The Wrong of Rights

As I read some writings by Christian Anarchists on a few of the websites I am exploring (like this one, this one and this one), I find myself increasingly drawn to the ideas of Christian Anarchism. I suspected I would be.

I’m already a fan of both Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, and I have just found 41 books by Jacques Ellul in the library at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. (Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity has suddenly become the next book on my reading list.) But I have read William T. Cavanaugh’s essay Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good. (Full-text here… sorry, it’s only a PDF file.) There’s a lot in the essay worth quoting, but I’ll keep this short because this both the most controversial and the most important bit of the essay:

The idea of the nation does not remain an elite idea, but becomes gradually more powerful among the lower classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why were common people willing to sacrifice their lives for nations their grandparents had never heard of, as Benedict Anderson asks? Ernest Gellner answers this question by drawing a direct link between the weakening of smaller types of association and the growth of the idea of the nation. The loosing of individuals from traditional forms of community created the possibility and need of a larger, mass substitute for community. Loyalties are gradually transferred from more local types of community to the nation. At the same time, there is a gradual opening of the sphere of participation to the masses of people of whom the state had previously taken only sporadic notice. The rise of rights language goes hand in hand with the rise of the nation-state, because political and civil rights name both the freeing of the individual from traditional types of community and the establishment of regular relations of power between the individual and the state. Marx was wrong to dismiss rights as a mere ruse to protect the gains of the bourgeois classes. Individual rights do, nevertheless, greatly expand the scope of the state because political and civil rights establish binding relationships between the nation-state and those who look to it to vindicate their claims. The nation-state thus becomes something of a central, bureaucratic clearinghouse in which social claims are contested. The nation-state is fully realized when sacrifice on behalf of the nation is combined with claims made on the state on the basis of rights. [Italics mine — CHF] (p.20)

This dovetails with what Pinson (see below, somewhere) wrote on Bismarck — the German welfare state during the Second Reich was the creation of a conservative regime that wanted to link those ruled to their rulers and the state. And not the creation of those concerned about providing a basic minimum standard of living or well-being for every citizen. (In fact, I would posit that whatever the claims made about social welfare in welfare states, the desire is always to link citizen to state.) In this context, civil, social and economic rights are the creations of the state, and part of the “contractual” arrangement between state and individual. The state that giveth can also demandeth service and sacrifice.

Small wonder, then, that the state — or rather, those individual human beings most vested in the power of the state — cannot accept anyone saying NO to rights the state gives out or the benefits it distributes. Then they might actually say NO to “sacrifice on behalf of the nation.”