Silence by Shusaku Endo takes on a weighty topic: God’s apparent silence while his followers are tortured to deny their faith, sometimes even facing death as martyrs.
Set in Japan in the seventeenth century, Silence is about a time in history where a number of European countries were all trying to gain a foothold in trade and political power over Japan. It was also the same time that many Catholic missionaries were also trying to convert the Japanese to Christianity. Although fictional, the story is rooted in real events. Jesuits priests from Portugal and other countries did come to Japan, were tortured for their faith, along with Japanese Christians, and were asked to and sometimes did apostasize, or renounce their faith.
Silence follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests who come to convert the Japanese, but also to find their former priest and teacher Christovao Ferreira, who it is rumored has given into torture and apotasized. The first half is narrated first person in letter written by Sebastian Rodriguez. Rodriguez appears to be serious about his faith and looking forward to going to Japan, even though it is against the wishes of his superiors for being too dangerous. He and his companions wait on the island of Macao until they can find a ship to take them to Japan. While waiting they meet a Japanese expat named Kichijiro. Kichijiro becomes the bane of Rodriguez’s existence, a Christian who denies his faith at the first sign of trouble and even betrays the Jesuits on several occasions.
Expectations are tricky things. I am a Christian, and I expected Silence to hit me hard. In some ways it did, certainly the climactic scene (spoilers) in which Rodriguez finally steps on the icon of Christ, and in which he hears Christ telling him that’s what he came for, for men and human beings to trample him. That scene made me cry, for of course is it correct that Jesus Christ came in the world to suffer and die for sinners, which is all of humanity. He was tortured and experienced a terrible death and temporary separation from God on the cross. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate and leaves one feeling like the wallowing, helpless creature one actually is inside. This, however, is not what distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Most religions acknowledge the sin of man.
All the time reading Silence it was impossible for me to forget that these priest were Catholic missionaries. To an outsider it is easy to think that Catholicism is Christianity. And certainly for a long time Catholicism was or appeared to be the only official Christianity practiced. But it went through a huge Reformation begun by Martin Luther in Germany for a very good reason: Catholicism was at that time, and often even today, not following Christ. They were selling indulgences, ways for people to buy their way into heaven and spitting in the face of Jesus by doing so. If we can buy our way or earn our way into heaven in any way, Christ died for nothing!
Silence is a book that will certainly impact all Christians, but especially Catholics, as the focus is often on sin, death, and the law. The focus is not on God’s Grace where it should be. It is a difficult thing for humans to truly understand how sinful we really are. We are so sinful that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t even grant ourselves faith, which was the conclusion Martin Luther came to. Sometimes Christians lose our focus, we enjoy thinking about how awful we are and how much Christ had to suffer for us, all the while continuing to live in ways contrary to Jesus’s teaching and his word. It seems to me that this wallowing is where Catholicism stays, because all too often it teaches that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough, that there are still works we ourselves must do to get into heaven.
Other branches of Christianity also promote this fall doctrine. In human terms, this philosophy of doing good works isn’t so bad: it has certainly led to many christians helping out their fellow man in any way they can–orphans, the homeless, soup kitchen, disasters, etc. But while we should be doing these things in thankfulness for what Christ has done for us, all too often it is about earning points with God. Can we really earn any points with God? If so, what does Jesus’ death on the cross mean? What does His resurrection mean? Can we really atone or make up for our own sins as if they’d never happened? Do humans have that power? Can humans by their own power forgive sin?
My goal here is not to belittle Catholics, but to point out that wallowing in the truth of our sin–that we are like Kichijiro was to Rodriguez, a waffling traitorous person not even worthy of being spit on–is no virtue by itself. Many people succumb to torture and denying one’s faith is certainly awful. It’s interesting in the setup of the book that Rodriguez himself isn’t really tortured. No, he gets to watch other people tortured and other people die for their faith. And all the while he’s thinking and questioning what kind of faith they actually have. He apostatized presumably to save his fellow believers from torture, but it seems pretty clear the torture of others is going to continue no matter what he does. Why this all is not virtuous is because the focus is not where is should be, on God’s wonderful and bottomless love and grace, but on human frailty, deceit, and weakness. For me, as Christian, this story isn’t edifying as it’s mostly asking me to look at my own inadequacies and faults (of which there are many), but not pointing me to the cure for it all: God’s great love for us and how Jesus came to live perfectly in our place, yes, awfully dying on the cross, but ultimately rising to life again, symbolizing the new eternal lives we all possess in Christ. Silence largely brushes over Grace instead of wallowing there, if we are to wallow in anything.
Rodriguez often thinks of Judas betraying Jesus just like Kichijiro keeps betraying him. I’m no theologian, but I always had thought that Judas was not “saved” because he didn’t believe God could or would forgive his sin. Add suicide on top of that, and there’s no time for one repent of that unbelief, which is why suicide is something to be avoided at all costs. That disbelief that Christ’s sacrifice covers “even me,” that’s the crime against the Holy Spirit that damns one, because if you’re only looking at what you’ve done, the judgement will always be for hell. For believers, though, the judgement is always heaven, for we are trusting in Jesus, his holy, perfect life, and the fact that he paid for all sins, no matter how small, and no matter how great. And as long as one is still living, there’s time to repent, there’s time to believe in Jesus.
As to the “silence” the book refers to: God often does appear to be silent, often when we are having a hard time. But we were never promised a problem free life on this earth. Thats what heaven is for. Sometimes it’s clear that God steps in and rights some wrongs and make things better for awhile, but just as often He lets us go through the suffering. It often seems as if He doesn’t care, but that’ not true. He cares very much, and His desire is that through the suffering we would turn to Him and become closer to Him, trusting in His Grace ever more firmly. He is not silent. Everything in His creation shouts out to us every day how much He loves us, His Word in the Bible tells us that, the life and death of His Son Jesus tells us that, the love of our family tells us that, the love of our fellow man tells us that, it’s just that when we are focused on ourselves and our own troubles, we aren’t getting the message.
Think of your disagreements or problems with the people in your life. Sometimes, they too, are silent. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t saying anything, especially in their actions. An answer is always there, it’s just that we often, purposefully or not, don’t see it. Our imaginations take hold of us and we think the answer must be the worst thing we can think of: They don’t care, they don’t love us, they don’t want to do whatever it is we need them to do. Later, we are surprised to find just how much they do care for us, love us, and want to do what we need, it’s just that we refused to take their gift, or their help, and were even actively pushing them away, with no understanding that that’s what we were doing. How even more this happens with God! We assume the worst: He hates us, He loves watching us suffer, He enjoys not giving us easy answers or solutions, etc.
While it is true that God’s justice and holiness does hate sin and sinners, His Love of Jesus overcomes that wrath. Jesus led a perfect life in our place!!! This is not talked about enough. We talk of his suffering, death, and resurrection, but now about the reason Jesus was able to pay for our sins: He was perfect as God would have all of us be! Because of Jesus, God sees his perfection and loves us, He wants us to turn to the comfort of our salvation and promises of new life in Christ in the face of all suffering. In the book of Romans it says:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” and: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and finally: “For am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” –Romans 8, selected verses (NIV)
Does God often appear to be silent in the face of His followers’ sufferings? Sure. But that doesn’t mean He isn’t communicating with us with every part of his being. He communicates His love to us each and every day. Faith allows us to take the blinders off and see it, but we in our weakness keep trying to put the blinders back up. Did Jesus come to be “trampled” on by mankind? Yes. He came to make the payment for all sin so that we wouldn’t have to. Separation from the love of God is the ultimate torture and Christ experienced that on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to. We think Japanese torture sounds awful, but we have no clue what the abandonment of God would be like and we can’t even imagine it. As bad as this world is, it and we haven’t been abandoned by God. God calls his abandonment Hell, and we often just throw it around as a cuss word as if it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal, and Jesus experienced hell on the cross.
The world silence, isn’t really accurate, is it? If we give someone the “silent treatment,” we may not be speaking, but we’re definitely communicating. Sadly, for humans, it’s often anger, that we’re communicating, but it’s other things, too: hurt that we’ve been misunderstood or that the other person can’t see how much we do care for them and are trying to do the best thing for them. Fear of burdening others with our own troubles and feelings, and the list goes on and on. But we really aren’t “silent” in the sense of no communication. This is why we often say: “Actions speak louder than words.” Because they do. A human can say anything and not mean it. This is not the same with God. God’s words have powers beyond ours, and not only has He created us with His Word, in the Bible, He’s already told us everything we need to know. His silence is not the same as our silence. The world goes on and on in suffering in the hope that over time there will be more and more believers in Christ, and more people in heaven. That is the ultimate goal of God, to get us to stop looking inward for salvation, but to Him. It’s a paradox: We are accountable for our sins, but we can’t save ourselves. Jesus was innocent and led a perfect life, but took on the punishment of hell for all the sins of all people of all time for all time, simultaneously granting us eternal life and bliss. That is not silence, that is an overwhelming display of LOVE.
I might read this book again, but for literature purposes only. It just did not connect with me faith-wise in the sense that it truly pointed me to Christ. That is not to say that Endo is not a fine writer and very brave to take on this topic. There is much food for thought in the story, whether one is a Christian or not, and it is complex portrayal of Japan and that time in history.