Martin Scorsese’s recent movie Silence debuted last week to critical acclaim. The movie, based on the book by Shusaka Endo, is the fictional story of a Jesuit priest in the 17th century who travels to Japan to discover what happened to his missionary mentor, who is rumored to have apostatized. Endo’s book has generated a great deal of controversy over the years, with faithful Christians both condemning it and praising it. At the heart of the debate is whether Endo is justifying apostasy or not, and whether publicly denying the Faith is ever acceptable. Regardless of this controversy, Silence masterfully peers deeply into the psychological struggles of someone trying to be faithful to his beliefs under extreme circumstances.
Note: this article contains spoilers and so if you have not read the book or seen the movie, you might want to stop here. Also, I am only referencing the book in this article, not the movie.
Faith in the Face of Suffering
The idea that Ferreira could have apostatized is unthinkable, for that is something that could only happen to the weak.
Silence revolves around Sebastian Rodrigues, a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest. He has heard that his mentor, Christovao Ferreira, who has been a missionary in Japan for years and is revered for his faith, has apostatized. So he and another Jesuit, Francisco Garrpe, travel to Japan to both discover what has happened to Ferreira, and to minister to the persecuted church in Japan. To Rodrigues, the idea that Ferreira could have apostatized is unthinkable, for that is something that could only happen to the weak.
On their way to Japan, Rodrigues and Garrpe meet a Japanese man named Kichijiro, who promises to bring them into the country and to connect them with the Christian community there. They immediately take a disliking to Kichijiro, whom they suspect of being an apostatized Christian. Kichijiro is eventually revealed to be a Christian, and he asks for forgiveness from Rodrigues, claiming he is a weak man who cannot stand up to persecution. Kichijiro becomes the foil for Rodrigues: a weak, compromising man not worthy even to tie Rodrigues’s sandals.
At first, Rodrigues and Garrpe are able to minister to the Christian community, who suffer under terrible conditions. Although Japanese officials had initially allowed the spread of Christianity, they subsequently instituted a terrible persecution to eradicate the Faith from the island. They ask all Christians to step on a fumie, which is a likeness of Jesus, in order to show they have abandoned Christianity. If they do not, they are tortured and killed in horrific fashion.
After some time Rodrigues and Garrpe have to separate in order to avoid capture by the authorities, and the story follows Rodrigues. Kichijiro, who is repeatedly depicted as a weak, servile figure, follows Rodrigues around, and eventually betrays him to the authorities. Over and over Kichijiro proclaims that he is a “weak man” and simply cannot stand up to his persecutors. Rodrigues does his best to remain charitable towards Kichijiro, but it is clear he holds the sniveling man in contempt for his weakness.
Throughout Rodrigues’s time in Japan, he laments over God’s “silence.” He sees the terrible suffering endured by the Japanese peasants, but cannot hear God responding to it. Where is He in this time of suffering? Why does He not speak? This silence plagues Rodrigues throughout the book.
Eventually, Rodrigues is brought by his captors to meet his mentor Ferreira, who is now working for Japanese officials and is clearly a beaten man.Ferreira justifies his apostasy by claiming that it is impossible for Christianity to take root in Japan, and anyway, God doesn’t care what happens there. In the climatic scene, Ferreira reveals that he apostatized not because of any physical torture or threats of death, but instead because the authorities were torturing and killing other Christians and promised to release them if Ferreira would simply step on the fumie. Ferreira justifies this, saying that “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men.”
Then Rodrigues is asked to step on the fumie in order to stop the torture of a group of Christians, whose cries he can hear in the distance. A Japanese official urges him to do so, saying, “It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?” At that moment, Rodrigues finally believes he hears Christ break his silence: “Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” And so Rodrigues places his foot on the fumie, “and far in the distance the cock crew.”
Our Amazing Ability to Rationalize
If it were easy to endure torture and even death for the Faith, why should we look up to those who do?
The controversy surrounding Silence among practicing Christians revolves around whether it justifies apostasy or not. Historically, Christians have considered apostasy an action that is never acceptable – for any reason. From the beginnings of the Church, it was better to be tortured and to die rather than deny belief in Christ. Yet Endo presents an awful situation in which apostasy might appear justified, and in fact appears even to be endorsed by Christ himself.
But is it? Although Rodrigues “hears” Christ at the climatic moment, Endo does not make clear if this is actually Christ speaking, or Rodrigues himself projecting his own justifications as Christ’s “voice.” For the faithful Christian, the only possibility is that Rodrigues, under the weight of such great stress and suffering, is rationalizing his actions by “hearing” Christ himself defend them.
Paradoxically, the apostasy of Rodrigues proclaims the heroism of the martyrs. After all, if it were easy to endure torture and even death for the Faith, why should we look up to those who do? Those who succeed are revered because we understand they could have easily failed, like Rodrigues did. The human mind has the incredible capacity to rationalize and justify any action, no matter how wrong or how much it goes against our core beliefs. In Silence, we see the incredible difficulty of staying true to one’s beliefs in the face of severe opposition. Sometimes we succeed, but more often we fail. This can be a lesson for all of us who live in a world that, while not as extreme as 17th century Japan, is hostile to the Christian Faith. We must be psychologically strong, but more importantly, we must depend on the grace of God that we might remain faithful. God may be silent, but he is always present in even the most difficult situations.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.