The unique format of the book as a conversation takes its shape from a public lecture series held at Notre Dame entitled, “Re-imagining Accompaniment: Global Health and Liberation Theology.” In addition to material from that event including a public interview with the authors, the book integrates previously published work by each of them, and a new reflection by Dr. Farmer’s on on the spirituality of accompanying the poor. The material reads remarkably well as a vibrant conversation between friends despite the fact that portions were written long before the authors personally knew each other.
The interview conducted on stage at Notre Dame is the least coherent part of the book. This may be due to minimal or hurried editorial work applied to extemporaneous comments. But the reader is more than compensated by the profusion of insights, aphorisms and bon mots throughout this section. Perhaps the unpolished character of the interview was the most direct way of conveying each author’s charm, and the mutual respect they share.
This book works well as an introduction to liberation theology for healthcare professionals. The chapter containing the most academic theology is intentionally placed toward the end, in the hope that a reader who is not already theologically trained will be prepared for it by what comes before.
The book also serves as a primer in the ways liberation theology has evolved over time, providing a picture of the “state of the art.” A large part of this evolution is in how Dr. Farmer has assimilated the lessons of liberation into his medical practice. Moving from the realization that infectious disease “makes its own preferential option for the poor,” Dr. Farmer has become a tireless advocate for the notion that not only are the poor “every bit as deserving of good medical care as the rest of us, [they] are more deserving of good medical than the rest of us.”
The book provides Fr. Gutiérrez with an opportunity to continue to combat misconceptions about liberation theology, including the persistent claim that it is simply Marxism disguised in Christian language. Fr. Gutiérrez patiently insists that the basis for liberation theology has always been, and will always continue to be a quest for a way to authentically say to the poor, “God loves you.”
Another subtle insistence is on the continuity of liberation theology with Christian tradition, including with the teaching of the last two popes. Fr. Gutiérrez’s encyclopedic knowledge of encyclicals and papal addresses allows him to quote John Paul II and Benedict XVI saying all sorts of things that seem to challenge–or at least provide some nuance to–the official story of liberation theology’s troubled relationship with the Vatican.
Most importantly, In the Company of the Poor is a call to praxis for all Christians, catholic or protestant; theologian, clergy or lay. Of the sections by and about Dr. Farmer, almost every page screams, “Here is a doctor and medical anthropologist, a nominal Catholic with huge doubts about God who is practicing theology better than you.” And of course the understated humility of Fr. Gutiérrez combined with his 50+ years of faithful ministry speaks for itself.
In the Company of the Poor presents a simple and costly message to those who endeavor to take the Gospel seriously: our calling is not to save the poor from themselves, or to save the poor at all, but to accompany the poor in their journey of liberation. As Fr. Gutiérrez affirms, “Even if we cannot explain situations of suffering, we can be close to people suffering.”
James Stambaugh is a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church. In addition to writing and preaching, his ministry interests include outreach and peace and reconciliation work. He lives in Albuquerque, NM with his lovely wife and two darling children.