HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsState and citizens: A relationship in crisis

State and citizens: A relationship in crisis


THE State is always very powerful, but at present more than ever, it is imposing strange rules of behaviour on us to shield us from the pandemic, upsetting our wonted way of life.

The Constitution guarantees the preservation of life and health, the freedom of assembly and of expression, the freedom of religion and association, the right to education, but the “coronavirus” does not seem to tolerate any of these “freedoms”.

At present, we have to do without these rights. It looks like the State is merely granting certain “privileges”
which we can no longer claim as rights. Will the State restore these rights and once more respect these freedoms?

Or do the leaders feel so comfortable with the additional power that they forgot the Constitution? Will we be free citizens again as we were before the “lockdown” incarcerated us in the name of medical science?

Is citizenship as defined in the Constitution still ours, or is it merely a set of concessions the State may either grant or deny us? Are we citizens with rights and freedoms or are we merely cogs and wheels in a big machine we have no control over?

The question is whether the State is really acting in our interest as citizens.

Or is the State acting merely in its own interest? Are the leaders retaining political power and privileges while neglecting the citizens? Is government acting for the State, taking advantage of the “coronavirus” so as to limit civil liberties and thus gain greater control over the people?

Who serves who? Do citizens serve the State, or the State its citizens? Do we exist for the good of the State, or does the State exist for our welfare? Why did people ever agree that they needed an institution like the State for their survival?

The State has power and authority over us, the citizens. Are State officials and public servants really rendering us a service, or are we merely serving the State?

If the State has reduced us to slaves and we want to regain freedom, what is our option? “We have repeatedly seen how those who fight domination with violence become as evil as those whom they oppose. How then can we overcome evil without doing evil and becoming evil ourselves?”

I remember an elderly village woman who was trying to get an identity document. The official in the office was very rough with her. He was in no way at her service. He told her to go home and come back the following week which would mean another long and expensive bus journey.

Citizens pay taxes to the State, they observe the laws and obey the forces of law and order. But are these taxes really spent on the people or just on corrupt leaders? Do police and the military protect the people? Or do they enforce a very harsh discipline in the interest of the State? Is the police protecting the citizens from violence and lawlessness? Or do police and soldiers inflict violence on the people in the interest of unlimited State power?

Many people fear “police brutality” and arrogant soldiers with guns at the ready at demonstrations. Are we safe? Or are we at risk of being mowed down by machine guns?

The State punishes lawless people for their acts of violence. And the State itself commits lawless, immoral acts of violence on the people. State laws decree that murderers are hanged for their violent crimes, and the State itself is a killer.

The apartheid-State was a killer. Russia under Joseph Stalin committed genocide, so did Germany under Adolf Hitler. The genocide of Rwanda in 1994 was a crime committed by the State. Recent killings of African Americans by police had a tradition: slavery and the ruthless extermination of the indigenous Indian population left the United States a legacy of random violence and lack of respect for human life.

Jesus says: “Resist not evil” (Mt. 5: 39). He is referring to “violent resistance, warfare, insurrection, revolt or riot.” He means, “Do not counter violence with violence, do not return evil with evil, do not mirror the oppressor’s methods, do not resist evil violently. ….Violence feeds on violence. It has the capacity to turn whoever uses it into the likeness of the oppressor.”

“A society recovering from the trauma of State violence needs as much truth as possible. Truth is medicine. Without it, a society remains infected with past evils. That will inevitably break out in the future. Domination cannot exist without the big lie that persuades many to offer their lives for the protection of the privileges of the few.” South Africa made both sides in their “war of liberation” tell the truth . Religion should provide the space where the truth can be told. Where this has happened we have seen “light in our darkness” (wink, when the powers fail, 53 – 54).

The “big lie” claims that mobilising masses as soldiers for the army serves the common good while in fact it only protects the wealth of a minority.

Zimbabwe still has to “recover from the trauma of State violence”. One such trauma was “Gukurahundi”. Time and again State agents have acted violently against citizens. Abducting workers for “regime change” and torturing them to death are common occurrences.

State governments keep forcing citizens into the military. Violence that has been inflicted on the country is to be revenged. Responding with (redemptive) violence to violence is thought to lead to redemption, peace and reconciliation.

This is a gross abuse of State power. Citizens are used in warfare and armed violence so as to buttress the power of the State.

This is not for the good of the citizens, but for the enrichment and empowerment of national leaders. “The survival and welfare of the nation becomes the highest earthly and heavenly good. Here, a power is made absolute. ….By divine right the State has the power to demand that its citizens sacrifice their lives to maintain the privileges enjoyed by the few. By divine decree it utilises violence to cleanse the world of enemies of the State. Wealth and prosperity are the right of those who rule in such a State.”

In the contest between State and its citizens, State power remains superior. “The national security system means that the army is not used against other nations but against its own people. The ideology of national security makes nationalism supreme. People are expendable, the state is not. Supreme loyalty […] is due to the nation above everything else…..Such nationalism cannot accept the existence of a higher power, it must destroy any forms of Christian faith that go beyond mere cultural inheritance. ….Nationalism becomes absolute….blasphemous and idolatrous.”

Has the State really the right to command citizens to serve the country through armed violence and killing?
“Within every human breast ….there is a faculty which is an inescapable witness to the reality of a higher power …and an authoritative voice” which we call conscience (J H Newman). “Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law.”

Our Constitution says, “Every person has the right to life” (48). We are familiar with the commandment, “Do not kill”. Can the State force a citizen to deny the voice of conscience? There are citizens whose conscience does not allow them to do military service and go to war. Such conscientious objection must be respected as a consequence of our freedom of religion which is guaranteed in our Constitution.

“Some nations have taken steps to allow moral resistance to war….conscientious objection to military service; legitimacy of civil disobedience, war-tribunals and [granting] the right of soldiers to refuse to carry out illegal orders” .

We obey the legitimate orders of the State which, however, has no right to force us to act against the moral or natural law. State agents have murdered innocent citizens in genocides, in concentration camps and gas chambers.

Such professional killers have tried to justify the part they played in “death factories” by the command of rulers. But there is a moral law the State too must respect.

The State has to be aware of the teaching of the church and respect it. “They shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Is. 2: 4, quoted by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference at independence).

Instead of destroying, the State had better construct housing for war refugees, and provide work and income for the starving. Defeating the pandemic is paramount, but the State must not let the famished die. This is a dilemma we are still to resolve.

l Father Oskar Wermter is a social commentator and he writes in his personal capacity.

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