Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens (Book Review #93 of 2015)


The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
Several years ago I met a man who helped Mother Theresa through Bluegrass Airport in Lexington, KY after she had visited with nuns working in Eastern KY (Appalachia). He told me this story: When they came to a set of stairs to the terminal, the man (noting she was rather frail) asked her if she'd rather use the elevator to which she declined by saying "If I give each step to the Lord, it's not difficult for me." I've always carried that story as an example of faith and an attitude of praying without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

But compare the man's story with one that Hitchens recounts from a worker with the Missionaries of Charity when the sisters were establishing a home for the poor in the Bronx, NY after the city sold them a building for a dollar. Mother Teresa abandoned the project because city ordinance required that an elevator be installed for use by the disabled, and this was unacceptable to her. In Teresa's world, the Christian is required to suffer when possible. One apologist criticizes Hitchens on this point http://www.catholicleague.org/hating-mother-teresa/ noting that the sisters had "pledged to carry the handicapped up the stairs, making moot the need for the elevator," but imagine women carrying 300 pound men in that way-- for what purpose? That would not be healthy either for the sisters or the homeless.

Teresa is quoted elsewhere as saying "“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ's Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”
An irony is that she allowed herself to be treated at a hospital when her health declined. Hitchens cites one example from Mother Teresa's conversation with a dying woman:
 "One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, 'You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.' And she joined her hands together and said, 'Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.'”

The sisters who worked for her did so in austere conditions, contracting tuberculosis and various other maladies while there was plenty of money available for plumbing and more hygenic conditions. When the local areas suffered flood and famine, none of the millions accumulated by Missionaries of Charity was spent on their relief. Medical organizations pointed out the pain the infirm in Teresa's facilities were experiencing because she did not practice basic sterilization of needles, to which she answered "there's no time." Hitchens doesn't state as such, but it would seem like Mother Teresa had poor theology either from Greek thought or Gnosticism that the body is somehow evil. This is contrary to Scripture, and I could point the interested reader to many works looking at this view (it pervades the West in the false secular-sacred dichotomy as well). Hitchens cites workers who reveal the cult-like mentality, Sisters believing they needed to live in such austere devotion and suffering in order to inherit eternal life, also contrary to the Gospel. In this interview, one former Sister writes of her time and how she has since changed her mind:
"I certainly now reject the notion that love demands the immolation of self for the beloved, though that’s something Mother Teresa seemed to believe all her life."

Hitchens is correct in that many of us view Calcutta as a poor and awful place because we see it through the pictures and footage of her clinics. He points out that the city is on par with some in Europe, and that Missionaries of Charity had millions sitting unused in bank accounts when they could have been used to improve the condition of the poor. But few people criticized her for these conditions. When cult leaders like David Koresh keep children in harsh conditions we respond with outrage and police force, but Mother Teresa faced no such outrage and was awarded with more money and a Nobel Prize.

Hitchens recounts Mother Teresa's appearances with various international criminals, tyrants, and others who were perhaps eager to improve their image. If the price was right, Mother Teresa would apparently travel anywhere. The most bizarre recounting came in Teresa's writing a letter to Judge Lance Ito requesting clemency on behalf of the junk bond salesman and convicted embezzler Charles Keating, who had donated a large sum to the Missionaries of Charity and allowed Teresa to use his private jet. Keating's donations came from his illicit gains in the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s. Hitchens publishes a letter written in response to Teresa from a prosecutor, which eloquently informs Teresa of Keating's crimes and makes the case (from a Christian worldview) that she consider giving the money back to the victims of Keating's crimes, which the prosecutor will help accomplish. Mother Teresa never replied. Hitchens thus compares Mother Teresa to a televangelist.

In the Catholic church it is apparently required that a miracle be certified in order for a mortal to be beatified as a "saint." For Teresa, the first miracle reportedly occurred in 1971 when a photographer filmed her working at the Home for the Dying where the light was poor. When they developed the film, they were surprised how clear the photos had turned out to be. The photographer credited the "miraculous" clear photos to the new film they were using, produced by Kodak.  But the maker of the documentary seized the moment to claim a miracle of divine light. Hitchens points out that this is a case where evidence of a miracle is denied by the photographer author of the miracle. After this book was published, Hitchens was called to testify against Teresa and her alleged miracles in Mother Teresa's beatification process (playing the role of "devil's advocate"). The Vatican did not agree with him.

Post-publication, Hitchens complained that Mother Teresa admitted to him that she was not a social worker, she was not interested in improving the lives of the poor but rather in expanding the number of Catholics. Once documentaries were made and awards were given, her story took on a life of its own and no one bothered to look into the truth. The author closes the book with a brief biographical into for context, how Teresa grew up in Albania and where the roots of her faith and theology were found. Hitchens largest beef is perhaps with Teresa's criticism of birth control and contraception, arguing that she should not comment on that which she has never experienced.

My problem with the book is twofold. First, Hitchens criticizes Mother Teresa for having an attitude on the poor and suffering that is different from his own. But why is hers incorrect and his correct? He could argue pretty easily that her theology does not match what is actually in the Bible, but that wouldn't get far as you could say that of much of Catholocism, and Hitchens doesn't believe the Bible is much more than literature. On what moral basis can Hitchens, who as an atheist believes morality is our own invention, argue that Mother Teresa is immoral or unethical?

Second, Hitchens lumps all Christian charity together in denouncing Mother Teresa. NY Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, who travels the world highlighting the work of various relief organizations, goes a different route in his writings-- noting that many of the world's great relief efforts are done by religiously-minded people who admonish Jesus teachings to love, feed, and clothe the poor. One has to read Hitchens' God is Not Great to get his greater beef with Christianity, Catholicism, and his belief that atheists can be just as compassionate, if not moreso. Having read that book, I found his arguments to be circular-- he has to borrow the Christian definitions of morality to argue his own positions that atheists like himself are more moral. Since he throws the baby out with the bathwater, I have to give him 3 stars out of 5. (Other commenters have pointed out simple mistakes of names and places that show maybe Hitchens was not on top of his game as he wrote it.) I learned a great deal from this book and always enjoy Hitchens' style.

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