Day 2: Karl Barth and the de-Germanization of the Gospel in Brazil

Welcome to Day 2 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference, click here. To read yesterday's piece by W. Travis McMaken on Helmut Gollwitzer, click here.


"Und wenn unser Kinder Pereira, Silveira und Oliveira heissen, und wenn sie Christen sind, dann sind sie immer noch in unsere Kirche." 

Pastor Martin Niemöller [1]

The first large wave of Protestants arrived in Brazil in 1824. They were Swiss and German Lutheran, Reformed and United immigrants who settled in São Leopoldo, in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, and in Nova Friburgo, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. They spread through Southern and Southeastern Brazil in the following decades and due to the shortage of pastors, the three groups worshipped together. As it is easy to imagine, there were plenty of conflicts: some congregations even had the pastor celebrate a Lutheran service early in the morning, with candles, a crucifix, and images, and a Reformed service afterward, removing the candles, the crucifix, and the images. However, they soon realized that conflict would do no good: they were a minority, far from their Heimat and they couldn’t count on Brazilian support. German clubs, schools and societies were then founded and the immigrants started uniting around their shared feature: the Deutschtum [2].

The tongue and the ethnicity proved to be such a bond that for the second generation of German-Brazilians, who had grown up together in German schools and clubs, confession was no longer the huge problem it had been in the beginning. If unification worked for schools and clubs, why wouldn’t it work for the church? Congregations, from the 1850s onwards, didn’t even bother to demarcate themselves as Lutheran, Reformed or United anymore; now, they were simply Deutsche Evangelische Gemeinden, German Evangelical congregations. This attitude became a fertile ground for the idea that the Reformation and the Gospel belonged to the Germanic nation, brought to South America by German pastors infatuated by the pan-Germanist supremacist ideology of the late 19th century [3].



The alarm that something was wrong rang for the first time in 1933. That year, Pastor Heinz Giessel, who was in charge of the German Evangelical Congregation in Santa Maria, a countryside city in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, was in Berlin on vacation and saw Karl Barth delivering the address on Reformation als Entscheidung on the occasion of the Reformation anniversary. In Reformation als Entscheidung, Barth attacked the correlation between church and nation, directly addressing the Nazi initiative of officially subjecting the church to the state and to the Germanist ideology which proclaimed the Germans as the chosen people of God, stating that the

“Reformation should be seen as the decision to recognize the rule of God as absolute. At various times, other alternatives to faith and trust in God present themselves, such as forms of morality, culture, reason, experience, and tradition. In the present situation the leading alternative was the Nazi state. Allowing any of these to encroach on faith and the absolute rule of God constitutes disloyalty to the spirit of the Reformation and the fundamental Reformation decision. Fortified by this Reformation decision, those who had not already succumbed to the National Socialists had no choice but offer resistance." [4] [5]

Concerned with Barth’s hard words and the situation of the German Evangelical church in Brazil, Giessel sent him a letter on November 1933 asking for pastoral advice. "What happens to the non-relationality of faith with ethnicity in our German Evangelical Church in Brazil? (...) Would our Church have sinned all these years, when it was guided by the Gospel exclusively for the preservation of German ethnicity? Are not we, pastors, considered the sole cultural bearers of those German colonies abroad, gravely sinning when abroad, we enter into German societies and preach to them the preservation of German character and customs as ordained by God?" [6]

Barth’s answer encouraged Giessel to speak the language of his audience—not just literally, but finding a way to the heart of his congregation through Germanism: “which may also mean that you, in the name of God, must teach German songs, sing German folk songs with your people, teach them German history and what else to think about”. But once they had been conquered this way, the pastor should then work for the “true prevalence of the primacy of the word of God” as “it is, of course, the subject of the word itself and only of it, and therefore you should not scruple in all this matter”. It is to say, find a way to them through Germanity just to show them that Jesus Christ and the Gospel are, alone, the way [7].

All of this came in handy: in 1939, the Vargas [8] dictatorial regime prohibited foreign languages to be publicly spoken in Brazil, including in religious services. The decree hit deeply the German Evangelical congregations, as the Gospel and the sanctity of German as liturgical language were, at this point, indissociable. While some, as Giessel, were already worried about the captivity of the Gospel by Germanity, most people couldn’t even imagine translating hymns into Portuguese, as it would, in their opinion, violate them and strip them of their holy character; being a true Christian meant, for them, being a German Christian. 

In the middle of World War II and amidst the language restrictions, theological reflection became more important: it would no longer be possible to continue being a Church solely based on Germanity. Ernesto Schlieper, a former Barth student in Bonn, played a prominent role in the shift. He himself recounted: “I was willing to become a pastor. However, the reasons for the decision at the time do not seem to me to be consistent at all. What motivated me was only the interest in Germanity. I wanted to become a pastor because I believed that in this profession I could work in the best way in favor of the preservation of Germanity in Brazil. It seemed to me that the preservation of Germanity would be the main task of the Church in Rio Grande do Sul”. His life in Germany under Barth’s blatant teachings, witnessing the horrors of Nazism but also the birth of the Confessing Church, changed his mind and made it clear that the Gospel and the Church should only be subject to the absolute rule of God, knowing no ethnic and linguistic barriers or limitations [9].

In 1946, Schlieper was elected vice-president of the Riograndenser Synode [10] and held the position until 1956. His convictions were expressed in the First Synodal Council of the Synod Federation where the German Evangelical synods met to form the IECLB [11]: "The Synod Federation is the Church of Jesus Christ in Brazil, with all the consequences that arise from it, for the preaching of the Gospel in this country and within the responsibility for the formation of the political, cultural and economic life of its people" [12].

The union of German Synods for the foundation of an Evangelical Church in Brazil—not German Evangelical, but just Evangelical—was a direct result of Reformation als Entscheidung, the letters exchanged between Barth and Giessel, the Declaration of Barmen, and the experience of Schlieper under Barth in Bonn. Together, they formed the clear and bold statement that the Church must not line up with power, ethnicity, nor language, but with the proclamation of Christ and the Gospel to every people, especially the ones in suffering and in need of dignity and deliverance. 

 

notes

[1] Dreher, M. N. (1984). Carta do pastor Martin Niemöller, de 30 de janeiro de 1948. In: Igreja e germanidade. São Leopoldo: Sinodal; Caxias do Sul: Editora da Universidade, 1984, p. 235. Translation: “And if our children are called Pereira, Silveira and Oliveira [typical Brazilian last names], and if they are Christian, then they are still in our Church.”
[2] Prien, H. (1988). Die "Deutsch-Evangelische Kirche" in Brasilien im Spannungsbogen von nationaler Wende (1933) und Kirchenkampf. Jahrbuch für Geschichte Lateinamerikas, 25(1), pp. 511-534.
[3] Idem, ibidem.
[4] Franke, J. R. (2006). Barth for armchair theologians. Westminster John Knox Press.
[5] Barth, K. (2013). Reformation als Entscheidung. In: Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1930–1933 (Vol. 49). Theologischer Verlag Zürich.
[6] Barth, K. (2001). An Pfarrer Heinz Giessel, Seehausen/Altmark, 1933. In: Offene Briefe 1909-1935 (Vol. 8). Theologischer Verlag.
[7] Idem, ibidem.
[8] Getulio Dorneles Vargas, dictatorial President of Brazil from 1930 to 1945, and democratically elect from 1950 to 1954.
[9] Dreher, M. N. (1999). Ernesto Theophilo Schlieper, um pai da IECLB. In: Anuário Evangélico 1999. Editora Sinodal, São Leopoldo/RS, pp. 76-80.
[10] The biggest and most important among the German Evangelical Synods in Brazil, at that time responding directly to the Evangelical Church in Germany – EKD.
[11] Igreja Evangélica de Confissão Luterana no Brasil, the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil, the successor of the German Evangelical Synods.
[12] Idem, ibidem.


Giancarlo Zeni is a Political Science undergraduate student at the Universidade Federal do Paraná (Brazil) and a Theology undergraduate student at the Faculdade Teológica Sul-Americana (Brazil). He is a member of the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil and is interested in 20th Century German theology, especially Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, and their contributions to ecclesiology, soteriology and public theology.


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