Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens

While reading The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens, I came across a concept that was disturbing to me. "The poor are instruments in religious campaign--an occasion for piety." In other words, it is believed that the poor must exist in order to give more fortunate people the opportunity to espress charity.

Another quote: "[less fortunate people] are the raw material for demonstrations of compassion."

A person or organization whose stated purpose is to help a group of "less fortunates" (the poor, disabled, disenfranchised, oppressed, etc.) depends on the continued existence of those less fortunates. Where does helping end and parasitization begin, however? If someone is "inspired" by the strength and courage of a poor or disabled person, for example, then they have little impetus to contribute toward changing the situation.

The book goes a long way towards demonstrating that Mother Teresa's reputation for helping the poor is ill-deserved, and that she used them as a means toward religious campaigning while giving them very little in the way of actual aid. The sick who came to her hospitals very frequently died of easily treatable problems because the sisters were not permitted to spend money on real medical care, and not allowed to send patients away to a real hospital. The organization took in more than enough money to build state-of-the-art hospitals in India, money donated by people who thought their funds were going to be used to feed, clothe, and medically care for the needy, but in truth, the money did not go toward much of that at all.

The poor and sick were used to guilt people into donating cash, but they were not treated at all. One quote particularly sickened me:
"...lack of good analgesia marks Mother Teresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement." -- Dr. Robin Fox, 17 Sept 1994, The Lancet.

In other words, people were allowed to die of horrific, painful conditions without the benefit of pain management, even though the organization could clearly afford it. In the US, her "hospitals" would have been a litigation nightmare, and the horrors suffered by its victims (I can't bring myself to call them patients) would have earned prison sentences for those in charge. Males and females had their heads shaved to make managing them easier. There was no such thing as antiseptic protocol, and needles were used and re-used past dullness.

This book covered much more than the inhumane treatment of those who were supposed to be helped, but this is the theme that hit me the hardest. It also reminded me to be continually vigilant regarding institutions whose missions are to eliminate or reduce a condition, be it poverty, disability, or, dare I say it, even fatness (don't get me started on diet companies who depend upon the continued failure of their programs to generate repeat business). Yes, many of these organizations do mean well, and many are doing good things for the community, but it would be folly to assume that they do not need oversight. Mother Teresa's abominable actions are a clear indication of that.

I wanted to say, separate from the rest of the book review, I was very turned off in the first few pages. Hitchens starts off in the first paragraph with some fat hate, irrelevant to the subject. He's talking about Jean-Claude Duvalier, who has plenty of other adjectives that can be used to describe him ("mass-murdering", "thieving", "megalomaniacal", and "cruel" work for me), and the worst things he can say about the guy are that he is fat, and, a couple pages later, "bulbous"?! Fat as shorthand for evil is really lazy, man.

I also was put off by his anti-Clinton bias, which is so strong that I started questioning his facts. I understand that people don't like the Clintons, but can we focus on the subject at hand? Fortunately, he stopped that nonsense in the introduction, and did a pretty good job with the rest of the book.

Overall, I was satisfied with the book. Hitchens crammed an incredibly convincing case into under 100 pages, with enough follow-up reading to satisfy a desire for more information. His writing style is clear and concise, and he did a wonderful amount of research. I give this one four stars. It would be five if not for the above to paragraphs' worth of problems I had with the book.

Further reading:
Mother Teresa's House of Illusions: How She Harmed Her Helpers As Well As Those They 'Helped' by Susan Shields Susan shields is a former sister in Mother Teresa's order.

Book Review by Norman Taylor He mentions the "Gift of Love" HIV shelter that was abusive and cruel.

6 comments:

Ruth said...

I've always had trouble with Hitchens, exactly because of what the last two paragraphs of your post say. Even though I agree with him about Mother Teresa - she really was abominable - his opinions on other issues and his abrasive attitude elsewhere make it hard for me to take him seriously sometimes. But regardless of my opinion on Hitchens, this is a great post from all sorts of points of view.

Hekateris said...

Yes, what Ruth said!

Deniselle said...

My Dad bought me this book back in the day, obviously in reverence to Mother Theresa, "an important person". He doesn't know much English and obviously didn't realize what the book was all about. I enjoyed reading it; it was my first introduction to critical writing that goes against what mainstream media says. I was shocked by a lot of it, but it also inspired me to think for myself.

I didn't like that he tried to use it as proof that there is no God, though. I really don't think it was relevant to the issue, which to me was cruelty and deception in this particular case, not "all religion is cruelty and deception".

I think the Mother Theresa cult fed on the guilt of Western people. And once you give the money, hey, no need to see where it goes because you already did your share. It gave her a pretty terrifying power.

Sarah said...

I don't know, I worked in one of her missions and didn't see anything like Hitchens described.

Just to consider -- if his anti-Clinton bias seems overwhelming -- maybe he is biased against Mother Theresa as well? I'm in no way saying she was perfect or that her organizations are above reproach. Anything run by humans is necessarily flawed. But if he's so prejudiced against the Clintons -- perhaps he's unreasonable here, too. Just my two cents.

Susan Cogan said...

I'd love to see another source of reportage on M. Teresa. Hitchens is a wonderful reporter, but very biased. I don't believe she fooled people so seamlessly. I think she wasn't all she should have been but I am having a lot of trouble believing people showered her with millions of dollars over DECADES while she required reusing needles and letting people die of treatable illnesses. That kind of thing would get out, surely. Wouldn't it?

an atheist said...

The disturbing concept you recognize is straight out of "Modell of Christian Charity" by John Winthrop in 1630. It very definitely posits the poor as a means to salvation for the rich. Repellent and pathetic.