Angus and the heresy of white theology

November 6, 2019

Here is my problem with the Angus covenant episode: Christians don’t apologise for heresy. An apology is simply not the appropriate response to heretical theology.

And we should for no moment underestimate this: that the Jew and Afrikaner presents the only two ‘nations’ with whom God has made a covenant is indeed heresy. The problem is not with the ‘only’. You don’t solve this through including more ‘nations’ into this covenant. The problem is with the ethnic delineation of the idea of a covenantal relation, and with how racial ideology is sustained through a Christian believe in the church, or worse in this case, the ‘Afrikaner nation’ taking the place of Israel in the hearts and mind of God.

And it’s not a slip of the tongue. It’s not just a brief hyperbole. Buchan’s ‘Afrikaner nation’ indeed mediates God’s salvation. The good missionary, Buchan obviously believes that God wants to save South Africa. But God’s salvation will come through this covenantal people – the ‘Afrikaner nation’. It is a gathering of this covenantal people that will bring about the salvation of another national group – the mythic ‘South African nation’.

Beyers Naudé addressed the matter in the following words:

The first – and to my mind the strongest – factor in moulding the attitude of the Afrikaner has been his explicable but nevertheless unacceptable identification of his people as “a chosen people” with Israel, the chosen people of God of the Old Testament…

This view of the Afrikaner people as a chosen nation called to a special God-given mission and manifest destiny as ordained by God was born out of a totally wrong interpretation of the Old Testament which led to a distortion of God’s purpose. Afrikaners saw themselves as a chosen people, planted by God in the southernmost part of a vast continent, for the special purpose of bemg the torchbearers of the Gospel to the millions of heathens in dark Africa…

The comparisons between the vicissitudes of the chosen people, Israel, and those of his own nation were so striking and so manifold that he fell prey to the natural temptation of a false identification of himself and his people with that of Israel…

(The African and Race Relations, 1967)

Naudé probably didn’t yet have the theological language to get to the even deeper heart of the problem. In recent years Willie Jennings and Kameron Carter argued these points most forcefully in the two books that came to be called to the “Duke School of Race and Theology”. Whiteness is built on the earlier conviction that the Christianity takes over the place of Israel in the heart and mind of God. But not simply the church, rather, building on and contributing to a Christian theology and white racial anthropology, it is the Christian Europe in particular (and it’s white extension in the colonies) that exists as the people through whom God’s salvation will come. Not Israel, but white Europe.

Making multiple conceptual jumps, in brief: it is not the mere aesthetic of a white Jesus that is at play, but an even deeper white Christ. Christ here is the prototype of whiteness, that towards which all the world should be drawn, represented by those racially marked as white.

Now, Buchan draws on a more particular version of this general white heresy, that being that the Afrikaner has a particular claim to being God’s new covenantal people. Afrikaners were not alone in this, others have made this claim over the centuries as well. But this particular version of the heresy has done immeasurable damage and underpinned immense violence in this part of the world.

So perhaps we must be clear on the problem with Buchan’s apology. First of all, we don’t apologize for heresy. And if this ethnic and racial reading of God’s covenantal work constitutes heresy – and I think we must take that charge seriously, then something different is necessary. I mean, apology is all good, but that’s not really what we do when confronted with our own heretical theologies. In these cases we listen to the One Holy Catholic Church. We search ourselves, discerning how our own heretical understanding of God’s salvation may have pervaded our lives. We repent and grow together with the Church into a more faithful understanding of God.

Secondly, the apology does not actually respond to the problem at all. By adding to his racial reading of covenant that also those who have “given their life to Jesus Christ” are in such a covenantal relation, he seems to strengthen the idea that there are certain ‘nations’ who by virtue of some ethnic-racial identity are in covenantal relation, and then there are also others as individuals added to such a covenant. The response to this heretical covenantal theology requires a conscious rejection of the heresy, but the apology does not seem to venture there.

Lastly, the problem is perhaps not that the statement brought division (oh how many times will Christians believe that this is the main problem with our racism), but rather that the statement reinforces hierarchy. At the heart of whiteness are deeply held convictions of an anthropological hierarchy where that which is white is more firmly positioned close to God, having a higher salvific possibility, and its opposite being firmly lodged outside or at the fringes of God’s work of salvation – and if drawn in then mediated through whiteness.

Both the initial comment and the response seem to fit quite easily with the racial theology underpinning centuries of conquest: that a particular group, racially marked, was divinely called to act as conduit for God’s work of salvation in the southern part of Africa, that faith is in a special way mediated by those ethnically marked, and that God covenantal relations are ethnic and racial choices.

I have no intention of trying to take the moral high ground here. I’m a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and I am quite clear that while my own church may have done a lot of work in trying to live an apology for apartheid, we have not dealt with the charge of heresy brought against us in 1982. We have a long way to go in working through the implications of heresy. But this incident should make it clear to us: our heretical theologies of whiteness remain very much alive, and we cannot shy away from opening up the wound and allowing the painful work of cleaning things out to happen.

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