No sects, please, we're British

The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens, Verso, pounds 7.95 A Simple Path by Mother Teresa, Rider, pounds 7.99 Christopher Hitchens attacks Mother Teresa; Mother Teresa defends herself; Robert Winder referees

There isn't much doubt that Mother Teresa is an icon. An Albanian nun who has taken the biblical injunction to love thy neighbour more seriously than most of us could bear, she has devoted her long life and great energy to the plight of the poor. In so doing she has become one of the reference points for moral debate in the west - Florence Nightingale meets St Francis of Assisi.

But where there are icons, there shall iconoclasm be also. Christopher Hitchens's new book is a sharp attack on her sainted status. He pores over pictures of Mother Teresa embracing the Duvaliers, accepting money from crooks such as Charles Keating, and praising Ronald Reagan's unhappy policy towards Ethiopia. He sees her not as a holy example of pure love in action, but as the head of a Catholic multinational, a zealot revelling in the misery of the have-nots.

Not everyone will agree with this uncharitable interpretation. Indeed, there might seem to be worthier targets for Hitchens's impressive scorn. Maybe it is a sign of the curious bind secular humanism finds itself in when it comes to do-gooders. To be sure, charity can have a Marie Antoinette- ish streak; it can seem merely a balm on the conscience of the rich - grease on the wheels of the machine that produces such destitution in the first place. And there is in Mother Teresa's own book plenty of evidence to favour Hitchens's thesis. The book has been "compiled" with her approval, and at times sounds suspiciously like an annual report("We are now in over I00 countries). Mostly, though, it reads like a self-help manual: the six essential steps to inner peace. Of course, it is a book about loving God - not a subject on which criticism can say much: it is a matter of faith. But it is noticeably a book about how virtuous it is to do good, not how useful. The emphasis is on the salvation of one's own soul; the "wretched of the earth", whose voices are not included, are merely the raw material for the spiritual exercises of their superiors. "The poorest of the poor," we learn, "are the means of expressing our love for God." Poverty is "a wonderful gift because it gives us freedom". And suffering is devoutly to be desired because it brings us closer to God - "without our suffering," she said once, "our work would be just social work".

These are awkward prescriptions, hard for a liberal, especially a fun- loving one like Hitchens, to swallow. Our suffering. Poverty undertaken freely is one thing - vibrant with the ascetic thrill of renunciation. But the grinding, choiceless poverty of Mother Teresa's "poorest of the poor" is of a very different kind, Non-believers will struggle to accept that the poor were put here for a purpose, and that this purpose is to help the faithful to win lottery tickets to heaven.

Mother Teresa seems to wish not so much to relieve suffering as to relive it, to echo the torments of Christ. She takes the view that the poor will always be with us - indeed that they exist to test our love. This is presented as a humble indifference to worldly matters; she is resolutely not "political", But an indifference (or hostlility) to change is itself, as Hitchens shows, an extreme political position. In his eyes, her campaign against contraception and abortion is really a way to keep the world full of miserable children, so that she can look after them.

It's quite bitter stuff. But in the end the intriguing thing about Hitchens's polemic is its slight sense of conservativism. What he really dislikes, you feel, is the evangelising cultish feeling - no sects, please, we're British. His true opponent, perhaps, is not Mother Teresa herself. He does not seriously claim that she is manipulative or hypocritical: there is no suggestion that she uses her impressive fund-raising powers to run a four-Mercedes lifestyle on the quiet.

His real target, one feels, should be the unquestioning, sentimental imagery with which the West is so happy to drape her. And this is not really her fault. It takes some sophistry to blame someone who does so much for not doing more, or for having one eye on heaven while she does it. On the level of ideas, her fundamentalism might well seem to require opposition, but her work is not just about ideas: it bears tangible fruit. Hitchens might well wish that her assistance came without strings - no prayers with the soup - but the prayers perhaps remain, in the absence of a more equal system in the world, a modest price to pay. While the war of ideas rages, people starve. While we wait for the world to change, someone has to man the bilges. And if it turns out to be someone whose ideas we don't much care for, well, tough. It is one thing to criticise Mother Teresa for her motives, quite another to criticise her work. Perhaps this is why Hitchens doesn't even attempt to. After all, missionaries have a duty to be messianic.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England