I became a Christian in high school, right around the time of the Columbine High School massacre. One of the stories that came out of the tragedy was of a teenage girl who was shot because she affirmed her belief in God. At fifteen, with my fledgling faith, I remember wondering if I would be able to do that in the face of such fear or if, instead, I would deny God to save my life.
Silence was written in 1966 by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, and was recently made into a film by director Martin Scorsese. I have not seen the film yet, but I intend to. When I heard about its production I was excited because this is a book that has stuck with me. I will write about the movie once I’ve seen it, but first I wanted to share some of my thoughts from the book, some of which come from something I wrote back when I read the book a bit over a year ago.
Please note: I include some details and spoilers of the story in this post.
Silence is the story of a Portuguese missionary who travels to Japan in the 1600s. Although Christianity had been brought to Japan and flourished in the mid-1500s, everything changed when Toyotomi Hideyoshi became ruler of Japan. Seeing Christianity as a threat, he began expelling missionaries and persecuting believers. Those who refused to renounce God and apostatize were tortured and killed.
When Sebastian Rodrigues arrives in Japan, he is searching for Father Ferreira, a missionary reported to have apostatized, or renounce God. Along his journey, Father Rodrigues serves the Japanese Christians in secret, praying with them and listening to their confessions. Even in the face of deafening silence from God, Father Rodrigues stays faithful to his calling and continues his journey until he is finally caught by Japanese authorities.
Father Rodrigues endured a period of silence from God — those kinds of blank spaces we all often experience where God feels far away and we begin to question where he has gone in our time of need. But nothing could take away his love for Jesus, that face that sustained him throughout his life, throughout the silent nights of suffering.
At times, this book is difficult to read, raising such powerful questions about faith, suffering, and calling. What would you do if called to renounce your God for the sake of your life? What would you do if called to renounce your God for the sake of others’ lives? What is it we are called to do and what would God instruct us to do in those moments? How does that affect the way we understand Jesus’ submission to die on the cross for all of us?
In the end, Father Rodrigues does apostatize and step on the image of Christ. He does this after God finally breaks his silence and says to the Father, “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.”
Some have interpreted this as Father Rodrigues mistakenly believing he was hearing the words of God, when in reality they are the words of the devil tempting him to betray his faith. I’m not so sure.
The thought that Jesus would indeed want us to publicly renounce our faith to stop the suffering of others doesn’t seem that far off to me. For, “Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another – to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind” (Father Rodrigues’ definition of sin).
I wonder if there are limits at all to how far we can and should go to stop the suffering of others. I believe Jesus would have no limits for that, and aren’t we to imitate his example?
In the end, what I think Father Rodrigues gave up in denouncing God was that which was most precious to him, not to God. Apostatizing was the final act of dying to self.
The themes this book brought forth for me were challenging to my normal way of thinking about God and faith, in all the best ways. I found my mind wandering outside the normal boxes we sometimes place God in and seeing him in new ways. I believe it is a book I will return to over the years and I’m hoping the film will be do it justice. I’ll let you know when I find out.