The late author's now-classic "The Missionary Position," a takedown of Mother Teresa, resonates even louder today
In the foreword to “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,” Christopher Hitchens imagined the question he invited by writing the book: “Who would be so base as to pick on her, a wizened, shriveled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and the destitute?”
The short version of Hitchens’s answer: Me.
His longer version: The implied question “Is nothing sacred?” must always be answered “with a stoical ‘No.’”
This fierce stance was central to Hitchens’s work, and now that he has been dead for a year, and Mother Teresa has been dead for 15 years, the reissue of “The Missionary Position” as an audiobook is less an opportunity to revisit the history of their disagreement (his explicit, hers implicit) than it is an opportunity to remember the value of Hitchens’s great pugnacious willingness to examine, in cold detail, the things the culture has enshrined, and to “scorn to use the fear of death to coerce and flatter the poor.”
A writer as strident as Hitchens benefits from an audiobook narrator as measured and assured as Simon Prebble. A lesser narrator might misguidedly over-perform, perhaps in the hope of matching the writer’s intensity. But Prebble is wise enough to let the prose do the performing, and in his restraint, he casts a warm light on Hitchens’ sentences, which, for all their accusatory adjectives and sharp edges, are always terribly precise, and occasionally beautiful.
The popular idea of Mother Teresa — Hitchens calls it “the whole Mother Teresa cult” — begins with “Something Beautiful for God,” a 1969 BBC documentary that was converted by Malcolm Muggeridge, in 1971, into a hagiographic book that attempted to establish, among other things, that Mother Teresa, though still alive, had already achieved the miracle that would be the prerequisite for sainthood.
The miracle in question was “a photographic miracle” of “divine light” which brilliantly illuminated BBC cameraman Ken Macmillan’s footage of Mother Teresa’s dimly lit Home for the Dying, but which Macmillan attributes, instead, to a new and better variety of filmstock recently shipped from Kodak. “It is the first unarguable refutation of a claimed miracle,” Hitchens wrote, “to come not merely from another supposed witness to said miracle but from its actual real-time author.”
Hitchens also objected to Muggeridge’s one-dimensional characterization of Calcutta, Mother Teresa’s base of operations, as a hell hole — a condescending and locally unpopular judgment, which failed to take into account the vitality of the culture, the work ethic of the people, or the historical conditions that gave rise to the city’s crowding and poverty. Even more, he objected to the thing Muggeridge admired most: The idea that what Calcutta suffered from most wasn’t material lack or physical need, but rather “being too distant from Jesus.”
This is the attitude that Hitchens saw as the central trouble with Mother Teresa. Although her emphasis was upon “the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low,” her solution was never to lift anyone out of poverty or lowness, much less to engage in a dialogue of change with the systems that perpetuated poverty and lowness. Since Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you,” then, in Hitchens’s estimation, there becomes no particular hurry to ease the general condition of poverty, and the poor become objects “used to illustrate morality tales,” to advance political causes such as the outlawing of contraception, and to proselytize.
Hitchens offered disturbing examples. When Dr. Robin Fox, editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet, visited Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying operation in Calcutta, in 1994, he found that systematic approaches to diagnosing and caring for ill patients were frowned upon, because Mother Teresa preferred “providence to planning,” with one consequence being that patients were frequently misdiagnosed and given the wrong medicines. (“Investigations,” as the attending sisters told him, “are seldom permissible.”) Worse, he found a disturbing lack of the strong analgesics that are often required to manage the pain of the dying. The lack of good analgesia, Fox said, “marks Mother Teresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.”
Other medical witnesses at Mother Teresa’s facilities spoke of inadequate beds, a lack of proper medical equipment, hypodermic needles reused without being sterilized, patients the sisters refused to transport to the hospital for relatively inexpensive antibiotics or operations, and all of it out of a logic of lack or resignation. One sister said, “If they do it for one, they do it for everybody.” Another, dismissing the unsterilized needles, said, “There’s no point. There’s no time.”
Hitchens’s response is worth quoting at length. “Bear in mind,” he wrote, “that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so, and indeed to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjugation.”
Much of the rest of “The Missionary Position” is interested in this tension between Mother Teresa’s resources and her organization’s unwillingness to deploy them in these basic and humane directions in the care facilities for which she had the final say. Particularly galling to Hitchens — and to the listener — is the contrast between a standard of care for the poor that a generous observer might have said bordered on neglect, and the extraordinary public affections, by contrast, that Mother Teresa lavished on wealthy patrons including the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the S&L looter Charles Keating, or the silence she granted as tacit grace to the Dergue junta in Ethiopia which used starvation as a weapon against the people of Eritrea, or to the local oligarchy in Guatemala which had its hand in the slaughter of Guatemalan Indians.
If all this seems like a harsh piling-on, it is. If it seems like old news, by now it also is. But history is always in conversation with the present, and courteous silence about the trouble of the past is a reliable ally of whatever trouble the present is cooking up for the future.
On these grounds, Hitchens couldn’t be any more timely. At the end of “The Missionary Position,” he proclaims: “It is past time that [Mother Teresa] was subjected to the rational critique that she has evaded so arrogantly and for so long.” The listener, having been convinced by the rigor of Hitchens’s evidence-gathering and the intelligent moral rightness of his argument, now might ask: What other sacrednesses in our culture conspire “to use the fear of death to coerce and flatter the poor?”
And then: Who now will be brave enough to defy the tyranny of niceness, and gather the crucial evidence, and offer it without apology?
* * *
New to Audible? Listen to “The Missionary Position” for free, or check out a sample.
Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014. More Kyle Minor.
More Related Stories
- How Dan Savage lost it
- Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"
- “Arrested Development,” hurry up and get here so you can stop being so annoying
- Must-do's: What we like this week
- Josh Ritter makes his "Blood on the Tracks"
- I don't hate millennials anymore!
- What's 2013's "Gone Girl"? Here are this summer's best reads
- Fox executive behind "Does Someone Have to Go?" leaving the network
- Hillary Clinton memoir shows up on Amazon
- A brief history of Jennifer Weiner's literary fights
- First look: Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard shine in "The Immigrant”
- No women allowed: Summer music festivals are dudefests, again
- Vivica A. Fox tapes anti-gun PSA in front of poster for her movie
- This is what Guy Fieri looks like as a balloon
- Mariah Carey's rambling, cursing, dress-popping "Good Morning America" concert
- Fox's new reality TV show threatens regular people with unemployment
- Amanda Bynes arrested after hurling bong from window
- Steamy lesbian-sex movie has Cannes abuzz
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
The Listener is Salon's new weekly audiobook review column, where Laura Miller and other top critics will recommend a great new title for you to plug into. So stay tuned -- and come back every Thursday for a new installment.