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Ali: Remembering Mother Teresa

06/28/11 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(HOST) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali has been thinking about the enduring legacy of Mother Teresa

(ALI) During a recent trip to the Balkans, leading a field course for Vermont students, I had an opportunity to visit Albania, Mother Teresa's land of ethnic origin, as well as her birthplace in Skopje, Macedonia. Even Muslim-majority Albania proudly celebrates this great soul who is now on a fast-track with the Vatican to become a saint. The absolute altruism which Mother Teresa displayed towards those most in need captivated people of all Faiths and indeed people of no Faith. Mother Teresa has become emblematic of the arguments used to suggest the salience of religion as a positive force. The question implicit in conversations is: can such selfless acts be possible without some transcendent theological motivation?

While there are clearly examples of non-believers engaging in many humanitarian acts, there is little doubt that religious motivation has played a positive role in many charitable acts worldwide. Indeed the most extreme examples of charity involving self-denial, as well as extreme acts of violence, often emanate from religious motivation. But regardless of what motivates such polarized behaviors, it is important for us to pause and reflect on what we might learn from the positive players in improving our own conduct.

Earlier this month The Economist magazine compared Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga as two women from whom corporate executives can learn much about leadership that doesn't require particular training but commitment - albeit in totally different realms. Such incongruous comparisons are not new. Recall that Mother Teresa passed during the same week that Lady Diana died as well and commentators were quick to compare their relative acts of philanthropy. Perhaps the most insightful comparison was offered then by the late Daniel Schor, NPR's venerable elder who passed away recently. Mr. Schor stated then and I quote: "Let us not forget the difference between a noble life well-lived and a life of nobility well-cultivated."

As with all celebrities, Mother Teresa too had her detractors. The proudly acerbic journalist Christopher Hitchens who made a documentary about her titled it "Hell's Angel". Her critics mainly accused her of romanticizing poverty and not doing enough to actually help with economic development. In response Mother Teresa often said " I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money."

A simple, noble and enduring vision which coupled with continuing efforts at development could indeed make this a more livable and equitable world.

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