There are images and ideas in Martin Scorsese’s SILENCE that are likely to resound in many viewers’ hearts and minds long after they leave the movie theater. A cinematic rendering of Shusaku Endo’s novel (same title), it is powerful and heartbreaking. Exposing the atrocity of religious persecution SILENCE’S theatrical release couldn’t be more timely. In that context, it poses important ethical and spiritual questions that warrant ongoing discussion among religious and secularists alike. It deserves to find a wide audience. But viewers be warned: there are benefits and burdens in watching the film. Scorsese’s devotion to Endo’s book has compelled this director and co-screenwriter to give practically every page of the novel its cinematic equivalent. This may be too much for the average filmgoer in terms of length but more so because of the graphic violence in its depiction of persecuted Christians.
The context of SILENCE is historical: In 17th century Japan, the ruling class decided it best for its national interest to eradicate Christianity from their country. The faith was closely associated with (and at times in complete cooperation with) Western Imperialism, Colonialism, Slavery and various manipulations of international trade. Worse, the infighting among Christians, between denominations and nationalities scandalized the Japanese and caused them grave concern.
Prior to the film’s time frame, the Japanese government sanctioned the arrest, torture and execution of Catholic priests to intimidate the Christian faithful. But the priests’ refusal to recant their faith and subsequent martyrdom strengthened the Japanese Christians’ faith and inspired growing number of converts. In retaliation, officials evolved alternative measures: mercilessly torturing Christian hostages in front of priests who could only stop the assault by publicly denying Christ. Should the priest refuse to deny his faith, the Japanese continued to subject Christians to excruciating torment, to slow and painful deaths with pastors forced to watch the proceedings. This is the historical and ethically abhorrent situation SILENCE explores and the implications are mind boggling.
How can a religious leader in conscience dictate martyrdom to his flock? To do so would be an offence against free will, against personal integrity. Catholic priests of the 17th and any century would be fully cognizant of the centrality of free will as the divine spark that makes each person in the image of God. And yet for a priest to apostatize is to betray his life, his vocation and the faith that those poor tortured souls embraced.
Most viewers would know, a steadfast confession of faith under threat of torture and death is a solemn and courageous act. For Christians, martyrdom witnesses to the promises of Christ–the reality of heaven, of resurrection and life in the world to come. It exemplifies the value of suffering for a greater truth beyond worldly comfort at the same time it personifies personal integrity—confirming integrity as a value to believer and nonbeliever alike. Delving deeper into this issue SILENCE not only explores the motivations and choices the priests make but asks “What would each viewer do?” If the characters make decisions that do not correspond to the viewer’s own, what then? This is the magnetic power of SILENCE. It is intent in engaging an audience into this segment of world history to ask that very question. What’s more, the film repeats the insistence of the novel that viewers refrain from judging the priests as much as humanly possible. The heart of Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s film is a cry toward compassion, not judgment. In that it is a very contemporary approach to a 17th Century phenomenon, flavoring it with the seasons of this age: tolerance and a strong sensibility of “to each his own.”
Our age of Enlightenment notwithstanding, Christianity continues to uphold the martyrs as among our greatest heroes. In imitation of Christ on the Cross, each martyr exhibits a willful surrender to God, to faith and personal integrity, refusing to get co-opted into the violence of the world. In contrast, the world honors secular heroes for their physical prowess, a Spartan grace that outwits and overpowers their enemies by fighting fire with fire, sword with sword, blade with blade to the point that, in modern cinema, whoever has the better machine gun wins. The context of the martyrs, of course, is quite different. They are held hostage by their captors with no recourse to anything but their faith. Yes, God is silent, but that is because God will not manipulate human beings, deferring (as God has from the beginning) to each person’s free will, allowing the consequences of each choice fall where they may. In honoring her martyrs, Christianity redefines “hero” and overturns Western Civilization relentless recourse to violence. No wonder the Japanese feared a Christian influence. Yet even Western Civilization questions the principle that “might makes right,” and for centuries its poets and philosophers have asked “What Price Glory?” Homer’s ILLIAD, in fact, after highlighting both bravery and bravado of the Trojan War heroes, ultimately asked: “What are we fighting for? For riches, for power, for control of land and resources? Yet all men die.” The modern, existential response is “we live and die for nothing, so live your life as you see fit.” The Christian response is “we live for God. We are not afraid of death. This life is but a stepping stone unto eternity as per the promises of Christ.”
The many martyrs in SILENCE are presented as truly heroic figures. But the central narrative focuses instead on three individuals who compromise their faith—one out of weakness and fear, the others out of compassion for the tortured souls crying out in painful delirium before them. Moreover, Endo and Scorsese suggest these priests may have apostatized because they believed Jesus Himself would have had them save lives rather destroy them. After all, Jesus did not insist his apostles be martyred alongside him. That comparison, however, would not be a fair one for it would mitigate the primacy of Christ in the story of salvation. Instead, there is irony in the fact that because the Apostles and other disciples fled in fear, Christianity survived because only the Apostles and other faithful disciples would witness the Resurrection—the crowning glory of the Christian faith. Likewise, there’s irony in the fact that the small but significant Catholic faith in Japan exists today, in part (and only “in part,”) because its ancestors denied their faith, stepped on the fumie (an icon used to reduce Christianity to “vapor”) renouncing Christianity to survive. But these apostates, too, would have experienced a dimension of Resurrection through the forgiveness of sin and eventual return to the Christian community as the character Kichijiro (expertly portrayed by actor Yôsuke Kubozuka) repeatedly makes clear. Indeed, many of the Japanese apostates would be forgiven because although they renounced their faith publicly, they became “secret Christians” until that time Japan allowed freedom of religion. Of course, eventually new missionaries would be allowed into the country, and fresh converts of new generations emerged with no connection to their Catholic ancestors other than spiritual ones. Complicated, isn’t it? Add to this, the film does not arouse any feeling of anger or hatred toward the Japanese persecutors. Beyond their ethnicity and culture is a sense that these men simply represent the world and the abuse of power evident in every time, in every place. The officials justify their actions with worldly logic that sounds rather rationale in alarming, matter of fact ways. Consider the ways violence and killing are reported and discussed in the public arena today.
Let’s look again at the “fallen,” characters in SILENCE more closely. Kichijiro is a central figure identified as a coward and apostate early on. He not only represents apostasy but prefigures choices two priests will make, choices the film scrutinizes in depth. But, as noted, the film is equally interested in the reactions of its viewers. SILENCE asks all: “How do you respond to those who regard life itself as the ultimate value–one that supersedes faith?” The story questions the human penchant for judgment and condemnation of those weak in faith, those who doubt and refuse to be martyred. It’s as if Endo and Scorsese were asking every Christian: How literally do you take Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the plain: “Stop judging, and you will not be judged. Stop condemning, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven?” (Luke 6:37) And consider these words of Jesus: “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:10)
Biblical scholars and Church tradition concur on this latter passage’s meaning: to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is not to “curse God and die” but rather to insist that God’s forgiveness toward humanity – the work, the dynamism attributed to the Holy Spirit –is limited or does not exist. To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to assert that God’s forgiveness is somehow not available or not true. In short, to refuse forgiveness, to deny its application and its benefits to all, in all circumstances, puts a person in the position of not receiving it or benefitting from it. In the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, the words of absolution spoken by the priest to the penitent are: ‘God, the Father of Mercy, through the death and resurrection of His Son, sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.” The plot presses further into this tenet of faith: To what extent do Christians (and all viewers) believe in a merciful God?
Religious sensibilities often hold apostasy (denying one’s faith in public) as among the greatest of sins. Most religions acknowledge and revere the courageous acts of the martyrs at the same time they acknowledge the choice for martyrdom rests in free will–each person’s capacity to achieve a perfect integrity, synthesis of faith fully integrated and manifested in body as well as in spirit. To this must be added a capacity for suffering and infusion of God’s grace that alone empowers the glorious impossible. Moreover, both the reality of human frailty, fear and weakness and the mystery of grace as that which is not bestowed on a recipient because of his or her virtue or “strength of will” maintain Christianity’s recourse to reconciliation and forgiveness which are foundational. Similarly, SILENCE invites us to expand our notions of a merciful God, insisting that God offers redemption to all.
Throughout SILENCE the narrative evokes the character of Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles. Judas, who, within a different context, and with implied but no clearly stated motives, handed Jesus over to religious authorities who in turn, handed him over to government officials who exercised their power to crucify him. In despair, Judas hangs himself—a decision that indicates that Jesus’ death was not Judas’ intent. Still, for centuries Christians have highlighted Judas as the one unforgiven soul, patron of betrayal (13th Century poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy places those guilty of betrayals in the lowest strata of hell–furthest from the realm of God). Yet in an almost contradictory way, Judas is also the representative of all who despair and /or commit suicide.
Even though the biblical and traditional treatment of Judas over the centuries belies it, Christian doctrine in many ways affirmed God’s all-encompassing love, asserting God as a God of mercy, bountiful in forgiveness—perpetuating our Jewish roots. Sometimes, however, Christian practice deferred more to tradition and culture than to doctrine when the “sins of Judas” were committed by others. For centuries, suicides were refused the rites of sacramental funerals and burials; betrayers and apostates were condemned to hell along with heretics. Vatican II, however, institutionalized a move toward compassion that had taken hold of the faithful much earlier, surrendering the judgment of the inner workings of a person’s heart and mind to God alone. Offering great comfort to the bereaved relatives and friends, the Church officially welcomed suicide’s victims to Christian funerals and burials in Catholic cemeteries, and excommunications have become extremely rare. Furthermore, theologians have debated the fate of Judas with an emphasis on compassion citing sporadic discourse on Judas’ betrayal and death from Christian writers through the centuries. SILENCE urges its audience to place the story’s protagonists-and Judas himself—in the light of that truth, exposing centuries of prejudice and condemnations justified by what can only be appreciated in hindsight as misguided righteousness.
SILENCE, of course, focuses on Judas’ betrayal (not his suicide) and keeps our responses to its characters’ betrayals front and center. Whatever the distinction between faith in the heart and faith on the lips, does Jesus’ acceptance of suffering on the Cross insist we accept suffering, too? Or does his cross and resurrection which offer the blessed assurance that love and forgiveness are inseparable entities within God’s essence assure salvation even to those who choose a form of humanism over faith? In that sense, God never demands or commands suffering. Only this world does. And suffering is often the consequence of insisting on truth, remaining faithful to one’s faith and convictions. But, the film asserts, so do the betrayers suffer, so do the weak, the fallible and the fearful. As God silently allows the consequences of every human action to play themselves out, SILENCE puts the responsibility on us to conform our wills to the compassionate Jesus who forgives the repentant thief crucified alongside him on Calvary.
In an interview at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, University, Scorsese said he continually asks himself: How does one express and live true Christian life in a hostile world? He believes that the truth of Christianity is in our behavior. . . The tribal medieval thinking (i.e. “be faithful or die”) is mitigated by people living their faith in fallible human terms. The result is that no one is damned for life, there’s always hope – implying that people of faith must be ever patient with each other as the God of the Bible evidences relentless patience with God’s people.
Also at Fuller Theological Seminary, CA, a round table discussion by professors highlighted the insights of Makoto Fujimura, a Japanese convert to Christianity, director of Brehm Center for Worship, Theology and the Arts. As author of the book SILENCE & BEAUTY (a commentary on Shusaku Endo’s novel), Makoto is convinced that a listening stance and compassion toward the sinner are the central ways Christianity must manifest itself in the present age.
There is great truth in those statements, but also an invitation to expound on related topics such as limits on human freedom, personal accountability and responsibility toward others.
Without those, emphasis on compassion alone presents quite a dilemma. It seems to diffuse the integrity of a staunch, uncompromising faith, the sacrifice of the martyrs and excuse us from enthusiasm and courage in living out our faith.
For that reason, Bishop Robert Barron of WORD ON FIRE fame, takes umbrage with the film. He sees it yet another example of Hollywood’s preference for ambiguity regarding faith and religion. The Bishop bemoans the fact that many producers and directors often cast faith more as problem than source of inspiration in their work. His YouTube includes scenes from the film and spoilers but you may wish to check it out to keep that part of the conversation alive:
Bishop Barron’s sensibility of “weakened Christianity in films” addresses other aspects of what it means to be Christian. Some say Vatican II has whitewashed evangelization–the directive to share our faith in Jesus Christ with those of other religions and those who have none. The film’s emphasis on God’s Mercy could be interpreted that no one need risk his or her life to share the Gospel. Vatican II rightfully asserted that God loves all, forgives all; all religions have validity and share in God’s goodness. Moreover, diversity among peoples must be honored as it mirrors God’s grandeur in Nature, and respects the God-given gift of Free Will. In that sense, there is no need for all to be one in one universal Church, one faith in Christ. True faith, whatever the faith, must be satisfied to cultivate humility and reverence for Religious Pluralism.
For all that, the Gospel compulsion to share “Good News of Jesus Christ” remains. We need to address the cultural compulsion to make people of faith “Anonymous,” exposing the myth that insists for the sake of peace we need a world of “Anonymous Christians, Anonymous Jews, Anonymous Buddhists, Anonymous Muslims, Anonymous Hindus,” etc. The myth does not acknowledge the loss of hope, of vision, inspiration, of morals and ethics in such a world.
Respecting diversity, perhaps the Christian obligation to evangelize means promoting religious discourse in the public square. For starters, that would give Christianity greater acceptance if not credence in today’s secular culture: No proselytizing, no arguing who or which is “more right,” no encouraging much less insisting on conversions. As Christians engage in religious dialogue, we witness to Christ through loving service, cultivating commonality on essential truths found in all religions thus building trust and solidarity in which God’s spirit thrives. What better way to exemplify our trust in Providence and God’s gift of free will –the Divine Spark in every human being.
JESUS: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give hislife as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
“I am among you as the one who serves. Luke 22:27
Thus, in imitation of Christ, we can serve others by confirming their goodness and affirming our shared values. We serve others inviting heartfelt conversation on ethics—the ways to respond to one another when we might harm ourselves and others, addressing problems together without focusing on blame. We serve others by listening to the importance of their faiths or philosophies or the reasons why they rejected faith or organized religions. The more we invite others to highlight commonalities among all faiths, the more we let Providence open proper paths for us to share our Christianity. In this way, more people would welcome us to share our faith because we cultivated a comfortability in listening to them share theirs. Essentially, we will have become more conscious of the fact that evangelization is God’s work, not ours—as it was from the very beginning.
Even with this more humble, patient approach to faith sharing, there are no guarantees that this “new evangelizers” will avoid arousing conflict in the public square or be free from persecution. Western Humanism prefers the privatization of religion because of the violence shrouded in religious discord in the past. Christian overtures toward humble faith-sharing could alleviate these fears and reveal faith’s ability to inspire hope and reconciliation. Discussing SILENCE in churches, homes, at work, schools, universities and other venues is but one accessible entrée into just that kind of witness.
The film SILENCE offers a topic to which many can relate and all religions address in some shape or form: the ways we treat the fallen, the broken–from the good person who makes a terrible mistake, to the hardened criminal, the coward, the bitter and disillusioned, the ignorant, misguided and the scorned. SILENCE inspires a compassionate stance toward all. But it also invites us to explore topics such as the evils of religious persecution and the importance of personal integrity and courage and the principle of non-violence.
I trust your response, and mine, will not be one of silence.
 The early 4th Century Donatist controversy brought the Church to insist that the sacrament of Christ’s forgiveness must be available to all, including those who have denied their faith. The Donatists who maintained that there were unforgivable sins, were condemned as heretics. See http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Donatism