Meditations on Silence

“For twenty years I labored in the mission.” With emotionless voice Ferreira repeated the same words. “The one thing I know is that our religion does not take root in this country.” “It is not that it does not take root,” cried Rodrigues in a loud voice, shaking his head. “It’s that the roots are torn up.” At the loud cry of the priest, Ferreira did not so much as raise his head. Eyes lowered he answered like a puppet without emotion: “This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

Over the Christmas break, I witnessed the most intense film that I’ve ever watched. That’s what Scorcese’s Silence was for me. Not content being sad or suspenseful it provoked thought through its sheer intense psychological torture. And it forced you kicking and screaming to live through its characters. Based on Shusaku Endo’s book Silence, it follows 2 Portuguese Jesuit priests’ search for their mentor Ferreira whom their order has lost contact with. Rumor has it that he has apostatized and is now living as a Japanese man. Through a grueling 2 hours, we come to learn of the villages who worship in secret, hoping for the return of the Jesuits and the agonizing deaths suffered by those who refuse to renounce their faith by committing fumi-e – stepping on a picture of Christ or the Virgin Mary. As a result of Japan’s purge of foreign influence all missionaries have also been expelled from Japan. Rodrigues and Garupe are the last 2 priests remaining.

That isn’t the horror of the story. After Garupe dies trying to save the Christian villagers condemned to drown at sea, Rodrigues comes face to face with his Ferreira to see that the rumor has been true. He has become Sawano Chuan, a Japanese man with a wife who now writes as a Japanese buddhist. How did the swamp of Japan finally defeated the missionary spirit of Christ? This is where Scorcese blows the flame of his paradox. Instead of threatening Japanese converts by death, the roots were ripped out by killing and torturing Japanese believers if Jesuit priests refused to renounce the faith themselves.

For the 2 men, Rodrigues and Ferreira, the straw that finally broke their backs was anazuri. The Japanese are suspended upside down in a pit and left to slowly bleed out over the course of days, sometimes weeks. The pit is covered so their heads are enclosed. It can be filled with blood and their excrement. It is like the vicarious suffering of Christ was hit with an Uno reverse card. Just as humanity suffered for Adam’s sin, so the Japanese Catholics die for the confession of the priests’ own faith. Throughout the movie, you’re prompted to ask “where is God in the midst of such oppressive silence?”

The answer is found when Rodrigues sees a vision of Christ who assures him of his presence despite his apparent silence and permits him to step on image of him in order to ease the suffering of others. After all, that is what he came for. Rodrigues lives out his days as a Japanese man with a wife and child and helps the Tokugawa government identify any Christian contraband coming into the Christian. Although he appears to have forsaken his Christian beliefs, the last scene of the movie is a shot from within his cremation barrel where he can be seen holding a crucifix hidden within a paper parcel.

In Christianity, martyrdom for your beliefs is often honored as a heroic expression of faith. But what if others are martyred because of your beliefs? That’s the question that Scorcese wrestles with so well. The movie seems to answer that God works in the silence even of his followers. And that it’s okay to deny him to ease the suffering of others. Like a parent lying to protect their child, we want to be able to let this little lie slide and confess Jesus in our hearts though our mouths may tremble shut. The emotional force of suffering is so great that it would seem a greater evil than even apostasy and the renouncing of one’s faith – essentially your beliefs.

The reason behind the emotional force of the movie is because of the argument by the daimyo Inoue. Christianity is not welcome in Japan. It fits worse than an old shoe with no soles. No fruit can grow out of such a swamp. Such language reminded me of the way manipulative people speak, like a father blaming his child for the way he beat his mother. The responsibility of killing Japanese Christians is shifted by Inoue to the missionaries themselves. Yet no amount of forced decisions can hide that anymore than a tortured testimony can be upheld in a court of law. Their own people could have stopped it at any time. We feel its guilt though, because it appears as though the priests could’ve done something to stop it.

But what’s worse than any physical and temporary suffering? Denying that you don’t know nor believe nor love Christ…That’s the pain Peter felt as the rooster crowed. That’s what the Father felt when he condemned Jesus on behalf of humanity, when he bore the weight of the world’s sin and was abandoned and disowned so that we could be reconciled to him. For God to ask that of us would be for us to do something’s he already done – condemn his Son on the behalf of others. But for us to renounce him is to condemn him as a liar in whom no salvation can be found. We would be saying that Jesus is not worthy of full allegiance nor of more honor than even kings.

It helps if we imagine Christ in the same position – would he deny God his Father if it meant being able to save some of his followers from persecution? While it can be tempting in this cultural age to believe that what we believe and think is of little importance, remember that to Jesus the greatest sin was the blasphemy of God’s Spirit – to call God and his work evil and denounce Christ before men. Jesus alone is the savior of all men: both those bleeding to death upside down and those watching them. To deny that compromises your soul though it might save the momentary suffering of others.

What is hardest is to trust God that even in the face of such an impossible decision his purposes are good and that he is not and will not be silent as the blood of those who die for his sake cry out against their true oppressors and not those they try to blame, manipulating Christian compassion to cover their inhumane apathy. I write all this not because I believe I would be able do what I think is right in such a situation. Because I know that I wouldn’t. The swamp of Japan has defeated the spirit of many. And I wouldn’t be the last. Even if I survived such an ordeal I would be a permanently broken man. So I hope I never have to face such a situation. And if I do I hope that God will sustain me on such a day. All in all, it would’ve been a great film if it wasn’t so dragged out and its attempt at redemption wasn’t just a whimper. But real life is often like that. So watch it. If you dare.

3 thoughts on “Meditations on Silence”

    1. oh that’s a great observation! i didn’t think of it at the time but i just read carl trueman’s book which explains how modern ethics have become purely aesthetic when devoid of any metaphysical truth or reality.

      1. There was a guy who wrote a huge work on that, modern secularism… What’s his name, Charles Taylor… One day I will read it. When I have about three months off. 😂

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