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?