To open the life of someone like Mother Teresa to scrutiny is always a difficult task. First, there is an aura that surrounds her image, one which seems to disallow any form of criticism. Second, there is a sense of inadequacy in all of us because of her spartan life filled with a genuine sense of service. There are some similarities with Gandhi, who also made criticism seem absurd as he sat amongst the poor in their clothes and with a smile on his ineffable face.
Certainly, Mother Teresa was an extraordinary person, or else there would not be such attention paid at the time of her death. This critique of Mother Teresa is not intended to downplay her role in the amelioration of suffering among some of the world’s poor. Our interest does not lie in the intricacies of her theology but in the limitations of her work. For, in the end, her work was part of a global enterprise for the alleviation of bourgeois guilt rather than a genuine challenge to those forces that produce and maintain poverty.
Proto-Saint of Calcutta
The problem with Mother Teresa begins with her glorifiers who have removed her from the realm of history and deposited her, during her lifetime, in the realm of myth. It all began with Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1969 documentary and 1971 book, Something Beautiful for God, which transformed a local social worker into a saint. Soon, the entire panoply of media and professional mendicants descended upon Calcutta to put the city down in order to lift Mother Teresa up.
Calcutta became the ahistorical emblem of distress. Its imperial past and communist present did not enter into this representation of the city. There was no sense of the destruction wrought by the East India Company and, later, by the British Empire. Further, there was no interest in the events in East Pakistan (Bangladesh, after 1971), from where 12 million refugees descended upon West Bengal. Muggeridge and his ilk pay little heed to the creation and maintenance of poverty in Bengal.
Of Calcutta’s poverty, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted in Tristes Tropiques that “they are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper.” India, for him, is a “martyred continent” whose people are not poor for any reason other than demography. Levi-Strauss, like Muggeridge, relies upon Malthusianism (“overpopulated”), a theory which cannot grasp the structural problems of the region, but which offers cheap slogans in the service of callousness. These writers turn Calcutta into a vile pit, oppressed by its teeming millions, rather than exploited by the forces of international capital, among others; the salvation of the city is not to be found in anti-capitalist movements, but in the intercession of the proto-saint.
During the period of Muggeridge’s visit to the city, the left forces of West Bengal formed a United Front experiment. They pledged to “govern and mobilise” the people, and to organise the peasantry and proletariat so as to devolve power into their hands. During these experiments, the Congress Party and its US allies conducted a reign of terror against the Communists. (Not many are aware of Senator Daniel P. Moynihan’s revelation: “We had twice, but only twice, interfered in Indian politics to the extent of providing money to a political party. Both times it was done in the face of a prospective Communist victory in a state election, once in Kerala and once in West Bengal, where Calcutta is located.”)
An important consequence of the United Front’s mobilisation was the raising of political awareness among the poor, a fact that has been widely acknowledged. But it serves the anti-communist pundits well to ignore these developments and concentrate on saintliness instead. To them, the only hope for the poor appeared to be Mother Teresa. Her own history (her past and present) was rapidly superseded by the myth that was Mother Teresa. This was compounded after the Indian government bestowed upon her the Prize of the Miraculous Lotus, the Vatican the John XXIII Prize for Peace in 1971, the US the Good Samaritan Prize and the John F. Kennedy Award, and the British the Templeton Prize in 1973. The United Nations struck a medal in her honour in 1975, and with 1979 came the coup de grace, when she received the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Cult of Suffering
With the Vatican’s blessings, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 to continue “Christ’s concern for the poor and the lowliest”, as the 120-page constitution of the Missionaries puts it. The Missionaries set up homes for the dying, a leper village and a children’s home. But Mother Teresa’s sisters attempted to soothe the wails of the ill and the dying with the balm of love alone. Many had only rudimentary training in the arts of allopathic medicine (or any medical tradition, for that matter).
In 1994, when Robin Fox, a medical doctor, visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, he found that the sisters did not utilise modern technology (notably study of blood to determine such common ailments as malaria from other illnesses). The sisters used no procedures to distinguish the curable from the incurable. Wrote Dr Fox in The Lancet (17 September 1994): “Such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home.” On the question of pain and its alleviation, the sisters offered no relief for the dying. “I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics,” was Dr Fox’s comment.
That is precisely what Christopher Hitchens argues in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice: “The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.” Further, “helpless infants, abandoned derelicts, lepers and the terminally ill are the raw material for demonstrations of compassion. They are in no position to complain, and their passivity and abjection is considered to be a sterling trait.”
The Beautiful Poor
The idea that poverty is the condition of saintliness is shared by the Christianity of Mother Teresa and the non-denominational saintliness of Mahatma Gandhi. Both identified the poor as the blessed and they both sought not to abolish poverty, but to valorise the poor and suggest that only amongst the poor can one find happiness. Gandhi wrote extensively of the “dignity of poverty” and he extolled people to see the joy of poverty.
Along these lines, Mother Teresa noted that poverty is “beautiful”. Rather than something bad, poverty then becomes something to celebrate. The poor can be treated with condescension as those who will redeem the world by their acceptance of charity. This approach expresses no interest in the causes of poverty and in the condition of patronage demanded of the poor by the charity industry. Upon Mother Teresa’s death, her successor Sister Nirmala noted that “poverty will always exist. We want the poor to see poverty in the right way – to accept it and believe that the Lord will provide.”
The Missionaries of Charity preach subservience and fatalism, two habits that hold back any hope of the politicisation of the poor towards genuine social change. To be fair to Mother Teresa, when she was criticised in Latin America for her failure to grasp the roots of poverty, she said that “if people feel it is their vocation to change structures, then that is the work they must do”. This is a rather noncommittal statement, but it does offer some suggestion of Mother Teresa’s own inconsistent position on poverty. That is, if poverty is “beautiful” and if it is inevitable, is there any point in identifying and combating the structures that produce poverty?
Trough of Guilt
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about Mother Teresa’s life was the company she kept, partly, one would like to believe, for raising money to do her work. She was, of course, not alone, since many nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are prone to cavort with the rich and famous from whom they secure funds to do their work. Think of those with whom Mother Teresa was often photographed: Diana Spencer, Michhle Duvalier (wife of Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier), Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Robert Maxwell and, finally, Charles Keating.
Charles Keating is best remembered in the US as the person behind what is known as the Savings and Loans fiasco. In 1992, he was charged with 70 counts of racketeering and fraud and escaped a 10-year sentence on a procedural matter. Keating, who ripped off US workers of millions of dollars, and who bribed five US Senators (the “Keating Five”) to prevent his prosecution, had during his halcyon days donated USD 1.25 million to the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa also used to fly in his private jet.
When Keating was brought to trial, Mother Teresa wrote to the judge on behalf of her friend. She started her letter with “we do not mix up in Business or Politicts [sic] or courts,” which was of course just what she was doing with the letter. The letter continues, “I do not know anything about Mr Charles Keating’s work or his business or the matters you are dealing with. I only know that he has always been kind and generous to God’s poor, and always ready to help whenever there was a need.” She then asks the judge to go inside his heart, pray and follow the example of Jesus. Either the Mother was naive, which is unlikely, or she was not concerned about the means by which Keating made that money (by going against “God’s poor”), only a fraction of which was returned as charity to earn the prestige of Mother Teresa’s name.
Mother Teresa, like other “non-political” service organisations, ended up compromising her principles for her benefactors. There are other examples of her having two sets of principles: one for those in power, and another for those who are powerless. But this is not merely an essay about Mother Teresa, but also an attempt to explain the nature of the charity industry, which is more often than not a trough for bourgeois guilt.
There will be many Teresas in the future to assuage this sensibility of guilt, itself unresolvable under the cruel rule of capital. Mother Teresa’s Sisyphian labour was meaningful to the proletariat, the peasantry and unemployed. Bengal’s proletariat and peasantry are today in the midst of a process of politicisation. As lines of demarcation become distinct, and different approaches to poverty become clear, the admiration of the people will lessen.