The following review is about twice as long as one of my regular posts. The importance of Endo’s work and the message it conveys require this more thorough treatment.
Silence, the most famous of the historical novels by Shusaku Endo, has been making waves since its original publication in 1966. A number of adaptations have surfaced, including the 1971 film Chinmoku, an opera by the same title, and a film by Martin Scorsese, titled Silence, and slated for release in November, 2016.
The story traces the slow painful descent of its central character, a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Sebastian Rodrigues, into the despair of suffering for the sake of Christ in 17th century Japan without the consolation of His voice, or a sense of His presence. Rodrigues and his fellow priest, Fr. Frncisco Garrpe have been sent to Japan to investigate the reported apostasy of a Jesuit priest named Ferreira, who has been serving there for more than thirty years.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are captured by Inoue, the magistrate of Chikugo. Inoue is an ancient samurai who delights in torturing Christians to pressure them to apostatize. The two missionaries are forced to watch Japanese believers being drowned, or hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled to death for their faith. Rodrigues’s idealized faith is shaken: Where is God in the midst of their intense suffering? Why does He refuse to speak? Where is the glory in such suffering?
Fr. Ferreira, who had indeed apostatized, tells Rodrigues that he can end the suffering of the Christians who are being tortured by publicly trampling on a fumie, a carved image of Christ.
Spoiler Alert – I’m about to reveal the climactic moment in the book. Stop reading if you intend to read Silence and don’t want to know how things turn out.
Rodrigues has no trouble suffering for his own faith, but he is haunted by the prospect of causing others to suffer by refusing to apostatize. As he looks upon the fumie, his foot aching at the prospect of trampling the divine image, and with the moans of agony rising from the throats of Christians ringing in his ears, Christ speaks to him from the image:
“Trample. Trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
Rodrigues places his foot on the fumie, saving the Christians. Later, Rodrigues comes to know a deeper love of Christ than would have been possible apart from his apostasy.
Endo’s Christ is, despite His silence through most of the book, no passive observer of suffering, but an active participant in the suffering of those who follow Him.
Endo addresses the significant question, “is apostasy ever justified, and if so, why?“
Endo’s Christ explicitly commands Rodrigues to deny Him publicly. But His reason isn’t so that the other Christians might be saved through his apostatizing. His reason is that He came into the world to be trampled and so to share the pain of those who deny Him. There is a difference between the suffering Servant who endures suffering on behalf of the sheep, and a divine Masochist who seeks out suffering for the sake of sharing in the fellowship of pain, and yet remains silent and inaccessible to those suffering in His name. Endo alludes frequently to Judas in the character of Kichigiro, a cowardly, weak, and despicable man – but also a dark hero. Kichigiro is one without whom Rodrigues might never have come to know the deeper love of Christ.
The Gospel According to Judas (a late third century Gnostic text) depicts Judas as a misunderstood hero in the passion narrative. He betrays Christ because Christ commands him to. In Silence, Endo paves the way for the message in The Gospel According to Judas (Endo had no knowledge of it since Silence was written in 1966, while TGATG didn’t surface until the 70’s). He suggests through his protagonist, Rodrigues that, when the Lord Jesus says to Judas, “What you must do, do quickly,” he tacitly endorses his betrayal. This view of Judas as hero agrees with message of The Gospel According to Judas. But if Judas was a hero in the biblical passion narrative, why then would Jesus say of him, “it would have been better if he had never been born” (Matt. 26:24)?
Endo suggests that our devotion to Christ is not only negotiable in the face of suffering (ours or our fellow Christians), but is morally ironic. Endo’s message seems to be, “rather than stand fast, I must deny Christ in order to allow Him to fulfill His ongoing mission of suffering in and through His followers.” But dare we, who claim to follow Him, ever, under any circumstance deny Him? No. We cannot apostatize in order to enter into a deeper appreciation of the Lord’s suffering with us. That’s a twisted and pseudo-spiritual logic that will alienate rather than endear us to the Lord (should I “remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not!” Romans 6:1, 2a). Hebrews 6:4-6 reminds me of the consequences of apostasy. Denying Him doesn’t lead to a deeper love of Him (apart from repentance; e.g. Peter).
The cock does crow following Rodrigues’s apostatizing, but this is a different rooster than we find in Mark 14:72 or any of the other gospels. In the gospels, the rooster crowing is a herald of Peter’s denial and shame, whereas in Silence, the cock crowing signifies the fulfillment of Rodrigues’s journey toward a deeper understanding of Christ and His love via the avenue of apostasy. Did Peter deny Christ? Yes. Did he repent and was he restored to fellowship? Yes. Did Rodrigues deny Christ? Yes. Did he repent and was he restored? I see remorse along the lines of the remorse Judas experienced, but I do not see repentance – only a justification for his denial. Ultimately, he concludes, his decision to deny Christ was a good decision. A necessary one.
Finally, we must address the why of Jesus’s suffering as portrayed by Endo in contrast to one of the key reasons for Jesus’s suffering offered in the gospels. Why did Christ endure the Cross? For the joy that was set before Him (Hebrews 12:2). Surely, this joy constitutes more than Jesus’s anticipation of perpetual suffering, even if that suffering is shared with those who follow Him through the dark valley. Endo’s idea of the suffering Christian’s relationship with the risen Christ reminds me of St. John of the Cross and his poem, Dark Night of the Soul. But where St. John stresses the joyful experience of being led along a mystic path of purgation (first of the senses and then of the spirit) to union with God, Endo envisions no such joy, but only the hard-won knowledge of a remote and inaccessible Christ suffering with His followers. And even that knowledge seems to be limited to the priests who deny Him at His invitation. The rest of the swarms of Christians who suffer in silence are left to perish without any awareness of His comforting presence.
Christians suffer persecution knowing that Christ is with us in our suffering, but we stand fast in our faith (2 Thessalonians 2:13-16) never denying the Lord since He said, “…whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my father in heaven,” (Matthew 10:33). Remain steadfast, fellow Christian, confident in His promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).
“Our God approaches and is not silent” (Psalm 50:3).