The book club met in Yorks Bakery to discuss Christopher Hitchens writing about Mother Theresa. 10 people attended and as the book was only 100 pages we had nearly all read the whole book.
Thinking about Mother Theresa most people in the group felt that prior to reading the book they were aware of her, had never thought about her much but knew she was ‘good’. She is famously good- I can remember learning to read from a book detailing her good works.
Christopher Hitchens challenges the myth within national consciousness that she is good on a number of levels:
- She claims political neutrality accepting donations from (seemingly) anyone who will donate to her mission. This neutrality though hides a political element – she has been photographed with some controversial political figures – and as she is famously good lends credence to their political platforms.
- She helps the ‘poorest of the poor’ and the ‘lowest of the low’ but she does this by trying to assist them in enduring their suffering- sitting at the bedside of the sick mopping their brows, rather than by trying to bring about structural change that would provide jobs and services to change their condition.
- Her position on population control is controversial- she is very much against both contraception and abortion whilst working in countries where resources are struggling to meet the needs of an expanding population. In her Nobel prize acceptance speech she described abortion as the greatest threat to peace.
- Her organisation demonstrates an absence of accountability- large amounts of money are raised by her organisation and it isn’t used for the purposes we would expect. It isn’t used to build modern hospital, or to provide medicine; large amounts don’t appear to be used at all and sit untouched in bank accounts. The organisation doesn’t publish accounts demonstrating good stewardship of these funds.
- She is criticised for her missionary zeal- the purpose of her work is for the greater glory of god. Funds are devoted to alter ornaments and nuns have secretly converted the sick on their death beds.
Our conclusions as a group after some wide ranging discussions were slightly unexpected. We felt that within her world view (which we weren’t prepared to accept) she did think she was doing good. If you accept the conceit that heaven exists and noble suffering will gain you entrance then her actions make sense. We felt that she hadn’t been duplicitous about her world view but that ‘we’ had chosen to assume it was something else (although, it did seem slightly hypocritical that she had accepted expensive medical attention when she was ill). In short we accepted that she had done ‘bad’ but not that she was evil.
We discussed charity (the nature of giving, whose benefit is it for- the giver or the receiver) and international development. When looking at international aid we considered its purpose (to help the starving, to ensure politicians enter heaven, to secure British jobs and contracts or to stem migration).
The book itself came in for some criticism. It was very short and a number of areas (such as the structure and function of the organisation) would have benefitted from expansion. Direct quotes from people who had worked with Mother Theresa were used to illustrate points which added weight and life to the book. Christopher Hitchens has fantastic use of language constructing some brilliantly descriptive insults).
We were glad to have read the book, it changed how we saw Mother Theresa and one participant working in international development felt that it would change some aspects of her work.
After the book discussion we adjoined to the pub where we discussed the relative merits of cushions, Iron Man films and the potential existence of Shrewsbury.
This is the documentary Christopher Hitchens made before writing the book.
This review was by Jade Quarrell