A review of Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells

Publication information
Title: We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People
Author: Gustavo Gutierrez (Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell)
Publisher: Maryknol, Orbis Books, 1983
Pages: 181

Gustavo Gutierrez is probably the best-known liberation theologian as he has written what remains to be the classic exposition of this movement, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation[1] the book that has permanently altered our modern theological landscape, by challenging us to hear the Gospel message from the “underside of history,” from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed[2].

Born in Lima, Peru, Gutierrez is of Native American heritage, being of mixed Quechua descent he earned degrees in psychology and philosophy (Leuven), and obtained a doctorate at the Institut Pastoral d’Etudes Religieuses (IPER), Université Catholique in Lyon. Ordained as a Dominican priest in 1959, he lives and works in a poor slum in Lima, dividing his time between pastoral work and teaching at the Catholic University[3]. He holds the John Cardinal O’Hara Professorship of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and has been a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and a visiting professor at many major universities in North America and Europe.

Although considered as a professional theologian, he considers himself as of “the people”, having been born and raised in Peru. After a first-rate theological education in Europe, he returned to minister to working-class people in Lima and found that he had to start leaning all over again, in the midst of his involvement with the people in Rimac, a slum area in Lima in which he still lives and works[4].

It has only been a few years ago when Evangelical Christians have recovered its sense of solidarity with the poor[5]. However, there is still much to be learned from the Evangelical wing of Christianity as it is also recently that Evangelical theologians have only started to peruse the challenge of going beyond sentimental acts of charity to that of engaging Scripture from a transformational perspective that is to bear witness to the Gospel in holistic terms rather than emphasizing only on its spiritual aspect.

Like, Charles Ringma[6], I think there is much to be learned by engaging the writings of people that has been collectively referred to as Liberation Theologians by identifying how we can learn from their synthesis of Scripture, social theory and contextualized ministry to those who are living under the poverty line of Latin America as the church’s ministry to the underprivileged should not be merely presented within the periphery of the biblical story but rather it should be at the center and at the very heart of God’s love for the vulnerable and God’s passion for justice and shalom[7].

In reflecting on this I believe Liberation Theology as according to Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People challenges us to make God’s love for the poor central to our work of proclaiming redemptive wholeness but also to address our lack of an articulated spirituality which in a way reflects how we Evangelicals have been captive to pragmatics instead of placing ourselves more fully in the rich Christian tradition of spiritual disciplines[8], to which the book seeks to recover and integrate as a spirituality that animates the theology of the people’s struggle for God’s liberating work in the oppressed in history thus explaining Gutierrez’s theology of Christian poverty as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a liberatory protest against poverty.

The need for a spirituality of liberation

According to Henri Nouwen’s introduction to the book, in A Theology of Liberation, Gutierrez was already speaking of the need for and the importance of a spirituality of liberation, as he has realized that a theology that does not come out of an authentic encounter with God can never be fruitful[9].

As Gutierrez’s purpose for writing this work is twofold. First, it is a defense of his principals of Liberation Theology. Critics claimed Gutierrez’ writings were Communism with a Christian slant. Gutierrez never refuted the charge of having Communistic leanings which would have taken away from what he was trying to accomplish. Instead he kept defending the rights of the poor and the call of Christ to serve the most vulnerable and stayed away from a debate which would have just been political. We Drink From Our Own Wells presents a spiritual basis for Liberation Theology demonstrating that his beliefs are not based on anything other than the message of Jesus Christ.

The centrality of Jesus Christ

Gutierrez starts his book with sharing the intent of bearing witness to a spirituality that springs forth from a theology of liberation –that is a spirituality that bases its foundation in his previous work that highlights and recovers the biblical reality of God’s preferential option for those in the margins to which he writes:

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection on the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology. The experience and the reflection alike have for their subject a community that under the movement of the Spirit focuses its life on the proclamation of the good news: the Lord is risen! Death and injustice are not the final word of history. Christianity is a message of life, a message based on the gratuitous love of the Father for us[10].

For me the central idea of the book can be found in the Christological basis of Christian discipleship that springs forth in a theology that recovers the identity of Christ as one who reaches his hand to offer salvation to those living in the margins: the poor, the dispossessed, the lepers, the widows, the orphans and the sinners.

He reminds the reader of the importance of the Jesus Christ of orthodoxy by writing:

To profess “this Jesus,” to acknowledge “Jesus the Christ,” is to express a conviction. It is not simply putting a name and a title together; it is an authentic confession of faith. It is the assertion of an identity: that Jesus of history, the son of Mary, the carpenter of Nazareth, the preacher of Galilee, the crucified, is the Only Begotten of God, the Christ, the Son of God[11].

He also stressed the substance and the inevitable consequence of Jesus’ work by writing:

Jesus’ concrete form of proclaiming the gratuitous love of God and kingdom had inevitable consequences for the religious, social and economic order prevailing at his time. “They watched him” and planned his execution (Mark 3:1-6)…precisely because it was a religious teaching that affected all human existence.[12]

Discipleship: a lived response to Christ in community

Using the eminent Petrine confession of Christ he emphasizes the ethical implications of the confession by writing:

To the question “Who do you say I Am?” we cannot give a merely theoretical or theological answer. What answers it, in the final analysis, is our life, our personal history, our manner of living the gospel.

Peter’s affirmation, “You are the Christ,” is fundamental. But what is demanded is that we make that affirmation the guiding thought of our life –accepting all the consequences, as dire they may be. Only so is our response valid, as honest and sincere it may be without it. Our response to the question, “Who do you say I Am?” does not end with a profession of faith or a theological systemization. It is a question addressed to our life and that of the entire church. It permanently tests the Christian faith, leading it to its ultimate consequences[13].

As disciples of this Christ we are also called to do likewise in a way that we would incarnate Christ’s presence among the poor by following Christ in discipleship which includes the path of self-giving love and loving identification with the outcasts, the redemptive vision to give life in its fullness and the conviction to live in loving identification that goes even unto suffering and death.

Gutierrez defined spirituality in these terms:

In the final analysis the human person is to be defined by relationship to God. This relationship is marked, however, by a profound ambiguity that is expressed, for Paul, in the conflict of flesh and spirit: “The desires of the flesh are against Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other” (Gal. 5:17). Flesh and spirit are correlative ideas. To place our trust in God and act accordingly is, in Paul’s view , to be “spiritual”. To make ourselves the supreme norm of our conduct is to act “carnally” –that is, to behave sinfully…[14]

In speaking about the spirituality involved in this discipleship of incarnating Christ’s presence among the poor and oppressed he highlights the need to live up to what Pauline theology has defined as walking in the Spirit to which he writes:

To walk according to the Spirit is to reject death (selfishness, contempt for others, covetousness, idolatry) and choose life (love, peace, justice). To renounce the flesh and live according to the Spirit is to be at the service of God and others. This service is offered with the conviction that the forces of death will not have the final word in history, because we know that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Nothing, and no one, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (v.38)[15].

His concluding thought on spirituality is a well needed one for Evangelicals as it rebuts our notion of spirituality that we always put into terms with the individual self (with statements like: “its something between me and God,”; “I need to work on my personal relationship with Christ”) as though our relationship with God is an individual affair. Here Gutierrez attempts to counter balance that over-emphasis on the personal while at the same time proves his fidelity to the importance of the church and the Christian community to which he writes:

Spirituality is a community enterprise. It is a passage of a people through the solitude and dangers of the dessert, as it carves its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection[16].

Personal reflection and insights

Coming from an activist background I find the book insightful in the sense that it shows that spirituality has its place even among those who are engaged in the work of transformation in aspects of society and history.

Gutierrez’s European education clearly shows with the type of language and wordplay that he uses in his writing. I find his style engaging although at times he tends to over repeat himself on some areas, but his emphasis on textual criticism of the Greek words that forms the Bible passages that he used are indispensable.

It is relevant in the Filipino context as our identity as a people is very much related to that of those living in Latin America where we share a heritage of being a former colony of the Spanish Empire and not to mention that we both have a background of this ever-expanding gap between the rich and the poor and this struggle for the Christian church to offer an alternative vision of reality of God’s Kingdom in the midst of other existing alternatives like Marxism, totalitarianism and others.

It also finds its relevance as very much like the Philippines countries in Latin America counts itself within the grouping of what has been called the Global South –former colonies that are faced with the challenges of nation and institution-building on their own for the first time. Perhaps the reading the book could be seen as an act of our solidarity with the plight of the Latin American people.

I am not a Roman Catholic, and although I have a positive attitude towards Roman Catholicism (to the point that I have even seriously considered leaving my Evangelical tradition for Roman Catholicism!) I have such reservations on its submission to the ecclesial authority of Rome rather than that of the Scripture, that is however also counter-balanced by Gutierrez’s fidelity to biblical hermeneutics.

Another is that in spite of my stance that there is much for us evangelicals to learn from liberation theologians –liberation theology itself (or better yet liberation theologies for there is no homogeneous expression of such) also need to be assessed although this book review is not intended to function as such.

This also calls us now for a robust social theology and spirituality that speaks to the context of those in the margins here in the Philippines, perhaps this could serve as a starting point for evangelicals to rethink its over-emphasis in the spiritual and not to mention re-capture the biblical themes of liberation, hope and salvation that is founded in the suffering, death and resurrection of God incarnate that the powers of sin and death may be finally overcome in the power of Christ. As the Christian faith begins and ends in God. It begins with the self-revelation of God and it ends with the reality of the God who is revealed, while the manner and process of the revelation takes in the whole sweep of human history and the whole range of human experience, gathered up in Jesus Christ and brought back into focuses so that “God may be all in all.”[17]

[1] Arthur McGovern: Liberation Theology and its Critics: Toward an Assessment (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989) p.237
[2] Nickoloff, James. Gustavo Gutierrez: Essential Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996) p.4
[3] Op cit
[4] We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1983) author information at the back
[5] In 1982 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the World Evangelical Fellowship released a document entitled Evangelism and Social Responsibility: An Evangelical Commitment which states that: “Evangelicals and evangelism have always been bracketed. So much so that the adjectives 'evangelical' and 'evangelistic' have often been identified in the popular mind. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that whenever evangelicals have become concerned about social issues, some eyebrows have been raised, and questions have been asked whether the cause of the gospel is not about to be betrayed. A comprehensive exploration on the social engagement of Evangelicals can be read in  John Stott’s, Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974-1989 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997)
[6] Charles Ringma’s article Liberation Theologians Speak to Evangelicals: A Theology and Praxis of Serving the Poor, brings to often opposing groups (Evangelicals and Liberation Theologians) into dialogue, can be read in The Church and Poverty in Asia (Manila: OMF/Asian Theological Seminary, 2008)
[7] Ringma, Charles Liberation Theologians Speak to Evangelicals: A Theology and Praxis of Serving the Poor an article from The Church and Poverty in Asia (Manila: OMF/Asian Theological Seminary, 2008) p.51
[8] Ibid p. 52
[9] Nouwen, Henri. We Drink from Our Own Wells, xii
[10] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.1
[11] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.46
[12] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.50
[13] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.51
[14] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.58
[15] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.70
[16] Gutierrez, Gustavo. We Drink from Our Own Wells p.137
[17] Hellwig, Monika. Understanding to Catholicism (Mahwah: Paulist, 1981) p.192

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