Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gustavo Gutierrez: We Drink from Our Own Wells

Let's get one thing straight right away: I think liberation theology is great and feel very strongly that all theology needs to be contextual to be relevant. That said, this book didn't do much for me. There are several reasons for this. I am familiar with most of the ideas central to liberation theology, so there were few "new ideas" here. More importantly this really is "spirituality of Latin America". It s not even supposed to be particularly relevant for me.

This is not criticism then, but rather an effort to clarify the major differences between the Latin American outlook of Gutierrez and my North European outlook.

Of course, poverty is a rather abstract thing for me. There is very little poverty in Finland, because we still have a great social security system. It is being torn down as we speak, but still extreme poverty is not something you encounter here. This means that I can agree in principle that God has a preference for the poor, it is not something that has much existential meaning for me.

This does not mean that all is well in the Republic of Finland, because the solution to poverty is not more money, but liberation. People in Finland, too, needs liberation, but not so much from poverty as from the tyranny of the accepted opinion, as one might call it. Sure, people in Finland are free to express their opinion (if they have one), and to live their life in any way (within reasonable limits), but most people still live a rather destructive life, destructive not only for the environment (only USA and some other country (was it Australia?) produce more CO2 per capita than Finland) but also for their own souls.

In a way - and I do not say this to in any way downplay the atrocity of extreme poverty - we are little better off, because most Finns have no idea they are oppressed, because we are oppressed by a system so efficient that it has made itself nearly invisible. Why use violence when there is television? Still, we are forced to live a life centered of producing value for the system, by working way more than is healthy and to put any creativity we still have after what is commonly called education to the service of that same system. What this means is that there is way too little joy in our lives, way too little beauty. Instead of joy we have entertainment.

Surely this is a situation where salvation is deeply needed.

Another thing that is difficult for me with Gutierrez book is that is so much a spirituality of a people. I just cannot relate to that. Here again our situation is so different. If they are a people oppressed by an elite, then we are oppressed in part by the idea of being a people. Nationalism is still strong in Finland, as in the rest of Europe, and it seems to be even worse in the US where it is called patriotism. Nationalism is clearly the most destructive idea in the history of mankind (only religion comes close in the amount of blood shed), and even though we have few wars today in this corner of the world, people still argue with this completely abstract notion of the nation as a basis. For example, we hear people argue that "we" must work so that "all Finns" will have a better life. How about all humans? All lifeforms? Why draw any line based on who belongs to this made up concept the Finnish nation? Well, of course the reason is to make it OK to exploit the others, ow wage war against them if need (such as high petrol prices) arises.

I really like how Gutierrez lifts up death as the central symbol for evil, in part replacing for example sin, that is always transformed into some abstract form of spiritual aids. Death is real; it is there. We can be made aware how poverty (in their case) or compliancy (in our) is death. You do not live when you're working 14 hours a day, be it because you have to to put food on your family's table or because a bigger car seems to be a good idea. That is death. From that we need salvation.

Gutierrez is in this book also concerned with dispelling the idea that liberation theology is merely thinly veiled Marxism. Of course it is not. I doubt anyone who believes that has read this far, but if this is the case, do read the book. For the rest of us, we need to keep on working on a liberation theology of our own.


metalepsis said...

That was beautiful!

Sandalstraps said...

Excellent post. You did a great job of communicationg some sympathy and even admiration for Gutierrez's work, while also explaining in a very charitable way why it isn't particularly relevant to you. I think you also did a great job of begining to build up a liberation theology that is broader than mere poverty. In fact, some of the best liberation theologies - Black theology, feminist and womanist theologies, "queer" theology, etc. - have kept the main insights of Gutierrez's concern for the liberation of the poor, while expanding God's area of concern beyond mere economic consideration.

That said, here in the states - and, especially where I live, in Louisville, Kentucky - we do have poverty. And, the poverty that we have is often connected to other forms of oppression. Today I traveled through many of the "black" neighborhoods in our still deeply segregated cities. Those neighborhoods looks as different from mine as the skin color of the residents. Simply put, while we have a growing number of middle class blacks, the deepest pockets of grinding poverty in our city - and, in fact, in most if not all US cities - have black faces. This is by no means a coincidence.

That obersvation doesn't directly interact with your post, I know. But it is the beginning of my own contextual liberation theology. I simply refuse to allow myself to be willfully ignorant of my own privlege, or the extent to which others suffer and are oppressed. I need to be liberated from my complicity in an unjust and oppressive (and racist!) economic system, and I need to work for the liberation of those who are oppressed by the system that favors people who look like me.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Another reason why this one may not have done much for you, Patrik, may be timing. The book is a little dated. I read it when it first came out--and I was making trips to Central America with Witness for Peace trying to stop a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua, support for death squads in El Salvador, and resisting U.S. economic policies that contribute to Latin American poverty. In that context, this book by Gutierrez blew me away.

Also, it was a great response to the often-heard rant by the Right in the '80s that Latin American liberation theology was just "baptized Marxism" with no attention to spiritual issues.

dan said...

Hey Patrik,

Great post (I think that it faithfully follows Gutierrez's injunction to "drink from our own wells" -- and I think that Gutierrez would agree that you have captured the spirit of his book here). However, having worked my way through quite a bit of Gutierrez (and other Latin America liberation theologians), I do agree that We Drink From Our Own Wells isn't the most impressive thing out there at the moment.

What I find most interesting about your post is the way in which "poverty" appears to be a "rather abstract thing" in Finland. Hard for me to imagine. However, it seems like you are on your way to developing a Finnish theology of liberation -- I'd be curious to hear more of that.

Grace and peace.

WTM said...

Nice post, Patrik. I think you did a good job of translating Gutierrez' concerns into your own context, and it sounds like your context is experiencing its own struggles beneath what is perhaps a placid surface. Perhaps it is time for a Finnish theology of liberation (or a North American theology of liberation) to be written!

Patrik said...

Thanks for your comments all of you. Maybe a theology of liberation is what I am working at, actually. Even if it isn't that clear in my soon to be finished thesis, this is more or less my take asceticism: a way for a person to escape the oppression of society. I'll get back to that one.

What has happened for me lately is that I'm becoming steadily more politically radical, and I have to ask myself at which point being "left" stops being about exposing the underlying structures of control in society and starts being about pure paranoia. The sheer amount of idiocy that the politicians and media feed us with is so immense. My favourite example at the moment is this: Do you remember how they used to have reasons for raising gas prices? Like extremely cold winters, war or the Persian Gulf being filled with mines? Well a while a go they raise the prices again and the reason they gave was "spring". You know, like it was the season for raising gas prices or something. How about "lack of oil"? But no one questions it.

There's a verse in the NT that I really hate: "And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days".

byron said...

I doubt anyone who believes that has read this far

(only USA and some other country (was it Australia?) produce more CO2 per capita than Finland)
According to Wikipedia, Finland is 20th, Australia is 12th and the USA 11th.

Patrik said...

Thanks a lot for that link byron. I've been trying to confirm these numberes. I guess the info I had was not "world" but some other group such as western countries, OECD or so.

If we discard Luxembourg and other tiny countries and all the arab countries, the list is 1 US, 2 Australia 3 Canada 4 Finland.

The most important figure for Finland is to compare with our neighbour Sweden. They have approximately the same climate as us, and they have about half our emissions.

Weekend Fisher said...

Why do I find the automatic discarding of certain countries (some based on the ethnicity of the inhabitants) so ironic in the context of this post? Hmm.

But I mainly wanted to comment on the post itself. Do you follow Phil's blog hyperekperissou? (If not you can get there from my blogroll.) His recent posts might be of interest to you; he was posting on similar thoughts recently though starting from patristics.

Your description of Finland sounds like it has one fewer materialist illusion than the U.S. From what you say, Finland has (more or less) succeeded in reaching the Materialist Nirvana -- and found it wasn't all that satisfying. Or "42" as Doug Adams would say. The U.S. is still largely imagining that if only it could reach that pinnacle, all would be well ...

Take care & God bless

Patrik said...

Well, I did not mean to discard those countries in any other sense then to arrive at the list had in mind.

Joseph Collins said...

I appreciate your opinions in relation to a theology not for you in LA context, however, if we are all part of the Body of Christ, then their problem is our problem.

I think the West is pitiful, blind, deaf and lame because we have cut off the limbs of those crying out in other countries - after all they are not in my neighbourhood, so they are not my problem.

Joseph. New Zealand.