Comboni Missionary Alex Zanotelli Shares His Vision of a Post-COVID World

Father Alex Zanotelli, mccj, has lived and worked in some of the most difficult places on earth. His current work in the slums of Naples (when I inquired about interviewing him there, I was told “It is too dangerous for anyone to go there) follows after years in one of the poorest shantytowns of Nairobi, called Korogocho, in the local language. Its literal translation is “hell on earth.”

Along with an illustrious career in writing and editing, these posts have given Zanotelli a unique perspective on what the world should look like, post-pandemic. Here’s a hint: The new normal should not look at all like the old one.

The international news agency Pressenza asked Fr. Alex about his vision for a healthier world. Here are his reflections.

To answer the questions that you have asked me, which are really demanding questions, I think you have to start out in a wide range and then be able to answer trying to be as short as possible.

First of all, I believe that we need to seriously reflect on the system in which we are living. I would call it just absolute neo-liberalism. If we do not make this serious reflection then it is useless to ask how we can get out of it.

My vision, my reading of reality is this: The entire world is trapped in a militarized economic and financial system that is weighing enormously on the earth, so much so that the planet can no longer support us. It is an economic/financial system that is more financial than economic. Finance commands today. We are under the dictatorship of banks; we can see how much those who control the financial system get richer and richer. We have come up with something truly incredible: Oxfam’s data for last year shows that two thousand billionaires have as much money as half the world’s population!

In my opinion, this financial aspect is important, because those who have the money control the information. In fact, among the six richest men in the world, four exert profound control of the internet. This alone shows the connection between money and information. Second: There is something wrong with the economy. We are in an economic system that allows 20 percent of the world’s population to consume 90 percent of the world’s goods.

Third: We should look at the degree to which the economic/financial system has become militarized. Oxfam gives us the latest figures for the past year: We spent $1.92 trillion on arms worldwide. Have we ever reached a figure like that? Why is the military aspect so important? Because those with money, want to hang onto it. Security is a primary concern of the wealthy, and they pursue security by arming themselves to the teeth. And that’s without even mentioning nuclear weapons.

And this entire economic/financial/military system is weighing on the ecosystem, which can practically no longer support the presence of Homo Sapiens, which unfortunately for me has become Homo Demens—we are crazy. In fact, what we have just undergone with this terrible pandemic is nothing but nature’s rebellion against the madness of the way we are living. The conclusion is very simple: We cannot, as some say, “return to normal.” It is unthinkable. The whole system must be radically rethought.

I have not mentioned politics before, but this is the problem: Today governments and politicians no longer care what citizens want. They obey the wealthy and powerful. They obey the banks. If we want to start again, we have to get politics back to its roots. The economy, the financial systems must obey the politicians, who must represent the people.

I think one of the ways to get out of this collective madness is that money and credit (and this is according to Gael Giraud, a very good French Jesuit expert) must become common goods.

We have to stop talking about growth. It is absurd. We have to stop talking about GDP. A whole bunch of really absurd things are being talked about at government level — I’m talking about plans for the post-COVID era. For example, in Italy, there are plans for major projects, including a bridge over the Strait of Messina. But are we crazy? We must begin to understand that we must go back to sobriety and perhaps learn to be a little happier by becoming a little more sensible. We must work toward disarmament. There is no other way out of this military madness. Enough of all these arms investments!

And finally the ecological aspect. We must achieve ecological conservation and full employment. In this sense, I thank Pope Francis for the direction he gave us in Laudato Si, which I consider a fundamental document, not only for Christians, but for all people of good will.

What can I, personally, do about all this? It is one thing to make good speeches and another thing to act. So I start with finance. First of all, I clearly have nothing in the bank. But I think we must be mindful of debt, which is a central problem. It is one of those realities that is ruining us all and yet people don’t notice. We have to get out of this debt madness. Then I’m involved against armed banks. We are launching a large ecclesial campaign in Italy to ask dioceses, parishes, and all Christians to withdraw their money from banks that invest in weapons. We must launch this proposal also with regard to oil, that is, for those banks that invest in oil, in coal. It is the same logic. I think divestment is very important right now.

Always on a personal and economic level I try to have a simpler, more sober lifestyle. Both in the house where I live, on the bell tower in the Sanità district and, for example, avoiding meat as much as possible (meat consumption is one of the primary elements driving the ecological disaster). Also, I think carefully about how I live, how I travel.

In terms of resisting the militarization of all things, I have been engaged for years in the peace movement. As director of Nigrizia I paid personally for my stances. They torpedoed me under pressure from Italian parties for my denunciation of armaments. So these are not merely words; I paid a personal cost. To promote the ecological aspect, I participate in movements such as Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion, but above all as a priest I do a lot of work inviting people to live in a more sober way, even if it is not easy.

What about social inequality?

I think change will happen only if there is first and foremost an awareness by the people, that they begin to understand what is happening. So we see again the importance of information. Once people become aware of it, we need to start large popular movements, as we have for example now in the United States against racism. Only enormous social pressure will force governments to make the qualitative leaps they have to make. In this, we are truly faced with a choice of life or death.

I am a believer. I believe that God is the God of life and I commit myself to all this as a believer, but I think the same thing applies to every person, layperson or believer. We must all be committed both personally and socially to building a better world.

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