Monday 21 April 2008

A poster-nun for the West

Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor (1997), directed by Kevin Connor

In keeping with the sort of prurient vacuity that allowed the Monica Lewinsky affair to dominate the airwaves when America and Britain launched a massive series of air-strikes on Iraq in December 1998, a year earlier the death of Diana, Princess of Wales completely overshadowed the demise, a few days earlier, of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Ten years is long enough for some mature judgements to form about the life and impact of public figures. But just as the absurd conspiracy theories dredged up at the recent Diana inquest tell us nothing we want to know about her, so the DVD release of this poorly-scripted, badly acted, hagiographical film on Mother Teresa (played by Geraldine Chaplin) tells us nothing more than what the establishment want us to think about her.

The film follows the nun from the traumatic period of Partition in India to her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. It is an incredibly one-dimensional account of her struggles to fulfil what she regarded as her religious calling, as she overcomes each challenge put in her way: clerical opposition to her leaving cloisters to minister to the poor, the resentment of the slum-dwellers she patronises, local authorities who are suspicious of her work, and the anger of Hindus when she bases her Missionaries of Charity order in a disused Hindu temple. The clear implication in each case is that Teresa triumphed because God was on her side. The broader political and social setting is completely ignored – it is her sheer piety and moral willpower that sees her through and rightly rewarded.

The elitism of this hyper-individualist mythologising is constantly expressed throughout the film. Having been saved from a hostile crowd of locals by a man whose wounds she treated during the Partition riots (who becomes her faithful sidekick, a sort of Indian Dick van Dyke), Teresa later wins over the slum-dwellers by standing up to the local police commissioner, sent by the city council to clean up the rubbish dump from which the people eke their miserable sustenance. The slum-dwellers are too feeble to defend their own interests, but the persuasive power of one Albanian nun is sufficient to override the will of Calcutta’s elected representatives. Later the same police commissioner reappears to clear Teresa’s hospital out of the Hindu temple, but again his intelligence and compassion win out over the baying mob when he sees the work she is doing.

There are all sorts of fascinating contradictions and issues that could be explored by a film on Mother Teresa: her work did, for instance, attract the opposition of the Hindu right – an opportunity to explore the social, moral and political issues around humanitarian work, as well as Teresa’s personal motives – but instead she is merely depicted as a selfless hero who conquers irrational opposition to her mission. The undertone is a constant affirmation that her Christian values are superior to those of Hindus. The evasion of any real sophistication is further accomplished by the film-makers’ decision to skip twenty-five years of history, thus brushing over the traumatic Emergency period under Indira Gandhi before ending with Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Teresa claimed in her actual Nobel Lecture that ‘the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing - direct murder by the mother herself’ – this in a context of high tension between two Cold War superpowers armed with nuclear weapons, and imperialist wars and interventions in El Salvador, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola, to name but a few. Teresa’s poisonous Catholic ideology is surely the main reason why her life’s work is worth scrutinising, rather than the ‘dodgy’ associations she may have picked up while courting Thatcher, Reagan, the Duvaliers, and various corrupt businessmen, chronicled in books like Christopher Hitchens’ 1995 book, The Missionary Position. The film does not recount her vicious attack on women, glossing the acceptance speech with phrases she never used, claiming that accepting the Nobel Prize would ‘bring an understanding love between the rich and the poor’. But it grasps (and endorses) her basic Catholic outlook in an earlier exchange with an American reporter:

REPORTER: Don’t you see? These beloved poor, these people that you call the blessed ones, are the result of a criminal failure of society. Isn’t it better to correct the causes instead of treat the symptoms?
TERESA: Someone must comfort the poor.
REPORTER: But that’s the problem. With all due respect, Mother Teresa, Nobel Peace Prizes do little more than appease the conscience of the world – we can all shed a tear because someone like you is taking care of the needy. And then, when the speeches have been made, we go right on living our numb, ignorant lives.
TERESA: Maybe our work will inspire others who are better able to change conditions.
REPORTER: Not if you continue to turn the poor into some sort of holy icon, Christ’s body on earth – they’re not Christ! What good is it to pretend they’re saints?
TERESA: We owe them everything. You have a Western mentality. You expect too much from poor humanity.

It is precisely this humanitarian culture of low expectations, of ministering to a romanticised poor, coupled with her reactionary social perspective, which endeared her to right-wing politicians in the West. It perfectly expresses the mystic fatalism of the Catholic Church, counterposed to an irrational ‘Western mentality’ – that is, a genuine radicalism that seeks to eradicate the causes of poverty. It is this basic predisposition, deeply ingrained in today’s vapid, neoliberal political culture, that sanctifies pious figures like Teresa (now beatified and awaiting just one more ‘miracle’ to attain sainthood) while vilifying revolutionaries, that prefers sporadic and self-interested humanitarian interventions and pitiful aid contributions to actions that might genuinely undo the structures than condemn billions of people to grinding poverty.

Teresa may have been more challenging than presented in this movie – her Nobel Lecture, after attacking women who have abortions, also urged Western countries to help their own poor and to ‘give until it hurts’ – but it is this essentially conservative outlook that made her a poster-nun for the West. Frankly, we will get nowhere as a species until we shrug off precisely what this film encourages – the simplistic worship of figures like Teresa who merely trim the weeds instead of grasping at the roots.

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