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Did Mother Teresa trivialise poverty? 'You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you'

By Harsh Thakor* 
The world commemorated the 25th death anniversary of Mother Teresa on September 5. Whatever her flaws, she rendered service to humanity in regions almost untranscended, resembling the relentless spirit of the waves of an ocean. Irrespective of community or religion, she offered her service.
Even those not drawn by sainthood revere the role of Mother Teresa. For 68 years, she had worked selflessly and tirelessly in India and elsewhere in the world, taught the destitute, healed the sick, fed and clothed the poor, cared for abandoned children, housed lepers and those afflicted with HIV/AIDS and offered dignity in death to desolate persons abandoned by family and society.
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje in 1910 to an Albanian family as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu. She became wedded to religious vows at an early age and moved to India to join the missionary work of the Catholic Church. Heartshaken by the misery faced by the Indian masses, in 1950 she set up her own Missionaries of Charity, and began giving medical treatment to the dying poor of Calcutta.
It could be interpreted that Mother Teresa’s philosophy, which asked the poor to passively accept their fate, paved the way for the rich and the powerful to enslave the oppressed. Quoting Teresa, “there’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion”, left people bewildered: did she trivialise poverty?
She once comforted a sufferer, with the line: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you.” The infuriated man screamed, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.” Yet as a Christian in a Hindu majority country, such Teresa words left people mesmerised.
Today the Hindu right-wing forces have launched a vendetta against Mother Teresa and Christian missionaries, resorting to persecution at times. Secular people oppose conversion but that does not mean that the social contribution of nuns towards the poor should not be recognised.
True, Mother Teresa befriended some of the world’s most savage dictators and received lavish donations from all sorts of gangsters and oligarchs. In 1981 she travelled to Haiti to be awarded the “Légion d’Honneur” by the corrupt, brutal dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During her visit, Teresa remarked that she “had never seen poor people being so familiar with their head of state”. This head of state, so familiar with his people, would be overthrown five years later in a popular insurrection.
She also received donations, titles, and ovations from the likes of Ronald Reagan, who was colluding in the murder of socialist Catholic priests in El Salvador at the time, or the Guatemalan military junta. When Teresa visited Guatemala in 1979, the dictatorship was conducting a savage counterinsurgency campaign against the communist guerrillas and genocide against the indigenous population.
When asked about her visit, her only comment was, “Everything looked peaceful in the places we went to. I don’t get myself involved in that type of politics.” Teresa also received enormous donations from gangsters and crooks like arch-conservative financier and Nixon advisor Charles Keating, involved in a major fraud scandal.
Many questioned how she could ethically take money from the world’s most obnoxious dictators. Why was she silent about unjust wars and oppression?
Prestigious medical journals such as "The Lancet" have reported that, despite the generous funding of Teresa’s foundation, these centres were (and are) known for negligence of basic standards of hygiene, by overcrowding, by the disregard for modern medical protocols, and by an under qualified staff. She was a campaigner against women’s rights, as well as opposing birth control and abortion.
Such criticism is valid. However, on balance, thousands of Indians lives improved because of the work of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as compared with how they would have fared in the absence of their work. Her good outweighed whatever harm she might have created. Such drawbacks cannot deny her rendering selfless service to mankind.
Mother Teresa resurrected the spirit of a Tolstoy or a Gandhi. Her work was manifestation of the teachings of Christ
Mother Teresa didn’t deserve the unscathing attack of Marxist intellectuals like Cristopher Hitchens or of Marxist groups. Her work lit a spark to turn serving humanity or spirit of compassion into prairie fire. Mother Teresa resurrected the spirit of a Tolstoy or a Gandhi, and her work was manifestation of the teachings of Christ.
Progressives should deny miracles but should not deny Mother Teresa’s role in touching the inner spirit. Even atheists, rationalists and Marxists cannot deny her relentless dedication to serve the poor, on the lines of a social reformer. Marxists should recall the similarities of teachings of Christianity in serving the poor. Even in the colonial days we have striking examples of selfless work by missionaries.
Although she staunchly remained a Catholic, her brand of religion was not exclusive. Convinced that each person was a manifestation of Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of every faith. Her's was not the 19th-century brand of imperial evangelism. Unlike most in the Church, she understood the environment in which she lived and worked.
Jyoti Basu, that indomitable chief minister of West Bengal, on being asked what he, as a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom God was everything, with a smile replied, “We both share a love for the poor.”
When asked how she and her mission could care for hundreds of thousands of destitute persons, and what made this possible, she explained simply but meaningfully: “You can, at best, look after a few loved ones in your family. My sisters and I can look after everyone, because for us they are all God”.
So, the leprosy-affected man bounded by his brothers in a hut, the infant left under a truck and saved just in time from prowling dogs, the woman dumped on a rubbish heap by her own son and left to die because he had now secured her property, were manifestations of her God in suffering.
Perhaps the most succinct summing up of Mother Teresa’s life and work was made by the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, John Sannes. In his speech at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo in 1979, he said:
“The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual’s worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers have all been received by her and her sisters with warm compassion, devoid of condescension, based on her reverence for Christ in man.This is the life of Mother Teresa and her sisters — a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious.”
It is also useful to recall what arch-atheist Karl Marx had to say about religion: "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."
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*Freelance journalist who has covered mass movements around India and researched on social liberation

Comments

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