'Silence' Takes an Unflinching Look at Christian Persecution
A look at the eternal lessons in Shusaku Endo's novel.
It is near the end of Mark’s Gospel that we are given these, perhaps the most famous words of Jesus.
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
This particular cry from dying Son to Heavenly Father is the only expression that is recorded in two different Gospel accounts (Mark and Matthew). It is a weeping, bleak declaration of total separation from and longing to be with the Father. In this moment, God departing from Christ and conquering humanity’s sin illustrates both the reality of human depravity and the undeserved gift of God’s amazing grace. In other words, the truest indication of the Father’s “love” for the world must be that He abandoned His only begotten Son at the Cross to give eternal life to whoever believes in Him (John 3:16). It is in the silence of the Father in Heaven, during the murder of Jesus Christ, that we witness God’s greatest suffering—and yet, His ultimate triumph.
Martydom through the lens of fiction
This is the silence that threads through Shusaku Endo’s Silence of 1966 and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming movie adaptation. Endo’s novel is a fictionalized account of a 17th-century Portuguese priest sent to Japan during the height of Christian persecution (a period aptly named Kakure Kirishitan, or “Hidden Christian”).
While living in Tomogi as a missionary, the priest Rodrigues and his counterpart, Garrpe, are firsthand witnesses of Japanese Christian martyrdom. The two are eventually asked to leave the Tomogi for the sake of its inhabitants; they separate and are each eventually captured by Japanese authorities. In this state of imprisonment, Rodrigues experiences the lowliness of missionary life for himself: He is kept in custody by Inoue, Lord of Chikugo, until he apostatizes or renounces his faith.]
Rodrigues refuses until he encounters Ferreira, the Portuguese priest-turned-apostate whom he and Garrpe had been searching for since the very beginning of their journey. As Ferreira recalls his own imprisonment, he implores Rodrigues to renounce his faith for the sake of the Japanese Christians being tortured because of him—those who will not be released until Rodrigues tramples the image of Christ. After hearing the voice of Christ himself, Rodrigues obeys, placing his feet on the fumi-e and defiling the sacred image of his Savior “whom [he has] always longed to love.”
The word silence is mentioned over 78 times in the novel, often preceding or proceeding a believer’s suffering. Many of the Portuguese priests and Japanese Christians are silent in the face of their own persecution. The way Endo even describes the setting often foreshadows Christian martyrdom, taking on its own qualities of complete silence. Yet other times the silence of death is broken only by the screams of the persecuted Christians.
But silence is most frequently called upon in Rodrigues’ personal lamentations to God, during which he wonders why God remains silent in the suffering of His people. “Even in this moment,” Rodrigues writes, “why are you silent?” Rodrigues interprets God’s silence as His lack of presence; but it is not until the Lord speaks directly to Rodrigues at the end of the novel that he is inclined to believe otherwise. “I was not silent,” God declares to a conflicted Rodrigues. “I suffered beside you.” In the end, silence is actually a representative of God’s care, provision and empathy for his suffering children.
The holy burden of every believer
Silence presents us with the challenges of what Jesus asks of and expects from us in our daily lives. Even as “average-Joe” Christians, we are all missionaries called to follow Christ and participate in God’s redemptive narrative: the unfolding of His Kingdom. We are called into a life of faith and obedience that gives witness the glorious reign of Jesus Christ. While Silence‘s Rodrigues ultimately renounces his faith to alleviate the suffering of Japanese Christians, he does so in direct accordance with the will of God expressed by the image of Christ Jesus that appears before him. Rodrigues does not please the world in his apostasy, but rather the one who commanded him to apostatize to spare innocent lives: God Himself.
As missionaries, we act as witnesses of the one who sends us—and would do well to remember, with certainty, God’s presence until the very end of the age. Such as we are called to praise the Father from whom all blessings flow, we are equally called to consider it pure joy when we faced with trials of many kinds. For to do so is to be filled by the Holy Spirit with the foreknowledge that faith in Christ produces perseverance, which works to mature and complete our adoption into God’s beloved family (James 1:2-4). Endo argues similarly in his novel; for it is God Himself who reveals His presence to Rodrigues; who suffers as he had suffered; who says that He has been with him since the beginning and will remain with him in the days to come. God matures Rodrigues through the promise that He will glorify Rodrigues as a son, even if his kin regard him as a traitor.
Ultimately, glory in martyrdom is one of many issues raised about Christian missions in Silence. The journey on which missionaries embark is one that will most certainly end in glorification, especially in martyrdom. They might believe that they will be celebrated amongst their peers for their bravery on the day that Christ calls them home. Their sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel might even be a source of great inspiration for future missionaries, like Christ’s own sacrifice. On the other hand, such was not Christ’s glory on earth, nor the calling of His servants. If nothing else, the brutal persecution depicted in Silence reminds us that eternal praise is reserved for God and God alone.
Redemption as God designed it
The dichotomy of perceived versus actual glory in Christian martyrdom is another motif that pervades Endo’s novel. Frequently, Rodrigues concludes that his experiences in Japan are not what he had originally signed up for: “Is it that I want to be honored, to be prayed to, to be called a saint,” Rodrigues asks himself as he lay in his cell. But the reality of Christian missions is as such: that to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb—not to the martyr—be all praise and honor and glory and power. The role of a Christian is to suffer in order that Christ may be glorified in suffering. Self-glory in martyrdom is idolatrous and ultimately hinders the work of Christ on earth. How, then, can we continually work for the glory of God and not ourselves? Within this tension, Christian missions resides—with which we, God’s people, are called to wrestle.
As I read Endo’s novel, I often wondered whether God had forsaken the Japanese Christians to persecution, especially in Rodrigues’ final choice to apostatize. Why would God ever allow for such a choice to have to be made—that His face would be trampled and His name slandered to ensure the safety of Christians who had already been tortured for His sake? By renouncing his faith, did Rodrigues douse any residual flames of Christianity left in Japan?
Yet, it is in the very image of Christ’s sacrifice at the fumi-e that I am reminded of His ultimate sacrifice at the Cross. For the sake of the world, God remained silent while Christ cried out to Him, nailed to a tree. The Father suffered alongside His Son until His death. Ultimately, man is redeemed and the Kingdom is advanced through this great, atoning sacrifice. The success of Christ’s mission was not hindered by the betrayal of humanity in the dreaded kiss of Judas Iscariot.
“[Jesus] told Judas to do what he was going to do,” Endo writes, “for Judas was in anguish.” While not all things in this world are good, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) The love of God is by no means glamorous, for, as Rodrigues demonstrates, God even loves those who betray Him and defile His image.
But His sacrifice is perfect as He is perfect, sufficient for the salvation of humanity by grace through faith. It is in the sound of silence that we hear God’s heart beating the loudest.