Paul's Column: Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King - which approach works best?

05 June 2018

The European Parliament in Brussels is housed in a very large and complicated building and during my first few weeks back in 2014 I was forever getting lost.

On one occasion, unable to find a particular meeting room, I was befriended by Frank Schwalba-Hoth a former Green MEP from Germany, who in his retirement acts as a guide for visiting youth groups. Frank kindly said he would escort me and as we walked he asked, “Have you decided what you are going to focus on?”  He explained that in his opinion an MEP cannot do everything but should pick a subject and focus on it.  “You need to get yourself in a position so that when you walk through the Parliament people say: ‘Look there’s Paul, he’s the Mother Teresa of wind farms, or whatever issue you choose”.  I’m not a fan of Mother Teresa but I got his point.

Not being a fan meant that I was mightily relieved that it was Dr Martin Luther King Jr that American Bishop Michael Curry quoted in his powerful address at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, rather than Mother Teresa.

Both Mother Teresa and King were driven by their Christian faith and both won the Nobel Peace Prize, King in 1964 and Mother Teresa in 1979.

Yet they had very different approaches to responding to injustice.  Over time King found himself increasingly called to speak out strongly against what he termed the "triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism."  This was a response to injustice that made him unpopular with many in the civil rights movement because they felt that by widening the terms of his engagement he reduced support for the civil rights movement.  King’s growing criticism of the war in Vietnam and the country’s economic policies also alienated many whites, especially those in power.

Conversely Mother Teresa’s response to injustice made her increasingly popular in her lifetime, especially with the rich and powerful, who she both courted and was courted by – a symbiotic relationship that was possible because she did not question or threaten the power structures of the day, unlike King.  Asked the question, “Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?” Mother Teresa replied, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ.  I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people”.

Mother Teresa essentially accepted the world as it is and accommodated it, whereas King’s approach was to refuse to accept the world as it is and to set about changing it.

We can find the Mother Teresa approach and the King approach neatly summed up in the famous saying of the Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara:  "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint” - the Mother Teresa approach.  “When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist" - the Martin Luther King approach.

Did Mother Teresa’s ministry deliver any lasting structural changes which have benefitted her recipient group?  I would argue not. Yes, her Order, the Missionaries of Charity, continues and with it what may be described as ‘daily good works’ but she was not – as far as I am aware – responsible for any political, legal, economic or social change which has had a beneficial impact above and beyond the work of her Order.

In contrast, King’s ministry did result, albeit it as part of the wider civil rights movement, in profound political, legal, economic and social change.  “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits”, said King in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Some 18 months after becoming an MEP I found myself on a panel chaired by Frank.  At the end of the meeting I asked Frank, “So what in the Parliament am I the Mother Teresa of?”  He laughed, “You’re the Mother Teresa of trees”, he replied.  I can live with that but I will only really have succeeded when I’m ‘the Martin Luther King of trees’.

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