What if Mother Teresa Was a Slut?

This post is the product of a series of thoughts I have been having about the nature of charity, the culture of harm in our society, and the objectification of, well, everything. I hope you’ll read beyond the headline to explore these ideas with me.

A couple of years ago, I got into an argument with a family member which culminated in her stating, “If you want to be f***ing Mother Teresa, you have to live like Mother Teresa!” The admonition struck me as absurd and not terribly relevant to what we were talking about but it has stuck with me. What did she mean? Was she saying that in order to make a positive difference in the world, I had to join a convent, take vows of chastity and poverty, and serve the poor in the streets? Did she mean that I was too flawed, too damaged, too human to have a meaningful impact? Or was she lashing out at me for making life choices she didn’t understand?

Since we grew up together, she knew that I had been a “troubled” adolescent and teenager. I had a “bad reputation” in high school because I talked about my sexual experiences and claimed the badge of “slut” with some degree of pride because I recognized the hypocrisy of shaming young women who were sexually active while celebrating the young men as “studs.” I didn’t complete high school for a variety of reasons that most of my family members didn’t know but the judgment was then, and appeared to remain, that I failed at one of the most basic tasks expected in our society. I chose to leave my marriage after over 20 years- another personal and social failure. I was financially unstable and living with my parents while working full time with young people and volunteering with various social justice organizations- all of which seemed to be viewed as selfish and irresponsible by other members of my family.

She, on the other hand, was a home and business owner, still married, and financially secure. AND she was thin. In short, she was living the “right” way. It is not surprising that she felt justified in passing judgment on me. She was “succeeding” in life and I was a failure. She was a winner and I was a loser. A fat, slutty, loser.

So, what about Mother Teresa?

As a kid, I heard about Mother Teresa a few times in school and in the news. She was regarded as one of the most charitable and selfless people in the world. She established orphanages, medical facilities, schools, and shelters through Missionaries of Charity, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. She won the Nobel Peace Prize and many other awards and commendations. I admired her commitment to the poor and the suffering. In college, I learned more about her life and work and I realized there was a much more complex story beneath the surface image presented to me as a child. Though she had been portrayed as a saint, pure and virtuous, who had achieved world renown through countless acts of grace and compassion, her actions and motivations were not without controversy and criticism.

Some critics focused on Mother Teresa’s objection to family planning and the reproductive rights rights of women, as she was vehemently opposed to contraception and abortion. Others proposed that she had no interest in alleviating the conditions that caused poverty and illness but accepted these social issues as part of “God’s will” and she served the poor and sick only as a means of converting them to Catholicism. These critiques are supported by Mother Teresa’s own words and by the stated mission of the Catholic church throughout its history. Her objective as a missionary was “saving souls,” not healing society. Christopher Hitchens quoted her as saying, “I’m not a social worker. I don’t do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the church.”

As I think about the complexity of Mother Teresa’s work and its impacts, I am compelled to consider the ways that our dominant way of life tends to oversimplify and objectify everything and everyone. This is a particularly harmful facet of our culture, in my view. It is perpetuated through systems and institutions, including faith communities, media, government, and schools. We have these images in mind for what it means to be a “good person” or a “bad person,” doing the “right things” or the “wrong things.” Nuance and acknowledgement of co-existing contradictions in ourselves and others are rare in our public discourse and our society is becoming increasingly fragmented and polarized, as a result.

The truth is that we are all- every one of us- both sacred and profane. Does this mean we can’t make a positive difference in the world? I don’t think it does. I imagine that Mother Teresa was a compassionate, loving, committed, and well-intentioned person AND that her motivations were shaped by the systems and institutions of her society- particularly the Catholic church- which skewed the focus and impact of her work. She was compelled to objectify the people she served by the cultural forces around her. There were few, if any, countervailing opinions at the time about the operations of the church. Missionary work was seen as virtuous and necessary- demanded by God and expected of the faithful. I wonder if she could have seen any other options for being purposeful in her life as a young, Albanian woman in the 1920s? If she had been born in my time and place, would she have thought as a teenager, like I did, that her purpose and power could be expressed by rejecting antiquated social and sexual norms? Could Mother Teresa have been a slut?

Though we have numerous lenses through which to view and contextualize society and culture today, our primary worldview hasn’t really changed. Various forms of media have overtaken the church as the key purveyors of cultural messaging but the main message, itself, is remarkably similar- you are not good enough but ‘others’ are worse.

This is expressed through the marketing of products and services intended to signal elevated status. It is expressed through the punditry and commentary of “experts” who belittle the positions of opponents by attacking their appearance, lifestyle, or affiliations instead of refuting the substance of their arguments. It is expressed through reality shows and sporting events that glorify mean-spirited competition, violence, and shaming of “losers.” It is expressed through social media memes and tweets that revel in bashing or canceling people for any perceived transgression. It is expressed through hashtag movements and cancel culture. It is expressed through the normalization of disconnection, trauma, and pathologization of human emotion. It is expressed through Fox News identity politics and YouTube culture wars. It is expressed through the proliferation of exclusionary, micro-niche, virtual and IRL (in real life) groups, designed to ensure that no dissenting opinions will find their way in without harsh and immediate rejection.

All of these expressions (and many others) have been made more stark and severe as the we cope with a global pandemic, increasingly intolerable economic and environmental exploitation, and the ongoing social upheaval that is inevitable in a society designed and built for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. The only way I can see for humanity to survive and, ultimately, thrive into the future is to reject the worldview that has brought us to this point and replace it with one that accepts our individual and collective complexity, embraces the idea of interconnection of all beings, and is centered in love and justice.

How do we do this? The first step, I think, is to recognize the ways that we contribute to the objectification of ourselves and others, as this is what leads to dehumanization, exploitation, and trauma. Next, we should question the systems and institutions that taught and teach us to judge and rank everything as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse.” In so doing, we may imagine ways to create alternative systems and social institutions that don’t require the subjugation of anyone in order to define our value.

I am not Mother Teresa. I am Mama Sara. Flawed and learning. Hurting and healing. Brilliant and with blind spots. Alone and connected. Sacred and profane. I refuse to be objectified and I refuse to objectify others. I will continue, as Mother Teresa said, to “do small things with great love.” Whether the things I do will be recognized by others as worthwhile doesn’t really matter. I have no aspiration for sainthood- only integrity and healthy relationships. I am certain that is good enough.

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