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The Road to the City of Joy. by Thomas Davis

Posted on Sunday, 6th January 2013 @ 03:23 PM by Text Size A | A | A

On January 6, 1929 Mother Teresa made her way to Calcutta, otherwise known as the City of Joy, to begin her magnificent work among the world’s most downtrodden people on the Indian Subcontinent.   In December 1928 she departed for India, arriving in Calcutta on 6 January 1929.  For half a century, she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying, while guiding the Missionaries of Charity’s expansion, first throughout India and then in other countries.

She has been quoted as identifying her pedigree by saying:  “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”

Teresa has been honored extensively.  She was the recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize although she refused the conventional ceremonial banquet given to laureates.  She asked that the $192,000 funds be given to the poor in India.  She also received the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, the Philippines-based Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Pacem in Terris Award, an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia, the Order of Merit from both the United Kingdom and the United States, Albania’s Golden Honor of the Nation, honorary degrees, the Balzan Prize, and the Albert Schweitzer International Prize.

Mother Teresa eschewed material wealth.  Instead, she believed that material possessions are important simply to the extent that they can be used for common benefit.

Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She answered “Go home and love your family.” The term family, of course, is a very broad term when used within the context of entire humanity.

In her Nobel Lecture, she said: “Around the world, not only in the poor countries, but I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society—that poverty is so hurtable and so much, and I find that very difficult.”

She  also was named a total of 18 times in the yearly Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll  and in 1999, she was ranked number one in Gallup’s List of Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century.

But my main point I want to raise here, in addition to her remarkable work is its context, present, past and future.   As we know, much of that work has not been without its critics.   In her adopted native land of West Bengal and its surrounding region, some observers blamed Teresa for promoting a negative image of Calcutta.  The Hindu Right chafed at the focus she placed on the failings of Indian caste society that levied a huge social and economic cost on the people of  Indian society.

Her work and advocacy offended some members of the Indian political world. She often opposed the Hindu Right who sought to promote an image of  the Brahmo Samaj , or “Hindu renaissance” under the British rule.  That said, her legacy in Calcutta has been largely sanguine, characterizing a selfless and courageous sense of caring.  Here, in the United States, President Ronald Reagan presented Mother Teresa with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony in 1985.

Despite formal recognition in Republic of India or Bhārat Gaarājya,the world’s second most populous country with the world’s 10th largest economy is still grappling with the challenges of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and violence against women.

It’s this last issue that I want to address in my final comments.

As it turns out, Teresa’s city of Calcutta is a long way from New Delhi – about 1000 miles east, geographically and, it appears, socially.

As the world knows now, last month, a young woman was gang-raped aboard a moving bus in New Delhi, India’s capital. She was brutally attacked for 2 1/2 hours before being thrown off the bus along with her boyfriend onto the side of the road.

The point which I think gets at the core of the issue is how she was treated subsequently. Equally as egregious as the attack itself is how passersby ignored them.

Her companion described the brutality of the assault:  “The attack was so brutal I can’t even tell you … even animals don’t behave like that.” Afterward, he apparently overheard some of the attackers saying she was dead. The men allegedly threw the two victims’ bodies under an overpass.  The woman’s companion waved to passersby for help according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  “They slowed down, looked at our naked bodies and left,” he said. After about 20 minutes, three police vans arrived and the officers began arguing over who had jurisdiction over the crime as the man pleaded for clothes and an ambulance, he said. And later, police debated jurisdictional minutiae before making an effort to actually help them.  Insult to injury, her friend was initially denied medical care and instead, spent four days at the police station helping them investigate the crime.

This is simply one example of a global epidemic of violence against women, not confined to India.  Researchers such as Natalia Linos and Ichiro Kawachi have shown that violence against women is in large part a community norm worldwide. Their research identifies what they call “community social norms as social determinants of violence against women”.   But again, to be fair in spreading the culpability, this is a global phenomenon, with the United States at fault as well.  Twenty percent of women in Canada, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States have personally experienced rape.

That said, it is not an officially recognized social norm in these latter countries to view women as property.  But in certain societies, women are considered property and said to actually bring the violence from male partners upon themselves. The United Nations has estimated that 5,000 women have been killed in “honor killings” in India alone.

The United Nations has called for a fundamental change in India in the wake of this gang-rape tragedy. In response to this sad event High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced “The public is demanding a transformation in systems that discriminate against women to a culture that respects the dignity of women in law and practice,” in a news release from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva.

So the legacy of Mother Teresa that claims human rights as its own, particularly as they relate to women in India, has yet to make its way from the City of Joy to the City of Gender Based Violence. The road of justice that connects the two is rough, in places barely existent, and without sympathizers who instead pose as fellow travelers.  But we can only hope that Teresa’s calling will be heard in New Delhi and around the world.  It has apparently been heard among the United Nations.

If there’s one criticism I can make of Mother Teresa, I’ll end with this:  Of all that she has shared with society, it’s an internalized calling itself which she has yet to share with the world but, then again, only because we have rejected it.

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