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  • Writer's pictureTroy Kinney

Silence by Shūsaku Endō

I think that there are many popular missionary stories out there that generally have a happy ending. Even in martyrdom there is hope. This story is not really one of those. Yet I think it is an important story to be told.

This review is for the book Silence. I have not seen the new film by Martin Scorsese as of this writing so there may be some plot spoilers in the following comments.

In the 17th Century the Japanese decided to systematically rid their country of Christian ideas, belief and practice. Up to that point in history, Jesuit missionary priests from Portugal had made many inroads to Japan and Christianity seemed to start flourishing. Then the leadership in Japan decided that they were no longer going to tolerate Christianity. As the book begins, the church in Portugal receives word that one of their own, a well-loved and faithful missionary priest, had apostatized. Some younger priests cannot believe this news and request permission to go to Japan, seek out the missionary and discover the truth. This book is the story of Father Rodrigues, his travels and trials. When the Japanese first started weeding out Christianity, they would torture and kill the priests and their followers in the hopes of destroying leadership and thus killing it off. But by killing priests, all the Japanese were doing was making the priests martyrs. In essence, people’s faith became bolstered by the death of priests. In a calculated way, the Japanese leadership reasoned that to keep Christian ideas at bay, the practice of killing priests and/or followers needed to change. They realized they needed to BREAK the priests and make them apostatize. The Japanese figured out that when a person puts any part of their faith upon an object or a human it becomes a trap! This the Japanese used to their advantage. They recognized that, for Catholics, religious objects like medallions, paintings and priests were held in high regard. These items were revered and essentially worshiped. Because this was so, they would force believers to trample underfoot the fumie, a painting of Christ or the Mother Mary. It was recognized as apostasy not just in public, but in the heart of the one trampling. It sounds too simple, but its effect was vast. This practice became more effective in wilting Christianity than killing priests. When a priest would do this publicly it became terminally effective because the mindset behind priesthood only allows for those specially designated (like priests) to give sacraments. Basically, all things Godly hinge on a priest, a man. Without a priest in good standing the people have no spiritual leader to follow or from whom to get Biblical instruction. And an apostate priest is no better than a regular man. It was brilliant and evil.

This only points to a piece of a larger problem because the priest himself begins to doubt; he is, in essence, alone. Before apostatizing, he thinks in his heart he cannot step on the fumie. He wonders why God remains Silent. This is what the title refers to: God’s Silence. Many priests had long held romantic beliefs that torture was itself a blessing, specifically referring to passages like Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (NIV). However, each priest, in time, realized that there was nothing romantic or glorious about torture. In Japan, a priest did not just endure the torture of his mind and body, but also the torture and martyrdom of other believers for his sake and, in the end, those priests had to publicly give up their faith to save people. The problem of Silence becomes even more complex because the church remained silent. After those priests were sent out, they gave up everything, lived in hiding, were captured and tortured, then the church turned their backs on them. Once they apostatized, the church no longer recognized them. So, those priests were forever shut out by the church that sent them. Consequently, these priests had to live in shame and dishonor. This was never ending because their apostasy was continual. It was made so by the Japanese. The Japanese were not mean and awful about it though. It wasn’t personal. The Japanese were actually kind in a way and made the former priests’ prison a sort of saccharine freedom by allowing (forcing) the men to live as a Japanese, taking on a Japanese name, a family, a home and a job.

No one came to rescue those priests. Even after their apostasy I believe that these priests were still willing believers in their hearts, but forced to live otherwise. This for the sake of the Japanese families around them who would have been tortured and killed otherwise. The book poses some complex questions and ideas that are not answered simply. An assumption made by many in the church seems to be that a missionary will get rejected or accepted; allowed to stay or killed. But what if there were another option? Reject the missionary, not kill him, force him to apostatize and keep him there for the rest of his life living in apostasy. This with the added benefit of his own people, the ones who sent him, remaining silent. -TK

Update 1/14/2017

I have now seen the film Silence and have not written about it yet. Not sure if I will except to say this: I feel that Scorsese does capture much of the essential and important ideas of what Endo was saying in his book. I think he was true to Endo's vision and message. If folks have a problem with the film they should really go back to the source and history. Also, I have great respect for Brian Godawa's movie reviews. Although I am not always in agreement with him, his experience in writing and film-making creates a thorough and thought provoking blog.

Check out my book Watching Movies, Watching Stories on Amazon:


Brian Godawa's film review of Silence can be found here:

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