On “Silence”, by Shusaku Endo

Spoiler alerts ahead! To avoid them, skip to the last five paragraphs

Where to begin on such an honest and terrible depiction of what it meant to be a Christian in Japan in the 1600’s? I once heard my pastor say of Silence that it reminded him of how easy it is for Western Christians to follow Jesus at a distance. That is, how easy it is to be a Christian in the West and never face any opposition.

The struggle for relevance, the desire to be accepted and cool are nothing Christianity claims to offer. In fact, the desire to be cool says more about one’s faith in culture than it does about Jesus. But if the point of being a Christian isn’t about doing what’s trending, what is it?

Shusaku Endo presents a ghastly portrayal that is far too close to torture for comfort. In Silence we have father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who’s come to Japan in search of the alleged apostate priest, Father Christovao Ferreira who after 20 years as a missionary was said to have trodden upon the face of God (which, to the Japanese, was proof of one’s apostasy). To Rodrigues, and many others, this simply could not be true. His belief in the power of God to prevail his people was too strong for any real opposition able to turn a priest. Or so he thought. So he and another priest come to Japan, but upon arrival they are immediately swept into the forest to a place where only the Christian villagers would know, and who’d come, two-by-two, to visit them in the night. After some time the priests wore tired and felt ready to be on with their mission of finding Ferreira. It was then that they separated and would never again be reunited.

Rodrigues travels to another small village, but it is not long before he and other Christians are discovered and rewards are placed upon their heads. The coward, Kichijiro, (to me the most interesting character) basically a drunk who can’t make up his mind about whether or not he’s a Christian, is finally the one to turn Rodrigues over in exchange for the small reward, drawing parallels to how Judas turned over Jesus.

Rodrigues is repeatedly told that he will deny his faith and trod upon the “Fumie” (an image of Christ painted upon a piece of wood), and while he constantly denies it, he is also internally troubled, wondering about why God is allowing the Magistrate to torture Christians so freely. The benevolence of God, then, becomes of greatest question for the priest, especially as he is often forced to either witness by sight or by sound the torture of peasant Christians.

The priest is faced with a very important ethical dilemma then. He is told that if he would only deny the faith then his fellow Christian prisoners would be set free; that if he’d trod the Fumie, their torture would end (which he knows is probably a lie). Some of his accusers even question his real love for the Christians if he is willing to let them suffer. For his persistence he’s called selfish and is even pleaded with by his opposers to just deny Christ and put an end to everything. His faith is strong, even with his doubt, at least until he finally does find Ferreira. Clothed now as a Japanese person and even called by a deceased Japanese man’s name, Ferreira doesn’t plead with Rodrigues to apostasize as much as he coldly claims that Christianity just can’t take root in Japan. He calls Japan a swamp, and says that no matter how many seeds are cast upon the swamp, a tree will never sprout. Rodrigues is angered of course, and meanwhile still being subjected to the tortures. Soon he comes to believe, by way of Ferreira, that Christ himself might actually trod the Fumie, for that must be the most loving thing to do in such a perilous quandary. Hampered by guilt imposed by the Magistrate and by the shame he he feels for even considering denying his God, he remains with the faith until finally the torture is too much. He trods the Fumie and from there on is placed under house arrest, sentenced to write books about the inaccuracy of Christianity until he dies of sickness at age 65.  

As I read I could not say that I’d be strong enough to resist any longer than Rodrigues had (far shorter, I’m sure). Not because my faith in God is necessarily weak, but because my love for God’s humanity might be stronger. That is, I often wonder if my real god is the love, justice, and enjoyment of people.

Truly, it does take belief in an afterlife, a hope for a restored order of the world, to resist torture, even unto death. But I think that somehow being exposed to another’s torture is far worse than being tortured oneself. Maybe this isn’t true for everybody. But what about being told your loved ones will suffer until you give up your faith? Is it selfish to hold to your faith? Or is it courageous? Again, it takes a true belief that God is real and that pain on this earth pales in comparison to the life we’ll get to live after death.

I’ve been greatly challenged by Silence. Sure, there are the philosophical dilemmas, but even more, I have been enlightened to my own lack of courage to believe in God when the moment to show my belief presents itself.

But there’s another side to this question, and surely one that Rodrigues considered: if somebody was torturing my family, then there is clearly something psychotic about the torturer. Or is this just my Western mind? If one was to ask me to deny God to their face in exchange for my family, then am I not just needing to justify myself before a psychopath? Of what consequence is it to him to hear me deny the faith? To whom, in the end, am I truly accountable? God or man? I get the other side of the coin, though. The principle of the matter is: who is most important?

What if it became illegal in the US to be a Christian and officers were required to arrest Christians, and what if torture became the norm to purge our country of Christianity? It would seem to me, based on Jesus’ allegiance to God in the face of his own governing state, that God must win, no matter how idiotic or inhumane the torture is. Thoughts?

Indian Killer and My Trip to Joseph, OR

Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)
Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)

It was 11am on a Sunday. Ashley and I were hiking in the snow along a trail just south of Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. The way we knew we were still on a trail, some trail, and not just trailblazing our way up the side of a mountain, were the vast amounts of trees we’d pass with initials carved into them. Love-carvings (is that still a thing?), with typical hearts, letters, dates in time. Signs that humans (with knives) had walked this trail thousands of times before us.

We neither thought about nor realized whose trails we were walking. Like many before us, we’d simply driven to the end of highway 82, stayed a night in the town of Joseph, and continued to the road’s end on the southern point of Wallowa Lake the next day. There was a State Park with cabins, snowed-over campsites, and street parking. We parked our Prius behind another Prius, pulled on our beanies and gloves, and started walking. Aimlessly, I’ll add, if not for a sign that read “East Fork: 4mi” and “West Fork: 2.5mi”. We went west. We walked and talked about our future together, career choices, writing goals. We took a few moments to stop, glance around, and look up into the trees before continuing along. A stream with a man-made bridge above had not-yet frozen over. It was very-much alive and nothing close to quiet.

After a mile and a half we came to a clearing where we could take in views of the lake and its surrounding hillsides. It’s a shame it’s not spring or summer, I thought, wishing I could have experienced a landscape without so much white. This—though I was not yet aware—would become for me quite an ironic thought.

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The Jennings Hotel, Room 8

When we got back to our hotel room I noticed a sign above our window that was made to look like part of the window’s molding. It read, “Chief Joseph Hotel.” The room was one of many fully renovated rooms by an artist who’d recently acquired the building. Chances were good that he’d found the sign in an antique shop nearby and cut it down to fit perfectly above the window. I knew we were in the town of Joseph, but I wondered who Chief Joseph was. I sat down and picked up a book I’d been reading. It was a work that I’d later learn the author (Sherman Alexie) decided to distance himself from. Today, knowing what I do now, I wonder why that is? Did he believe himself to be too angsty? Too heavy-handed, too righteous for his cause? One thing is for certain: Indian Killer is not a book for kids.

indian killer

Set in mid-90’s Seattle, Indian Killer snapshots between various characters and their interactions surrounding the issue of an alleged, at-large terrorizer and murderer of white men. The main character, John Smith, is an adopted Indian (I shall use “Indian” at times to refer to “Native Americans/First Peoples” because this is the nomenclature that Alexie used) to two upper-middle class white parents. Among many things, he plays a symbolic role throughout the book portraying the confusion and generational frustration that resides within many Indians today. John never knew his real parents, never knew what tribe he was from, never fit in, and throughout the book, deals constantly with agonizing mental illness (possibly schizophrenia). Moreover, he often hallucinates and dreams of righting the wrongs of the White Man once and for all. It comes as no surprise, then, that the reader initially assumes John to be the Indian Killer.

The most interesting character to me was Marie Polatkin, a fierce college-aged activist who spends her time either handing out sandwiches to the homeless or challenging her Native American Literature professor, Dr. Clarence Mather (a white man in love with the idea of “being Indian” who spent two decades living amongst an Indian people-group in order to study their ways). Marie, herself a Spokane Indian, persistently challenged Dr. Mather’s notions on what it meant to be Indian, often insulting his expertise and insisting that Native American Literature should be taught and written by Native Americans, not white men. One of her most compelling statements came as Seattle was becoming more paranoid about the “Indian Killer”, and as more white people were launching assaults upon, especially, homeless Indians. Marie, herself always doubtful that the killer was necessarily Indian, reflected:

“…calling him the Indian Killer doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn’t he be called the Killer Indian?” (p. 247)

It was then that my perspective shifted. Not to sound dramatic, but the idea that the real killers in Alexie’s book (and by implication, much of our country’s history), were actually white people got me thinking. I started reflecting upon my 21st century, white, southern-californian education about First Peoples. Like many kids raised in American schools, I was taught about Squanto and the early settlers who came over on the Mayflower, and then in 11th grade U.S. history about various battles that the U.S. Cavalry had with tribes of Natives unwilling to relocate. But mostly, the perspective by which I was taught was that these battles were history. Numbers on a page. Tally marks and facts.

I’ve never read from the perspective of our First Peoples until Indian Killer (Alexie grew upon on the Spokane Indian Reservation). I’ve never been encouraged to and so I’ve never bothered to. The closest I’ve ever come to realizing the bleak situation my country has placed our First Peoples within was riding my bike through north-eastern Arizona, through Navajo-nation (as one white person I’d met in Flagstaff called it). “Desolate” was the descriptor they’d used.

As I flipped open Indian Killer and continued reading, it didn’t take long for me to make a connection. I started wondering about the town of Joseph and about the “Chief Joseph” sign above my window. Soon, I was reading wikipedia pages. Then came articles, and finally a primary source document written by Chief Joseph the Younger himself entitled, Chief Joseph’s Own Story. As I read I learned that his tribe, the Nez Perce, were indigenous to the soil upon which the town of Joseph was planted. I learned that the Nez Perce were initially peaceful to white settlers, and that our government allowed them to inhabit parts of the Wallowa valley. That was until 1863 when gold was discovered in the Wallowa mountains. The U.S. government then asked the Nez Perce to relocate to a smaller reservation in Idaho. Joseph the Younger’s father, Joseph the Elder, declined, and placed poles as boundary lines. To the governmental agents and white settlers he declared:

“Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

(Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, p. 73)

From there it’s reported that aggression toward the Nez Perce rose until eventually the U.S. government waged war. By then, Joseph the Younger had become Chief (his father had passed), and instead of fighting, he decided to migrate his people north in what’s been considered one of the greatest tactical evasions ever attempted. Hidden in the mountains of Idaho and dashing through the night while Cavalry pursued, Chief Joseph believed if they could reach Canada they’d be safe. But before they could, and after many among the Nez Perce had died, Joseph was forced to surrender. The tribe was transported to a P.O.W. camp in eastern Kansas before being transported to a reservation in Oklahoma where many in the tribe died of disease. Chief Joseph would continue to lead his people throughout the various places that they were transported. Most courageously, he lived out his days as an activist for all indigenous First Peoples, even pleading directly to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/
Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/

The town of Joseph today certainly looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. Eateries, boutiques, and bars line Main Street. Artistic culture thrives, especially during the summer. A large statue of Chief Joseph stands near the town’s entrance. One evening a waitress told Ashley and I that when she moved to town she and her husband and many of their visiting friends had intensely vivid dreams. “This whole canyon is spiritual,” she said with an excited smile. “A really, very magical place.”

Visiting Joseph and reading the fictional story, Indian Killer, has caused me to wonder a lot of Why’s?, as might be expected. Aside from the compelling mastery that Alexie has over his prose, and the indescribable beauty of Joseph and its surrounding country, more than anything, these two experiences have made me sad and grieved. Much has been done that cannot be undone. An entire people group has been forced to assimilate. Imagine the state of our country if we had lost WW2. It’s tough to picture, but there’s a good chance that many of us might not even be alive. Still, I’ll never be able to realize what it felt like to be indigenous and then displaced; taken up and then taken hostage; used and then disposed of. There’s not really a handy or bright solution either. Sadness and grief just seem the most appropriate emotions.