent love, which he felt fit best into a Quaker context.

Finally, his life. He did not, after all, come “out of nowhere” to start the sanctuary movement, but from part Indian ancestry, and years wandering the same Sonoran desert thousands of refugees were risking their lives to cross. And after the brief media storm around sanctuary moved on, it was to that desert Jim returned, and where his ashes are now scattered.

It’s not easy to explain the theological significance of this latter factor, but it was of course a key asset for Corbett when he turned to saving the lives of refugees in the vast Sonoran wildlands. That could have been a happy  accident. But more significantly,  deserts have long been spawning grounds of profound religious insight and great movements: Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, all emerged from desert crucibles; as, for that matter, did  Muhammad.

Quaker founder George Fox, in his early years of spiritual travail, wandered over England as if it were a desert; as the Journal puts it, “I fasted much, walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible, and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself … .”

Jim Corbett died in 2001, Fortunately, he had published a book, an offbeat manifesto curiously titled Goatwalking, in 1991. A second book, Sanctuary for All Life, was unfinished at his death, thirty years ago last month; but it was completed and published a few years later.

Both books quickly went out of print, and copies were long hard to find. This year both have now finally been brought back unto print. [Full disclosure: I helped bring Goatwalking back, as a volunteer. More about the new edition here.]

I had suspected that Corbett was not just an activist but a theologian after hearing him at Friends General Conference in 1986. But it was in reading, and particularly Miriam Davidson’s book (she is also a Friend), that it began to become clear just how deeply he had reflected on the religious meaning of his sanctuary work. His own books added much to those openings.

NOT YOUR USUAL QUAKER JARGON

The books, especially Goatwalking, recount how his  awareness came in bits and pieces, as did his own reflections. He wrote in 1984 that ”my meeting with the refugees and my discovery of the church have been simultaneous and intertwined.” He also frequently uses such terms as the Way of the Cross and crucifixion, Covenant, the Bible, the prophetic faith, and serving the Kingdom.

These are unusual terms to be coming from the pen of a western unprogrammed Quaker in the 1980s, particularly one who admits that when he became a Friend he knew more about Buddhism and Taoism than Christianity. It is even more unusual considering that Jim Corbett repeatedly refers to himself as an “unbeliever” who considers life after death a chimera and “any conceivable God to be an idol.” Still, as he explains them, all these items hang together; in fact, he makes them seem entirely consistent with each other, with Quakerism, and with much in the Bible.

To get a glimpse of Corbett’s theology, let’s start with the Bible; as he put it in a 1982 talk, “If you want to understand the awakening now taking place in Latin America . . . the Bible is one of the books you will need to study.”

There are several reasons for this: One is that biblical terminology and images are common currency in the region; then too, there are many parallels between biblical stories (such as the Exodus and the suffering of the prophets) and current hemispheric events.

But most important, Corbett now believes, the Bible is the book which made sense of the experiences he had with the refugees, many of whom had been through unimaginable suffering. It gave what he calls “depth meaning” to his discovery of “the church” that he met among them. This is very close to Robert Barclay’s classical Quaker view of the Bible as a mirror in which we can see reflections of God’s working earlier times.

FINDING THE CHURCH IN A CHURCH

Here’s an example of this: One day early in his work Corbett went into a catholic church in the border town of Nogales, to await the arrival of a refugee who was coming through the border fence at a place he had showed her.

Corbett had rarely been inside Catholic churches, regarding their large crucifixes as displays of “a morbid obsession with the agonies of the Cross,” which he “dismissed . . . as a medieval aberration.” He had picked the church because he guessed it would be open and mainly deserted in the daytime, which it was.

While he waited, he thought about the many gruesome atrocity stories he had heard from refugees, stories confirmed by his travels into Mexico and Guatemala. Many were so horrible that he was unable to talk about them, except directly with refugees.

Amid these gloomy reflections, his attention was caught by a series of pictures on the wall called the Stations of the Cross, a catholic ritual drawn from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. And this time, he says,

Stations of the Cross #9, Jesus falls while carrying the cross he is to be nailed to.

“. . . as I struggled to cope emotionally with having become a peripheral witness to the crucifixion of the Salvadoran people, a sense grew that the Cross opens a way beyond breakdown—as revelatory depth meaning . . . . This is . . . meaning one discovers only in meeting those who share it . . . . 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 . . . . But it doesn’t end there,” he concluded. “In the midst of this agony, underlying defeat, is fulfillment and renewal–neither a noble fiction nor the rhetoric of consolation, but the lived reality of the Kingdom of Love.”

SOME PEOPLE BECOME A PEOPLE

In sum, waiting in that nondescript border church, Corbett had an epiphany, a revelation, of which the biblical source of the story was an integral part. And part of what he saw was that those with whom he was working in his refugee witness were forming themselves into a community, “a people of peoples” as he put it, who despite their widely diverse religious traditions, were responding to a common sense of calling and presence.

The model for this process also comes from the Bible, in the molding of the heterogenous Hebrew tribes into Israel at Sinai by their response to the divine calling mediated by Moses. Such a committed community, cutting across lines of culture, denomination and philosophy, is what constitutes “the church,” Corbett concluded.

Furthermore, his explorations in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament in exclusivist Christian parlance) began to make plain to him that as reflected there, particularly in the prophets and the Book of Job, the experience and community of the church was one which could incorporate “unbelievers” like himself without compromise.

That’s because 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 theologizing of Job’s friends is relentlessly debunked, showing that idols include not only statues or golden calves, but also concepts of God –dogmas and theologies–as well.

Corbett illustrates 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, where God is spoken of as all-Good. Such biblical demythologizing of the Bible itself, Corbett says, reaches its capstone in the Book of Job, where the notion that God must be only the source of what humans regard as good is completely undermined. In a modern parallel, Corbett notes a report that some rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for injustice and pronounced a guilty verdict.

THEISM, ATHEISM, OR UNBELIEF

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

“With Job, trust that there is no other touches the fundamental mystery. . . . Job and the Auschwitz rabbis uncover a dimension of the spiritual that is identified with the adversary, the righteous pride that challenges even God, if need be, in order to be true to the divine light in oneself. It is more likely to be the idols that must be challenged will be of one’s nation, work, neighbors, church, or party; but challenging an idol that is worshipped by our community requires the same spiritual strength that it takes to challenge God.”

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, with our attempts at radical simplification of the business of religion, stripping away all the outward paraphernalia on which new forms of idolatry can hang as on hooks, and our emphasis on letting our lives preach through faithful response to leadings rather than concern with dogma or ritual. He cites 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.”

TWO KINDS OF FAITH

To sum up: Corbett saw in the sanctuary movement a new manifestation of authentic religion, which takes form in communities that respond to the leadings of an unimaginable but real presence which theologians typically call God.

These communities make up the true, “catholic” church, cutting across lines of dogma, denomination and culture. They also dramatize the distinction between two kinds of faith which Corbett learned from the Jewish writer Martin Buber.

As Corbett expressed it,

”There is a faith that is primarily belief. This kind of faith calls for definitive doctrines from which guiding objectives and priorities can be derived. And there is a faith that is primarily trust. This kind of faith expects to be guided by a unifying presence that enlivens each moment, breaks all borders, gathers us into communion with one another, and addresses us in all we meet.”

Communities built on the second kind of faith are fully open, even to “unbelievers,” those whose spiritual experience doesn’t fit into conventional theological categories, provided they are responsive to the calling to community and witness. They are a “people of peoples.”

The mission of this invisible “church” is, in Corbett’s terms, 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 when Jesus tells 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 fed, clothed, housed and defended “the least of these, my brethren.” (Matt. 25:40)

For many faith communities in the borderlands of the American Southwest in the 1980s, this task comes most tellingly in the form of the refugees fleeing the horrors of war in Central America. Is our situation in the U. S. today that much different?

Within the sanctuary movement, Jim Corbett’s distinctive perspective on the shape and mission of the church has had a number of very concrete implications, some of them quite controversial. Let’s look at three overlapping disputes, over the organization of the movement, its relation to political objectives, and the issue of violence.

ABSTRACTIONS WITH IMPLICATIONS

Over several years, as sanctuary spread and took root among American churches of many denominations, there was a running controversy among its activists over how the movement should be structured. On one side are what could be called the organizers, mainly professional activists, pushed for the creation of a National Sanctuary Movement, with a central committee elected by regions to set priorities, take positions, raise funds, generate publicity and mass support, and provide spokespeople for dealing with the media.

On the other side were those who could be called networkers, who fought centralization every step of the way; and Jim Corbett was the most dogged networker of them all. He raised many practical objections to the organizers’ plans: it makes an easier target for federal repression; it is an artificial order imposed on what is already a viable informal network of active groups; and it would make the movement more vulnerable to internal factional politics. (And in 2021, one could also imagine him adding that Washington-centered “organizing elites” too often knew no more about what they were doing than generations of generals and chickenhawk pundits.)

I also suspect that behind his objections one also hears the voice of a Quaker raising the concern of not outrunning our Guide, staying close to the concrete situations from which the leadings arise which are the true source of the movement’s activities. At one point Corbett declared that were some national sanctuary directorate set up, he wished to be the first sanctuary heretic “excommunicated” by it. He largely won this battle.

This structural concern, moreover, related to the second, regarding political stance. Corbett had spoken out forcefully and repeatedly against U.S. government policy in Central America; but he also consistently opposed the efforts of the organizers to turn the sanctuary movement into an instrument of political opposition. Here too there are practical arguments — there’s only so much one can handle, political posturing undermines the credibility of the movement as a religious undertaking, and so forth.

IS POLITICS AN AMERICAN IDOL?

Yet here again, the ultimate objections are theological:

“The contrast between our view from the border,” he writes, “and the view that would convert the network of sanctuary communities into a movement defined by its objectives is rooted in the difference between two kinds of faith rather than a distinction between apolitical humanitarian activities and political anti-intervention activities.”

It is belief (in this case in the “correct” politics) versus trust in the communities and their leadings.

On the basis of these leadings, Corbett and the Tucson sanctuary group had not sought out only “politically correct” refugees, but has dealt with those most in need, regardless of ideology (including both those who were death squad members as well those who were death squad targets); Moreover, it operated among political structures of varying sorts, without making ultimate judgments about them, but calling each to do justice and make peace. Corbett was careful to add that there was room in the movement for, say, political opposition to American policy; yet the movement, the church, was not a political enterprise. To him, the distinction was crucial, because he considers such a stance to be “far more radical” than Marxism.

The controversy over politicization at times became quite intense, with Corbett’s position being denounced. as applying “apolitical humanitarian bandaids” by some organizers. (Those were, remember,  the halcyon days before cancel culture; but Jim would have easily evaded it: he had no academic job to lose; and where would the cancelers banish him to — the desert?)

In any case he held his ground, and by and large the movement remained free of ties to any particular political perspective. (There was, he pointed out, an irony here, because while a Quaker had spoken out most vigorously against the politicizing of sanctuary, the most intense pressures for this politicization, he noted, had come from some offices of the American Friends Service Committee.)

NONVIOLENCE, NOT NEUTRALITY

These two struggles in turn relate to the third, over whether the movement should condone the use of violence (or, as its partisans call it, counterviolence) by rebels against an oppressive status quo in places like central America. This is a perspective associated with some liberation theologians, and with advocates of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the rebels in El Salvador. And here once more, Corbett was resolute in his dissent. ”The nonviolent covenant community’s insurgency against established oppression is in no sense a neutral position between collaboration and revolution,” he insists. ”Rather, it contrasts with the faith in violence that is shown by both collaborators and revolutionaries.”

(His stance is vindicated for me by the sad but not surprising news that the now-entrenched Sandinista regime is rigging Nicaragua’s elections, jailing, torturing and disappearing opponents, and stealing the treasury blind.)

Jim pointed to a distinction he draws between societies and organizations. A society is a group that has come together around certain ways of doing things, such as silent worship, nonviolence, or providing shelter and other human rights for refugees. An organization, by contrast, is built around achieving objectives, such as toppling the government of El Salvador. Revolutionary organizations face constant temptations to violate the human rights of some people (say, by killing them) to achieve its objectives, so be it. But a society loses its reason for being if it does such things.

Similarly with sanctuary: Corbett contended that it existed as a society within the larger invisible church to offer concrete assistance to refugees and to advocate for their human rights, both in the U.S. and in central America, against whatever forces threaten them. To employ or condone violence, on any side, would be to lose its reason for being and turn into something else.

THE SOCIETY OF SHEEP, OR GOATS

Important as these controversies were, however, I don’t want to get stuck on them. They illustrate that Jim Corbett’s Quaker theology has practical implications, both internally within the sanctuary movement, and by extension among Friends generally, and outside it. I also contend his thought still provides rich material for resistance today and in the hard times to come.

This practicality is but one of its virtues. It also relates Quakerism to both its roots in biblical and church history, while at the same time retaining openness to “unbelievers”; it is realistic in its appraisal of current conditions, while standing firm on such traditional Quaker characteristics as decentralization in structures, avoidance of partisanship and rejection of violence as both religious imperatives and as a basis for practical action.

The main drawbacks of Jim’s theological statement are two: one was alluded to earlier, that he long expressed it mainly in bits and pieces. Then when he put it into two books Goatwalking and Sanctuary for All Life, they soon fell out of print and copies were rare and often expensive for thirty years. The other is that his writing style is usually dense, complex, heavily allusive, and sometimes downright opaque. (After hearing him speak, he reports, one Friend told him his talk was like “eating dehydrated soup.”)

It is only occasionally, as in a letter written in July, 1981, not long after his epiphany in the Nogales Catholic church, that he burst into something as concrete as verse, after concluding:

“And so this unregenerate Quaker looks for sanctuary in a church, huddles among fugitives as the patrols pass, and bends to the Stations of the Cross.”

A POEM FOR SANCTUARY

“Give me then, my share of pain,
survivor’s grief and unnamed ills,
the slow decay that yet may maim
and torture years before it kills.

Burn us with their mark of Cain,
the outlaw brand the powers despise,
and freeze us with the misfit shame
that touches ice in knowing eyes.

Blind us with the pauper’s chain,
here where life and death are sold
by those who play the money game
and fashion god of Mammon’s gold.

And let our senses be clear and sane,
unnumbed by drugs or pious lies
unpoisoned by the urge to blame,
undrained into self-pity’s sighs

Let it be that this, our fate,
​reveals the working of Your grace,
that we can bear the hurt and hate,
to grow love’s realm, in this ​pain’s place.”

7 thoughts on “A Quaker Theologian for Our Hard Times.”

  1. Thank you, Friend Chuck. I haven’t had a chance to read my new edition of Goatwalking yet, but this moves that book to the top of my To Read pile.

    1. Thee’s welcome. He’s a voice from our past, who still speaks strongly to our work for now and into the future.

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