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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Silence, by Shūsaku Endō, Part 7: In Response to Meg Hunter-Kilmer

There has been a mixed reaction to the movie Silence in the Catholic blogosphere, which came to me as a bit of a surprise.  The same issue that has riled up some toward the movie also applies to the novel.  The issue is whether the protagonist of the novel/movie, Sebastian Rodrigues, the Jesuit priest, is right in apostatizing at the climax of the novel in order to save the innocent Christian peasants from being slowing tortured and martyred.  I’m sure you can find articles and blog posts around the internet to read both sides of the issue.  I’m not going to search and link them here.

But I did come across a piece by Meg Hunter-Kilmer on the Catholic e-magazine, Aleteia, “More than apostasy: What we’re not talking about with “Silence.”  Ms. Hunter-Kilmer was a bit dismayed that the focus of the general discussion was only on the apostasy. 

There’s so much more in this film, as indeed there was in the book, so many moments of powerful faith and challenging rebuke, that to evaluate it all on how the director views Fr. Rodrigues’s apostasy is beyond unfortunate.

I sympathize with those viewers who are concerned with Scorsese’s apparent approval of apostasy as an act of compassion. I even understand that Rodrigues’ failure ultimately colored the whole film for them. There is a danger, for weak souls, that blithe acceptance of this action could lead to moral relativism and utilitarianism. But the fall of the hero doesn’t make the entire movie worthless, particularly not when you see how tortured he was afterwards.

So Ms. Hunter-Kilmer put together a series of questions about the movie and most apply to the novel.  I can’t answer about the movie, but I do want to answer those questions that pertain to the novel.  Meg’s questions will be indented here and my response will follow.

1. I don’t understand Rodrigues’ choice. This isn’t because I’m more virtuous than he is. It’s because I find it easier to endure other people’s pain than my own. I judge Rodrigues more harshly because he caved to a temptation that I don’t struggle with. How often do I do the same with real people?

He didn’t cave to a temptation.  He acted in mercy to save the tortured Christians.  He was more than willing to die.  He was actually looking for his “glorious martyrdom.”  But the Japanese authorities turned the table on him.  They put his Christianity to an existential crises: Refuse to act in mercy or deny Christ. 

2. Every time I recommend this book to someone, I tell them, “It reads like the Stations of the Cross.” I see Rodrigues persevering because he connects his suffering to Jesus’. But Ferreira calls this identifying of his pain with Christ’s arrogant. Is it possible for suffering to be redemptive if it isn’t united to Christ’s in that way? At what point does identifying with Christ become arrogant?

What was arrogant was that Rodrigues came to Japan and insisted on administering the sacraments against the government’s wishes.  The arrogance was twofold: His subversive infiltration and seeking a “glorious martyrdom.”  That was at the root of all the peasant’s suffering.  Remember Kichijiro asks why God has brought this on them.  It started with Rodrigues deciding to sneak into Japan. 

3. After his apostasy, Rodrigues was obviously miserable. Why didn’t he ever recant? Surely there must have come a point when there was no longer danger that others would be killed for his faith. Was it pride that kept him living that life, an attempt to convince himself that he’d done the right thing? With the final shot of the crucifix he’d kept for so many years, Scorsese implies that he maintained some sort of faith in the midst of all his actions to undermine Christianity in Japan. At first that shot gave me hope, a feeling that, in spite of the apostasy he’d felt compelled to commit, he really did love Jesus and long for him. But the more I thought about it, the more his life seemed a betrayal. It’s one thing if he convinced himself, as Ferreira seemed to, that the Gospel wasn’t true. But to work against the God he loved, to do it day after day for decades? That seems to me far more vile than the initial moment of failure.

The novel doesn’t ever get into why he doesn’t recant.  He is a broken man, and one presumes that the same trial would be put to him: the martyrdom of innocent peasants at the expense of his pride.  It should be pointed out that Rodrigues is not just a second version of Ferreira.  Ferreira developed into a satanic character.  Rodrigues becomes like Kichijiro, cowardly but Christian in his heart.

4. Most orthodox Christians, I think, would assert that the “voice of Jesus” telling Rodrigues to trample wasn’t really a locution but a temptation or a mental breakdown. How can we discern that in the moment? Ignatius himself tells us that God won’t call us to do something objectively wrong, which brings quite a lot of clarity in this situation. But when it’s more gray even than this, how can we know which is the voice of truth and which the voice of the world, the flesh, and the devil?

I think it depends how you read the novel.  Was the apostasy warranted at the expense of providing mercy?  Endo is bringing Rodrigues to an existential crises.  Most existential crises involve life and death.  Here Endo brilliantly applies existentialism to Christianity.  He places two vital commandments in conflict with each other: Matt 10:33, “But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father” against Matt 25: 40, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’  Rodrigues’ choice is to act in mercy or apostatize.  Which commandment supersedes the other?  If you believe the voice that tells him to apostatize is Christ speaking, then the right choice was to act in mercy.  If you don’t, then the right choice was to let the innocent peasants die.  My personal feeling is that one always acts in mercy, for blessed are the merciful. 

5. Most stories of martyrs depict them as dying joyfully and those who look on rejoicing that they’ve been found worthy to suffer for Christ. This film has quite a lot of agonized sobbing, even when one man is (mercifully) beheaded rather than killed in some incredibly slow and painful way. Is this a function of Scorsese’s fundamental failure to understand the faith? Have we over-romanticized martyrdom and this is more realistic? Is there a cultural component that I’m missing?

I haven’t seen the movie.  Let me add here that this existential crises is the only time I have ever heard it being put to Christians.  Most martyrs are asked to apostatize or die.  Here Rodrigues is asked to apostatize or let others die.  The outline of the novel is actually based on an historical event.  Ferreira and the character of Rodrigues (who in real life was called Giuseppe Chiara) existed and apostatized.  Endo imagined the details. 

6. In the scene in which the villagers were drowned, these men who had been depicted as dirty and repulsive, true savages, became dignified. When Mokichi sings (was it some version of the Tantum Ergo?) after 4 days of near-drowning, he reminds me what it is to live and die for Christ. For that scene alone, there’s a lot I would forgive this movie.

In the novel they are singing a Japanese Christian hymn: “We’re on our way, we’re on our way,/We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise…”  The true hero of the novel are the Christian peasants.  Rodrigues may be the protagonist, but he is no hero.

7. After his first interview with Rodrigues, the interpreter walks out of Rodrigues’ cell and makes a comment about Rodrigues’ arrogance, following it with a declaration that he would fall. It was all I could do not to pull out my phone and write that quotation down word for word. That idea transformed how I viewed martyrdom and, honestly, how I view myself. It had me looking up confession times and prepared me for confession better than any examination of conscience I’ve ever seen. Those who are humble don’t have so far to fall, so perhaps some of it is just that the devil puts less effort into them. But more than that, their faith is built on Christ. Rodrigues’s faith, sincere as it was, was shored up by his awareness that he was strong and brave and educated. Had he been weaker, Christ could have been stronger in him.

That’s a good observation. 

8. Who would you rather be on Judgment Day: Rodrigues or Kichijiro?

Both are sinners.  Both are human. 

9. Ferreira claims that the Japanese aren’t capable of accepting the Gospel, despite the 300,000 converts made in 50 years. It’s worth discussing this question, the central one of Endo’s life, of how inherently western Catholicism is and what can be done for more authentic inculturation. What struck me more, though, was his insistence that the Japanese hadn’t truly embraced Christ, only their false, nature-worship understanding of him. And yet they died for him. I think that to have that strength they must have known him. Even if they didn’t, even if they were worshiping the sun and calling it Jesus, is that enough? Does God demand doctrinal accuracy or are our best efforts enough?

Ferreira is manifestly wrong.  You have to remember that this is an historical novel, so we the reader know the history.  Christianity survived the 250 year persecution and when the oppression stopped they were still Christians.  Endo’s point is the Holy Spirited obviously guided the outcome.  Rodrigues’ clandestine effort was unnecessary and therefore presumptuous and prideful.  It didn’t trust in Christ.  One needed the Kichijiro’s and the martyrs, the cowardly and the courageous.  Both contributed to Christianity’s survival.  The historicity is very important in shedding light on the events within the novel.

10. Even at the beginning, Rodrigues told the villagers to trample on the image, yet he held out for months. Why did he hold himself to a different standard? Is it okay that he had higher standards for himself or did that lead to his downfall? How can we be merciful to others while striving for sainthood without falling in the same way?

Good questions and I can’t answer any of them.  All I can say is that Rodrigues’ lack of humility caused the events.  Pope Francis today might say that Rodrigues was pushing cultural "colonialism."

11. The hunger the villagers had for the Sacraments puts me to shame. Their joy at the coming of the priests, despite the risk they knew it brought, their desperate need to confess their sins–all this reminds me how much I take God for granted. See how they love him!

I believe that was chapter three in the novel.  That is among the most beautiful chapters of all Christian literature. 

12. Rodrigues’ act of apostasy is an obvious one and most of us would recognize (at least intellectually) that nothing justifies apostasy. But are there smaller acts of apostasy in my life that I’ve justified because they’re motivated by compassion or prudence or convenience? Are there certain actions that I recognize are inherently evil, or do I think that sometimes the ends justify the means? How has this impacted my opposition to abortion or torture? Have I compromised on something small and seen it snowball? What venial sin do I need to cut out in order to be safe from mortal sin in the future?

Personally I think refusing to aid the suffering was the greater sin.  I’m no theologian but I put to you the parable of the Good Samaritan.  One of those who passes by not aiding the dying man is a priest who avoids helping the wounded man because it will contaminate him and he will not be able to perform his liturgical functions.  That is almost a comparable example to Rodrigues.  To not act in mercy because of a legalism strikes me as Pharisaic. 

13. If you’ve read The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, compare Rodrigues and Greene’s whiskey priest. What does the juxtaposition of those two characters tell you about pride and sanctity?

Both are flawed men.  Greene thought Silence was the greatest Catholic novel.  I don’t recall the whiskey priest being prideful like Rodrigues.  I thought the whiskey priest couldn’t resist his temptations.

14. What were the differences between Rodrigues and Garrpe? If their circumstances were reversed, would Rodrigues have died a martyr and Garrpe an apostate? Or was there something that separated them even before that? Do you think you could endure what Rodrigues did and remain faithful?

I don’t think Garrpe’s character is developed enough to answer that.  I don’t know how I would react in Rodrigues’ situation.  I think I would act the same.

Questions 15 and 16 don't really apply here.

17. The title of the film refers to the silence of God in the face of human suffering. Does prolonged silence from God weaken us in the face of such suffering? It didn’t in Mother Teresa’s case–why not? How could Rodrigues have reacted differently to this silence? How could you?

In the novel, I believe God’s silence is only imagined.  Even Rodrigues says at the end He was always speaking.  The silence of the title I believe refers to the 250 years of Christians in Japan living their faith secretly in silence.  It is an historical novel, first and foremost.

So for those that have read the novel, how do you feel about the apostasy?  


  1. I haven't read the novel yet, but this post definitely piqued my interest even more!

    1. I hope you read it Kate, and then stop back and let me know what you think.