My favorite movie about Jesuits (thus far) is The Mission. It’s got beautiful music, sweeping scenery and a simple, sad, but hopeful story about missionary priests who are willing to die for their faith. I like unambiguous stories that give me a clear side to root for. About two and a half years ago, I got to read Silence, a masterpiece by Shusaku Endo. Silence is a grim and complex book/film. The film adaptation is not the sort of feel good Christian movie that pastors urge their congregations to go see.
Silence was made by the acclaimed director Martin Scorcese. Even though you may not have heard of it (it was beloved by critics but a box office flop) it was a labor of love and packed with talented, well known actors. You really owe it to yourself to see it. It’s beautiful, thoughtful and uncomfortable; and the main character is deeply flawed.
Persecution in Paradise
The first part of the movie establishes the situation in Japan. Then, against beautiful shots of Japanese countryside, a pair of Jesuit priests, Father Garupe and Father Rodrigues, work to minister to secret Japanese Christians. Their work flourishes, but their primary motivation is to discover what has happened to their old teacher, Ferreira. Rumors had reached Europe that he apostatized, denying the Christian faith, and now has a Japanese wife and name.
Then, they are discovered.
Japanese Christians (and some priests) were shown being tortured with boiling water at the beginning of the film. Now, Japanese Christians are bound to crosses to face to incoming tide. They are rolled into straw mats and drowned in the ocean. One is beheaded. Amidst the repeated betrayals and repentances of Kichijiro, Fr. Rodrigues tends to encourage (verbally or in his head) others to apostatize rather than face death.
Slowly, it becomes clear that Fr. Rodrigues is the subject of this film. It is his portrait being sketched, his faith being examined, and Japan is only the backdrop for this. A rich tapestry of theological and missiological issues are brought to the foreground:
- Can someone die for Jesus while not knowing Him perfectly?
- Does the truth of faith need to change to suit new countries?
- Is it permissible to do a little evil for the greater good?
- Can someone secretly live for Christ while publicly working against Him?
These are deep questions, and Fr. Rodrigues is a complex and in some ways ambiguous character by the end of the film. The questions (and how they’re tackled in the film) are worth exploring one by one.
Can someone die for Jesus while not knowing Him perfectly?
In the book and film, the inquisitor Inoue works with Ferreira to convince Rodrigues that the Japanese Christians do not really understand their faith. Therefore, they are dying not for Jesus… but for Rodrigues, because of his stubbornness. Rodrigues appears to accept that the Japanese Christians are dying for him.
Outside of the film, salvation is not dependent on knowledge. It’s dependent on loving and following Jesus Christ. Misunderstandings (even major ones) do not bar those who die in the peace of the Church as martyrs for Jesus from salvation.
Does the truth of faith need to change to suit new countries?
Inoue at one point claims that the Christian faith may be true in Spain and Portugal, but it is not true in Japan. He says that a tree that may grow in one soil but not in another. Fr. Rodrigues appears to accept that the Christian faith is not well suited for Japan.
We ought to look at the full picture of the real world that fictional Silence is set in. An article in Columbia (a Knights of Columbus publication) noted that the overwhelming majority of Jesuit priests in this period discharged their duties faithfully and did not apostatize. Two of Silence’s three main priests, by contrast, do apostatize. Modern Japanese Christians remember their martyrs as joyful heroes who experienced God – not Silence‘s poorly catechized peasants who heard only silence. Japan’s Christian community is small and tenacious. Shusako Endo’s novel itself reveals a deep, reflective understanding of the Christian message. The soil of Japan bears some fruit yet.
Please note the rest of this article contains spoilers.
Is it permissible to do a little evil for the greater good?
The short answer is no. (cf. Romans 6:1) The situation in Japan is not unique – the Japanese authorities demanding a token trampling of the image of Christ is not dissimilar from the Roman authorities demanding a pinch of incense to the Emperor. Then and now, our Faith tells us that a martyr’s crown is worth a thousand lifetimes. Fr. Rodrigues looses sight of that, but the Japanese Christians do not. At one point in the film, Fr. Rodrigues panics and tells his fellow captive Japanese Christians that they will all die. One woman quizzically asks why he acts as if death is bad when it means entry into paradise. In the end, Fr. Rodrigues tramples on the image of Christ to save Japanese Christians from further torment. As he does so, a cock crows in the distance – a clever biblical allusion. Fr.Rodrigues tries to justify his “little evil”, even imagining a command in the mouth of Christ, but in the end it rings hollow, even to himself, for he cannot bring himself to love Ferreira, who apostatized in the same way.
Can someone live for Christ only in private?
After his betrayal, Fr. Rodrigues lives out his life as an agent of the authorities, holding his faith so privately that no one but God knows it. Rodrigues is undoubtedly a hurting man, holding what little faith the authorities permit him to hold in secret. Fr. Rodrigues believes that his ongoing betrayal of Christianity is at the behest of Christ. He tramples the images; signs repeated denunciations of the Christian faith; helps authorities confiscate Christian items, and imagines that Christ says to him, “I am here suffering with you.” In the end, Fr. Rodrigues is buried with a small crucifix in hand. The narrator opines in the end that Rodrigues is “lost to God” but then corrects himself – “as to that, only God knows.”
The crux of the story is this; does Christ really tell Rodrigues to apostatize? He can’t have. Jesus said that those who deny Him will be denied by Him. (cf. Matthew 10:33) Christians may not confess Christ but deny him in deed. As sympathetic as Rodrigues’ story is, it is the story of a man who turned from Christ and managed to convince himself otherwise. In the end, God may have forgiven Him, but – “as to that, only God knows.”