Drinking from Our Own Wells

by Robert McAfee Brown

Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 9, 1984, p. 483. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Realizing the gifts he brings us, I find it both dismaying and disheartening to see Gustavo Gutiérrez once again under attack by heavy theological artillery from within his own church. Not only Catholics but all of us need his words, his witness and the example of his life.

Query: Who wrote:

A Christian is identified 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.

Pope John Paul II, in a pastoral letter on spirituality?

Query: Who said:

Laborers . cannot wait any longer for their dignity to be recognized really and fully. . . . They have a right not to be deprived of the little they have by maneuvers that sometimes amount to real plunder. They have a right not to be blocked in their own desire to take part in their own advancement. They have a right to have the barriers of exploitation removed. . . . They have a right to effective help, which is neither a handout nor a few crumbs of justice. . . . There is always a social mortgage on all private property. . . . And if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation itself.

Gustavo Gutiérrez, describing how workers need to take things into their own hands?

Something strange is going on. The first quotation is actually the initial paragraph and normative theme of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s new book on spirituality, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People (Orbis, 1984), and the second is a slight condensation of two paragraphs of a speech Pope John Paul II gave to Indian peasants in Mexico in 1979 (quoted in John Eagleson and Philip Scharper, eds., Pueblo and Beyond [Orbis, 1979], p. 82).

What is so strange is that in a recently launched, widely orchestrated attack -- emanating both from Rome and the Peruvian hierarchy -- on Gutiérrez’s presumably ‘errant” version of liberation theology, he is accused of not saying the things he does say in the first quotation, and of saying the things that the pope says in the second. And there is heavy irony in the fact that the charges have been launched just when the publication of Gutiérrez’s new book makes them even less accurate than they were before. The stakes in this controversy are high, not only for Gutiérrez but for all Christians who are committed, as he is, to a theology created from the standpoint of the oppressed. As a result, the only way to do justice to the significance of We Drink from Our Own Wells is to look first at the recent re-articulation of the charges against Gutiérrez and liberation theology, and then to examine the book in their light.

These charges are not new. Ever since 1971, when A Theology of Liberation was first published in Spanish (the English translation was brought out by Orbis early in 1973), the themes of Gutiérrez’s writings, his person and the entire “theology of the people” that he is articulating have been subjected to a barrage from the theological and political right. The themes of liberation theology were not invented by Gutiérrez. They are our authentic heritage from the Hebrew prophets, the Gospels and the early church (see, for example, Charles Avila’s Ownership: Early Christian Teaching [Orbis, 1983]; they are themes that were anticipated in part by developments in the papal “social encyclicals” from 1891 to the present, and by the Vatican Council’s 1965 pastoral constitution “The Church and the World Today.” Many of these ideas were episcopally appropriated in the documents of the conference of Latin American bishops at Medellín in 1968, three years before Gutiérrez’s landmark book appeared -- especially those on “Justice’’ and ‘‘Peace,’’ in the composition of which Gutiérrez played a part as one of the official periti at the conference. In them we find clearly articulated such themes as the importance of the communidades de base (“grass-roots ‘ Christian groups); Jesus as the liberator from hunger, misery, oppression and ignorance; the refusal to separate Christian sanctification from “temporal’’ tasks; challenges to capitalism (as well as to Marxism); the theory of “dependency” on inhuman economic systems; the need for liberation from neocolonialism; the need for “conscienticization” ; the need for the church to support the downtrodden; the correlation of peace and justice; and the reality of “institutionalized violence.”

As the implications of such commitments began to filter into the experience of the Latin American church, a number of conservative bishops under the leadership of Colombian Archbishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, worried by what they perceived to be a swing to the left, began to organize for the next bishops conference, ultimately held at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. Hoping to repudiate such themes and restore the church to its proper track, they saw to it that so-called “liberation theologians” were excluded from the Puebla meetings, and sought to turn episcopal teaching in ‘‘safer” directions.

But they were unsuccessful. The Puebla documents not only did not “condemn” liberation theology, but gave new support to many of its central concerns. Not even the opening papal address contained the salvos against liberation theology that the conservatives had hoped for (despite erroneous impressions to the contrary given by the New York Times), and the Puebla documents, though a mixed bag, gave ongoing support to the major concerns of this theology, particularly in the emphasis on the need for the church to make ‘‘a preferential option for the poor.

One might have expected the Puebla posture to signal an end to the battle, but the barrage has continued. The latest round of charges is distinguished not by any new content, but solely by the fact that it comes from high places. The focal point is an article by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the March 1984 issue of the journal 30 Giorni. Ratzinger’s position in the Curia makes it clear that he is not simply speaking for himself, but in the name of the Vatican, which has been carrying on an undercover investigation of liberation theologians. The main thrust of his attack is to propose a distinction between “true” liberation theology (which, of course, the church has always affirmed), and ‘‘false” or ‘‘errant” liberation theology (which, of course, the church in the interests of truth must denounce). Gutiérrez is described as a proponent of the latter, as are Jon Sobrino and Hugo Assmann.

Not even this mode of attack is new; it was the approach taken by López Trujillo before Puebla, both through his network of communication with other bishops and in his Liberación o Revoluciön?, published in 1975 (English translation: Liberation or Revolution? [Our Sunday Visitor, 1977]). The basic distinction that is pressed in all of these attempts to separate “true” from “false” liberation is that the former is based on gospel values, while the latter is overly dependent on Karl Marx and a Marxist analysis of the world, especially in relation to Marx’s theory of class struggle.

Most of the other charges, both from Rome and from the Peruvian bishops, are variants or amplifications of this initial one. The alleged subordination of the gospel to Karl Marx is illustrated, for example, by charging that “false” liberation theology concentrates too much on a few selected biblical texts that are always given a political meaning, leading to an overemphasis on “material” poverty and neglecting other kinds of poverty; that this leads to a ‘‘temporal messianism” that confuses the Kingdom of God with a purely “earthly” new society, so that the gospel is collapsed into nothing but political endeavor; that the emphasis on social sin and structural evil leads to an ignoring or forgetting of the reality of personal sin; that everything is reduced to praxis (the interplay of action and reflection) as the only criterion of faith, so that the notion of truth is compromised; and that the emphasis on communidades de base sets a so-called “people’s church” against the hierarchy.

The overall suspicion, in other words, is that somehow Christian faith has lost its ‘‘transcendent’’ element, that It has been “reduced” to “horizontalism” at the expense of ‘‘verticalism,” that it has become nothing more than ‘‘ethics” (and left-wing ethics at that), that ‘‘social analysis” has replaced theology, that revolution has replaced revelation -- and that Karl Marx is the source of all the difficulty.

As one who has been immersed in Gutiérrez’s writings for more than a decade, I consider the charges preposterous. The clearest rebuttal, however, is not exasperation but simply firsthand exposure to the writings themselves, along with a look at the quality and spiritual depth of his own life and of Gutiérrez’s personal commitment to the poor. The new book is especially helpful in this regard, but before turning to it a word must be said about the specter of Karl Marx and the way Gutiérrez deals with the theme of class struggle.

It is clear that Gutiérrez, like almost every contemporary theologian, pays attention to Marx; no responsible modern thinker could fail to do so. It is also clear that he makes use of some of Marx’s analytic tools, particularly the notion of “class struggle” -- and it is primarily for this that he is being attacked. But it is neither clear nor true that Marx provides the world view or the overarching ideology that informs Gutiérrez’s position. Here is where a shift that faults the whole procedure occurs in the attacks. Those attacking Gutiérez assume that using any of Marx’s comments on society automatically brands one a ‘‘Marxist,’’ in the sense of accepting the whole Marxist position -- its materialistic view of history, its scorn of religion as an opiate, and all the rest. This is clearly nonsense.

What actually happens with Gutiérez and others close to him is something like this: they turn to the social sciences for help in understanding the dynamics of the world in which they live; among those they read is Marx, who describes a world in which a ‘‘class struggle’’ is going on. They look at Latin America (so different from North America) and see that what Marx described is actually taking place: there is a ‘‘class struggle” going on, and it is being waged between the tiny ‘‘class’’ of the extremely wealthy, who oppress and exploit the rest, and the huge “class” of the desperately poor, who are oppressed by the wealthy and powerful. Marx, they discover, did not invent “class struggle”; he merely reported that it was taking place. The struggle would be there even if Marx had never appeared on the scene. Liberation theologians find plenty of descriptive material in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Luke, for example, to underline the injustice of the patent discrepancies between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed. Indeed, it is their attempt to hear this long-neglected side of Scripture that draws the unfair charge that they are reading ‘‘selectively.’’

Now what does Gutiérrez do in the face of the very obvious fact that there is a struggle going on between classes, initiated not by the poor but by the rich? He reaches two very clear and, it seems to me, irrefutable conclusions: “The class struggle is a fact, and neutrality in this matter is impossible” (A Theology of Liberation, p. 223).

What are Christians to do in this situation? Since, as Gutiérrez points out, neutrality is impossible, those who seek to remain aloof from the struggle (as many Christians do) are actually giving tacit support to those possessing unjust power, often maintained through guns and torture. One must, therefore, side with the poor and the oppressed, a theme Gutiérrez has been affirming and living for many years. Why “taking sides” in the struggle should be considered foreign to Christian faith is hard to fathom. Surely “taking sides’’ is what the bishops at Puebla called the church to do when they stated that it must make “a preferential option for the poor.” For centuries the church has made a preferential option for the rich, and the rich have found no cause for dismay. The decisions on behalf of the poor at Medellín and Puebla did not implicate the church in “taking sides’’ for the first time, but simply in “changing sides” as the result of a new reading of Scripture and of the human situation.

It is out of this way of looking at the world that one makes the “first act’’ of Christian living, as Gutiérrez calls it: commitment to and with the poor. Theology is the “second act,” which Gutiérrez defines as “critical reflection on praxis in the light of the Word of God.” And it is this kind of reflection that is being expounded in We Drink from Our Own Wells. If there is a “mere horizontalism,” a “collapsing’’ of faith into politics, a “materialist” reading of Scripture or an overt or even covert dependence on Karl Marx in Gutiérez’s thought, here is where one could expect to find it. (The notion that the concerns of the ‘‘people” automatically set them against the “hierarchy,” as Cardinal Ratzinger and others charge, can be quickly disposed of by pointing out that the book is dedicated to two bishops, characterized by Gutiérrez as amigos definitivos, “friends forever.”)

The title may initially seem elusive to those who are not, like Gutiérrez, steeped in the literature of spirituality. The phrase comes from Bernard of Clairvaux’s De Consideratione, in which he indicates that we must all think, pray and work in the place from which our own spiritual nourishment comes. For Gutiérez, “the experience that comes from the Spirit” is found in the midst of the Latin, American people’s struggle for liberation, a struggle in which God’s gifts of faith, hope and love make people. disciples. ‘‘This experience is our well,’’ he writes. It provides the living water that both purifies and energizes.

The structure of the book illustrates both the methodology and the content of his approach. Part one briefly sets a context: spirituality in Latin America -- a spirituality that covers every dimension of human life and is by no means confined to the political -- in a situation of hostility and death resulting from poverty. Gutiérrez dismisses as inadequate any spirituality that is available only to a few, thus dividing Christians into two classes, as well as any individualistic spirituality that leads to privatization and a turning away from the world. True spirituality encompasses all life (a favorite theme in Gutiérrez’s writings), and involves solidarity (i.e., community), prayer, martyrdom -- a part of Christian living foreign to contemporary North Americans -- and a recognition that now is the time of salvation. Such spirituality involves the people, especially the poor, in struggle -- a struggle about which the psalms, the prophets, the gospel and the epistles are full of words of encouragement and hope.

The middle and longest section of the book takes us into the “second act” -- i.e., reflection on the situation in Latin America “in the light of the Word of God.” By means of intensive Bible study, Gutiérrez here sets out the main aspects of spirituality as the communal following of Jesus -- i.e., “the spiritual journey of a people” (as the subtitle describes it), not just of individuals.

The three aspects of this journey are the encounter with Christ, walking according to the Spirit, and searching for the Creator; Those who continue to demean Gutiérrez’s orthodoxy should at least acknowledge that this is a clearly trinitarian formula. Throughout this section of the book, Gutiérrez bases his argument on the Gospels and the Pauline epistles (especially Romans 8 and Galatians 5). as well as on the thought of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. The Pauline section is particularly helpful in distinguishing the various meanings of “flesh,” “spirit” and “body.’’

Having grounded his discussion of the communal nature of the Christian journey in Scripture and the history of- Catholic spirituality, Gutiérez returns in the final section to the contemporary world, offering a preliminary sketch of the spirituality needed for struggle within the societies that he has described. He develops five characteristics of such a spirituality: conversion, with its requirement for solidarity; gratuitousness, as creating the atmosphere for efficacy; joy, which seeks victory over suffering by going through the school of martyrdom to Easter victory; spiritual childhood, which emphasizes being “with the poor and against poverty”; and community, which must emerge out of the dark night of injustice and solitude.

Even a brief summary of the highlights of this rich and fruitful book shows how far off the mark are the critics who assert that Gutiérrez’s theology is nothing but a cover for politics, and that it has discarded faith in God, Christ and the Spirit. Those who are looking for the insidious presence of Karl Marx as normative for the “second act” will look in vain; he is not cited even once. Gutiérrez’s major sources are the Bible (almost 400 references, chiefly from the New Testament), Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, John Paul II, Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Puebla conference of the Latin American bishops. Those who reply that this must be a “new phase” in Gutiérrez’s thought will be unable to sustain the charge. As Gutiérez himself affirms, these emphases have been present from the first; a rereading of A Theology of Liberation will not only uncover a section titled ‘‘A Spirituality of Liberation,” but another 400 biblical references with which to wrestle. And there is still another book, not yet in English -- a series of talks given to laypeople in 1981, El Dios de la Vida (“The God of Life”) -- that deals successively with the God of the Bible, the Kingdom of God and the relation between action and contemplation. From the beginning, liberation theologians have stressed spirituality.

But there is a second reason for offering a running outline of the themes of We Drink from Our Own Wells, which is to invite our own reading of the text. The book is important not only, and not mainly, as a theological event that disposes of a series of threadbare charges still being directed against its author. It is important simply because for anyone, whether in Latin America or elsewhere, it powerfully and beautifully provides a guide for “the spiritual journey of a people,” a people of whom we too are a part. No one can read the biblical section without personal profit and spiritual enrichment, nor encounter the five proposed dimensions of a new spirituality without realizing how needed they are in our own lives, our own churches, our own society.

Realizing the gifts he brings us, I find it both dismaying and disheartening to see Gutiérrez once again under attack by heavy theological artillery from within his own church. Not only Catholics but all of us need his words, his witness and the example of his life. What is currently happening to him is not simply an intramural Catholic affair, but something that is important for the rest of the Christian family, and for all the poor and oppressed peoples everywhere who have found in Gutiérrez someone who not only speaks for them but stands with them. Many of us have been nurtured by this man; our faith has been deepened by encounters with his writings and his person. During our moments of anguish about the relevance of our faith to a parched world, he has encouraged us to keep working, to keep praying, to keep evangelizing, to keep acting, to keep drinking from our own wells so that we can all draw living water. We need his help in finding those wells whence the power of the spirit pours forth. We are all deprived when he has to turn his energies from struggling for the poor in order to defend himself against attack. We must work, hope and pray for his release from such constraints, so that he -- and we -- can turn with renewed commitment to the holy tasks of justice and love.

We began with the first words of Gutiérrez’s book. We can do no better than conclude with the last:

Spirituality is a community enterprise. It is the passage of a people through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out 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 [p. 137].