Sanctuary for All Life: The Cowbalah of Jim Corbett

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    “I avoid eating anyone I have not known and cherished,” wrote Jim Corbett in “Sanctuary for All Life”, his final testament now in print four years after his death. “When slaughter breaks the bond, the killing must be hallowed. All food is sacramental.” One sunset-streaked evening on the pasture near Jim and Pat Corbett’s place along the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona, I watched him commune with one of the cows he cherished, stroking its head with his arthritis-ravaged hand. I began to understand how he earned, among other roles, the status of the “cow-whisperer” of Cascabel. Neighbors brought animals to him for healing from gut impactions and cactus-spine wounds. No wonder that his heartfelt ambivalence about raising animals for slaughter was reflected in a sub-chapter entitled “On Killing and Eating One’s Friends” in his first book, “Goatwalking” (Viking Press, 1991).

    Sanctuary for All Life” hallows humans’ relationship to the earth in words that point to a realm beyond words, a Peaceable Kingdom beyond the thrall of kings and states, living a law that trumps all written codes because it is “in your mouth and in your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:14). To show the way, Corbett obstinately synthesized the disparate disciplines in which he had steeped himself, from analysis of the range-grasses of the Sonoran desert to dissection of the finer points of the medieval Jewish mysticism of Spain . But what else could we have expected from a Quaker cowboy with a masters in philosophy from Harvard? Added to these challenges for the reader was his death at age 67 from a rare brain disease that cut short his completion of the book.

    These difficulties are mitigated by the exceptional front-matter provided by Jim’s friends. Father Ricardo Elford’s touching “Foreword” reflects his collaboration with Corbett in the Sanctuary Movement and in co-authoring a pamphlet entitled “The Servant Church” (1996: Pendle Hill Pamphlet #328). It is a manifesto for an earth-hallowing, justice-seeking church that exists beyond denominations and creeds. The poet David Ray says of “Sanctuary for All Life” in his “Preface” that “one cannot remain the same after reading it.” And on Daniel Baker’s lengthy and very helpful “Introduction” hang many needed keys to unlock the treasures in Corbett’s dense prose. Daniel lives in Hot Springs Canyon near Jim and Pat’s place up the dirt road from Cascabel. His deep understanding of Jim as a person and of the topics and texts to which the book refers, and his collaboration with Jim in the process of writing it, make his overview of the book invaluable.

    The front-matter also includes a speech by Corbett when he received the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award in 1991. He got the award on behalf of the Sanctuary Movement, which he co-founded in the 1980’s to protect asylum-seekers who crossed the border to escape death during the Central American civil wars. As a borderlands rancher who was fluent in Spanish, driven by a conscience steeped in the tradition of such Quakers as John Woolman, the colonial-era anti-slavery activist, Corbett began guiding Guatemalans and Salvadorans over the border. He partnered with a Presbyterian pastor in Tucson , John Fife, to create a network of churches and temples around the US which offered sanctuary to refugees who were being denied for asylum status and threatened with deportation. His speech described the foundation guiding his inception of the movement: civil initiative. Civil disobedience is the willful breach of unjust law. Passive resistance is non-cooperation with unjust force or law. But civil initiative is active fulfillment and expression of the higher, natural law that is written on the heart. When he and others in the movement were charged with being “coyotes”, smugglers of aliens across the border, their defense was based on the argument that the US government was breaking guarantee to asylum for refugees under the international law to which it was bound .

    Corbett became nationally recognized for his personal heroism. It was powerful to listen to the testimonials of some of the people whose lives he had saved, during his memorial service at John Fife’s church, Southside Presbyterian, in 2001. But for Jim, the Sanctuary Movement (words he never capitalized) was a temporary distraction from the work that mattered to him most – the redemption of wildlands and the hallowing of human beings’ place in it.

    In “Sanctuary for All Life”, Corbett, as a self-taught Hebrew scholar, delved into the nature of “torah”, the law of Israel . It is a law that he aimed to follow through “civil initiative”, a law written not only on human hearts, but on the hearts of cows, goats, javelinas, mescals, and saguaros.

    The law of Israel specified the honoring of the Sabbath, which prohibits the exercise of “malacha”, a Hebrew word that is translated as “labor” but more precisely refers to any human interference in the processes of nature. Corbett explains that the ritual observance of Sabbath was the Jewish people’s way of keeping themselves connected to a way of life in symbiotic harmony with Nature. A way of life reminiscent of that of Abraham – the “wandering Aramean” who followed a herd in the wildlands of Palestine . “Sanctuary for All Life” might be described as a theology and practice of Sabbath, and not just from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, or Sunday for the Christians. Rather, a year-round sabbath that re-integrates humanity into deep communion with all life. A Sabbath with a haunting call for us to return to what Corbett calls the “cimarron” (Spanish for feral livestock) way of true freedom through re-integration into the natural order.

    The focus of the book is intensely local, but its implications are global. “Sanctuary for All Life” begins and ends with a stretch of Sonoran Desert on the east side of the San Pedro River in Arizona , a place where he and other “associates” of the land made covenant with it. The Saguaro-Juniper Covenant, described in the book, is a “betrothal” of a group of Jim’s friends to this patch of earth, with a commitment to give the land back to itself. The Covenant is the land’s bill of rights. First on the list: “The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion.” Many of the “associates” of the Covenant live in the Tucson area and are supportive with money and volunteer time on occasion. Several, including Daniel Baker, live on or near the land and either herd cattle on it according to the Covenant’s careful guidelines, or participate in other land-redemption efforts.

    Corbett microcosmically explored the challenges of living and ranching in harmony with his homeland in Arizona . In so doing he modeled what it will take for the whole human family to go “cimarron” and live in harmonious communion with all life, while confessing the limits of his and his community’s ability to live out their vision of the liberation of the land. “(Jesus) doesn’t condemn anyone for failing to live in full accordance with the restitutional mitzvot (Hebrew for just actions) required for redemption. We are to forgive one another our failures. He just condemns those who would lead us to think that anything less will do.” (p 190)

    Corbett saw Jesus as a Jewish rabbi who announced “jubilee” – the liberation of peasants from indenture, of Jews from Rome , of nature from human management. The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the redemption not just of humanity, but of the natural order, called for in the Torah. The Jewish law required that after the 49th year (a sabbath of sabbath years, seven times seven), a time of “jubilee” was to be enacted in which all land was to be returned to itself. No plowing or planting was allowed, and all land divisions were erased to end unjust accumulation of property.

    Sanctuary for All Life” is a radical call to "jubilee" liberation of the natural world, but Corbett was emphatic that it was not about “eco-sainthood”. He described the person who recycles everything, gives up automobiles, eats no meat, takes no vacation trips. “Yet the saint’s perfect conservational thoughtfulness can never be as effective as a single case of contraception.” (p 168) “Individuals can denounce and resist a way of life, but only a community can live a way of life into being and bequeath it to succeeding generations.” (p 168) For Corbett, the hallowing way is one that integrates humans into the natural world as co-creating “associates” – unlike those who want to ban all human activity in wilderness. This integration is the task not primarily of governments, but rather of the “church” as Corbett described it: “a voluntary society based on communion” (p 150). And by communion he refers to a real meal, not just the ritual symbolism of wafers and chalices. “To awaken to the forgotten meaning of sacrifice is to see that all food is sacramental, that every dinner table is an altar, that life itself is the primal form of holy communion, and that God is Nature, the creative source for Whom there is no other…. The way we live on life – our food – is of fundamental religious concern.” (p 110) “The hallowing of our food has to do with care of the land, care that the animals on the land flourish….” (p 111)

    Corbett indicted capitalism for its half-hearted embrace of the “free market”. A full embrace would result in abandoning not only governmental interference in the “spontaneous order” of markets, but also the capitalists’ attempts to interfere in the “spontaneous order” of nature. Nowhere was this better exemplified for Corbett than through the Western cattle industry’s reduction of cows to cash, which has resulted in wholesale degradation of rangelands and unholy treatment of animals. The real idolaters aren’t the biblical apostates adoring golden images: “… it is market morality that worships the golden calf, as a commodity, in the name of profits and property.” ( p 249)

    “Go deep enough into eco-wisdom, and you’ll find a practicable, down-to-earth mysticism.” (p 247) "Cowbalah" is Corbett’s playful term to express his resonance with the Jewish system of "kabbalah", a web of relations through which the creative energy of the universe flows. “A visionary myth rather than theosophical speculation, kabbalah is concerned with humanity’s quest to recover its homeland in Eden : an unfarmed, fruitful oasis; an untamed paradise of living waters. This key myth of kabbalah fuses the communion insight with the down-to-earth quest for Eden …” (p 258)

    In his first book, Corbett remembered two incidents from earlier in his life. “On the prairie, when the wind wails a dirge and snow sifts in rivulets through the sagebrush, I’ve hugged the sticky-pink, death-chilled body of a newborn lamb under my coat, and its heart fluttered in reply. And on a desert mountain, amidst the hush of soaring granite, I’ve opened a forgotten spring. The few who remembered thought it had long ago gone dry, but I found the hidden place and dug down until a stream ran clear and cold in the summer sun. So what are epitaphs to me? I’ve shared life’s warmth with a lamb. I’ve opened a desert spring.” (pp 12-13, “Goatwalking”) Jim Corbett’s spring still runs with prophetic insight for our time, and times to come, through the practical mysticism of “Sanctuary for All Life”.

    Read previous article about Jim Corbett and the Saguaro-Juniper Covenant.

    Jim Burklo is the author of OPEN CHRISTIANITY ( and pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church. He is also a member of the executive council of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Email|Website

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