How Christopher Hitchens proved that nothing is sacred

The late author's now-classic "The Missionary Position," a takedown of Mother Teresa, resonates even louder today

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How Christopher Hitchens proved that nothing is sacred

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.”

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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.

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