In the early 1930’s, when Nazism was gaining power in Germany, there were many Protestant Christians who gave their undying support to Adolf Hitler as the Leader (Führer) who would restore Germany’s pride and greatness, rebuild its economy and military, maintain law and order in the streets, and inculcate discipline and nationalism among the young. The more militant among these Protestants were labelled Deutsche Christen and they soon began to exert their influence in the life of the Evangelical Church, that is, the established Lutheran and Reformed state church. Inevitably they gave their enthusiastic support to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. After all, hatred of Jews was in their DNA. Jews, like other “outsider minorities”, did not belong in German society. At best, their existence could be tolerated, at least for the moment. But when this was also applied to the life of the church, requiring members of Jewish heritage – even if they were baptized Christians – to be expelled, a line was crossed.
It was then that two leading Protestant theologians of the day, Karl Barth and his younger colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer, decided that the time had finally come to declare that the Christian support for such policies was heresy. They had already expressed opposition to Nazism, and well before Hitler gained power, they had spoken of the dangers that lay ahead. But the time had now come for the church to take a stand on the truth of the Christian gospel. Those who supported Hitler’s policies were putting themselves outside the “true church” irrespective of their piety. Indeed, they went further and said that the church ceased to be the church if it obeyed the non-Aryan decrees promulgated by a rogue state. The question of what was the “true church” and what was the “false church” had little to do with denomination, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, but everything to do with doing justice and defending human dignity. That is what faithfulness to Jesus Christ demanded.
The word “heresy” does not have a good history or appeal. It conjures up images of heretics being burnt at the stake, not to mention countless and seemingly endless heated debates about what is true belief and what is false. So, Christians today rightly tend to avoid using the word, especially more liberal Christians whose level of toleration of free-thought is higher than that of the more conservative. But as Barth and Bonhoeffer discerned so clearly, when beliefs lead to actions that are un-Christian, immoral, unjust, even demonic, then there is no other word in the church’s vocabulary to describe them other than heresy. This is not a matter of splitting hairs about doctrines that are, to many people, incomprehensible. Nor is it about putting heretics to the sword. But it does have to do with matters of life and death because it is about policies and deeds that lead to slavery, apartheid, pogroms, concentration camps, war, lynching, and even murder committed by police officers on duty on the streets.
The word heresy means making a false choice, and then justifying the dehumanizing actions that result as if they were Christian. Many white Christians made such a false choice in South Africa in the early days of colonialism, and then when they elected and continually re-elected an apartheid government. They wrongly believed that this could be supported with reference to the Bible and their beliefs. From the outset there were some white Christians who opposed such racism as un-Christian because unjust (all black Christians obviously did!), and then, during the church struggle against apartheid the battle lines were increasingly drawn. Apartheid, we said, was a false gospel providing false security to those who benefitted from it.
But then, finally, even if rather belatedly, in the mid-l980’s, a growing number of theologians and some churches finally declared that the Christian defence of apartheid is nothing but a heresy! It was not only unjust and sinful, as every black person instinctively knew, it was based on false teaching that had to be opposed. There could no longer be a debate about that, so there was no going back. Far too much damage had already been done to the integrity and witness of the church and, more importantly, far too many lives had been destroyed by policies and practices that claimed to be based on Christian principles. No longer could the president of the country stand up with hand on Bible and say that what he was doing was Christian, even if he was in a pulpit or outside the front door of a church. He was simply a heretic.
There are many Christians in the United States who are fully aware of the narrative I have shared, and I have learnt much from them. As members of the universal Church, we are all members one of another. Their struggle is our struggle, just as our struggle against apartheid became theirs as well. So, their pain and anguish at this time of racial intolerance and even murder, justified by some who claim to be “Bible-believing” and supporters of a messianic leader who defends Christian values, is also our pain and anguish. As in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa, the future not only of the church and the integrity of Christian faith, but also of a just and peaceful world is at stake and becomes less possible the more we tolerate the intolerable. That is why together in solidarity we must declare that racism in all its forms, indeed, all policies that disregard the dignity of everyone irrespective of who they are, must be rejected as a Christian heresy.
Certainly, we must love our enemies, as Jesus taught us, and tolerate those who disagree with us, for we all live in glass-houses, and we must respect even the rights of those who do wrong to a fair trial; but we cannot accept beliefs which lead to evil deeds. Those are nothing but heresies, and those who proclaim and defend them, like the Deutsche Christen, are excommunicating themselves from the community of Christian faith, hope and love.