“You don't know the fruits of the trees you plant”

The controversial sociologist and UN human rights activist Jean Ziegler tells why he became a Catholic and how he sees the future.

Interviewer: You accuse the big international corporations of being to blame for the hunger in the world. But you also say that corporate managers are victims of the system. What do you mean?

Jean Ziegler (sociologist, book author and advisor to the UN Human Rights Council): For sure we live in an absurd cannibalistic world order. By the way, this is also said by Pope Francis, the extraordinarily wise pope. "The name of God is mercy."And he speaks of the fact that there is a new category of people who are treated like waste. These are those who are totally excluded from social life, will never have work and be able to support a family, nor have decent housing or access to health. These people live in fear of the next day without means to live with dignity. That's about a billion people now.

They are confronted with an enormous concentration of power on the part of the very small oligarchies of globalized finance capital, which dominate this world and the states politically and economically. Corporate managers escape any governmental or parliamentary social control. But they are dominated by a system of structural violence. If a corporate CEO does not drive up shareholder value by 5 or 15 percent a year, he loses his job after three months. So it's not a matter of saying the head of Siemens or Deutsche Bank is a bad person. And yet there is food in abundance, but people don't have the money for it. Every child who dies hungry is murdered by this cannibalistic world order. And we have to overthrow it.

Interviewer: As UN Special Envoy for the Right to Food, you often spoke about world poverty in front of empty rows of seats at the United Nations. Why didn't you give up?

Ziegler: As a young man, the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara taught me the strategy of subversive integration. I was his chauffeur in Geneva for twelve days in 1964. And the last night, before he went back to Cuba, I said to him, "Comandante, I want to go with you." Then he called me to the window of the little hotel overlooking Geneva and said, "See that city down there with the light advertising of the big big banks and jewelry stores? That's where you were born, that's where the monster's brain is, that's where you have to fight." And then he turned away. And I was devastated and thought he thinks I'm a useless petty bourgeois. Which it was (laughs) – but it saved my life and opened up the strategic path of subversive integration. And that means: to enter the different institutions like the university, the federal parliament or the United Nations, in order to use the power of these institutions for one's own goals. The Russian revolutionary Bukanin said: "Revolutionaries are opportunists who have principles."

our siteDo you feel supported by the Catholic Church in your fight against hunger and what you call the "cannibalistic" mechanisms of the world economy??

Ziegler: Now I have to be careful. I see the Cologne Cathedral in great beauty, the power of the Church presents itself. And I keep it with Victor Hugo: "I hate all churches, I love the people, I believe in God."

our siteCan you still believe in God??

Ziegler: Yes of course. I believe in God and the resurrection. Christ came into the world, says Pope John XXIII, to eliminate power and wealth and not to seize them. Christ also came into the world to bring freedom. There are no hierarchies among the apostles. Christ is there for those who are taken by his love. He did not come into the world to found a state. So the Vatican state is completely absurd. Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount to anchor compassion and solidarity. I would say – I belong to the invisible church.

Interviewer: Why did you convert to the Catholic faith??

Ziegler: I was born a Calvinist in a capitalist, loving, warm-hearted, middle-class home in Thun, a small medieval town in the Bernese Oberland. There my father was president of the court. And once a week, when I ride my sparkling bicycle to the pro-gymnasium (in Switzerland, up to grade 10, note. the Red.), there was a cattle market and I saw the so-called "Verdingkinder. These are the children of the poorest mountain farmers, who have been given into the service of big farmers and have been terribly exploited. And I came home and asked my father: "What about the Verdingkinder – they are like me, but pale and undernourished."My father, as a devout Calvinist, said: "You cannot do anything, this is God's order. You cannot change this world." And that's when I ran away and it took decades before we spoke again.

our siteWas that the reason why you changed denominations??

Ziegler: Well, I was then in Paris, joined the communist youth organization and met Jean-Paul Sartre. From him I have learned that man is what he does. When you act in solidarity, you create meaning. When selfishness, exploitation and competition guide our actions, life has no meaning. Later I was a small UN employee in Congo at the time of the dictator Mobuto. And very close to the UN headquarters there was a Jesuit station for lepers. There were white German-American-Belgian Jesuits, they were not exploiters, they were incredibly admirable people. They have given their lives for the poorest. The theory of imperialism, as I had learned it from Sartre, shattered and I was at a loss. And that's when the encounter with the Jesuit Michel Riquer, who fought against the German occupation and was deported, put me back on a viable, reasonable path. So conversion thanks to a Jesuit.

our siteWas there the Holy Spirit involved??

Ziegler: Of course, he is constantly involved.

our site: You believe in God. Do you feel like an instrument of God?

Ziegler: Of course! When you have seen children perishing, you have to do something. For I live with human rights, civil liberties in an open society that allows me to speak out. And if I did not use this word for those who go to ground in the night, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning.

Interviewer: You are now 83 years old. Do you want to fight on and on?

Ziegler: The age is quite strange. Every day is a pure miracle. I do not believe that you or I came into being by pure chance. There must be a plan, which cannot be seen, but which can be guessed at.

Interviewer: And you believe in the resurrection?

Ziegler: This seems to me to be total evidence. There is a natural death for the body, but the consciousness that resides in that body has a very different fate. It lives on, no matter in what form. Christ simply appeared to the disciples at Emmaus or at the Pentecost event and then was gone again. All that is known of the resurrection is that it took place. It is about the singular person who rises again. These are not the ideas that make a few waves after the effective disappearance of the speaking subject, but it is about the resurrection of the singular person.

Interviewer: How do you look to the future?

Ziegler: My book "The Narrow Ridge of Hope" should be a weapon for the revolt of conscience. And the revolt will come. Che Guevara said the strongest walls fall through cracks. And these cracks are emerging through planetary civil society beyond political parties, dying nation-states and world-dominating oligarchies. All the social movements that have appeared in recent years are fighting on very different fronts – Attac, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Via Campesina, the women's movement. Immanuel Kant said, the inhumanity done to another destroys the humanity in me. Many people no longer want to live in a world where a child dies of hunger every five seconds and wealth floods the planet. This must be changed.

The interview was conducted by Birgitt Schippers.

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