The Redemptive Work of Shusaku Endō’s Silence

Hilariously, I was mostly through a 20oz cup of what I thought was decaf coffee at 8:00pm, when I realized I had gotten distracted while pouring said coffee and had, in fact, gotten full-caf. That was when I knew tonight was the night I would finally buckle down and complete my series on the redemptive work of silence in the life of the believer. This series has been a wild ride for me personally, going back and seeing all of the ways that God had made this theme of silence a through-line in my life and in my readings over the past couple of years. We have now come to Shusaku Endō’s novel Silence, which has probably been the most important book of my life aside from the Bible. No other novel or book on the spiritual life has been as formative to my assurance of my security with God, my view of Jesus as what I will now refer to as the “approachable Almighty”, or the directive of my personal ministry to imitate Jesus in being gentle and lowly in heart so that others may find rest for their souls. 

I was first introduced to Silence through the movie adaptation that was released in late 2016. A couple friends and I sat down for a 10:00 p.m. showing and for the next two hours entered into the world of Sebastian Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who journeys to Japan in the 17th century, during one of the worst persecutions of the church in recorded history. He goes there for two reasons: to fulfill the priestly duty for the underground church and to find his mentor who is rumored to have recanted his faith. Sebastian begins his mission full of a very Western kind of faith, where the Christian walk was seen as victorious, bold, and vigorous. He expects to have a fruitful ministry sustaining the church in Japan before submitting to a glorious martyrdom.

But his experience in Japan is not what he anticipated. The Christian walk of the persecuted Japanese church looks very different – it is hidden, meek, and submissive not only to a quick death, but also to prolonged, erosive suffering. He is forced to sit back and watch while the very saints he was supposed to shepherd are tortured and killed by increasingly sinister methods. As he watches those martyrdoms that once spurred on the fervor of his faith, he begins to realize that God isn’t doing anything to stop this suffering.

“What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God [these two believers] moaned, suffered, and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voice in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”

Despite this, Rodrigues carries on, holding fast to the strength of his faith and his desire to die in a similar way. But this is not what the Japanese government had in store for the European priest. Seeing Christianity as a threat brought in by imperialist nations wishing to subvert Japanese sovereignty, the military rulers sought to make priests recant their faith, rather than just killing them. Turning the priests into martyrs would inspire greater devotion in the church, but convincing them to apostatize would prove the futility and hypocrisy of this new religion. So Rodrigues is captured, forced to watch his flock be tortured and killed, and then is brought face-to-face with his old mentor, who himself has apostatized. The former priest uses several reasonable and manipulative arguments to try and compel Rodrigues to recant his faith. We as an audience hope he will endure to the end, that his faith would prove true.

But as Rodrigues is presented with a fumi-e, an image of Christ to trample and thus forsake his faith, the image speaks to him:

“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 steps on the image, dawn breaks, and a rooster crows.

This was not the sort of movie you could easily recover from. It requires a lot of the viewer, both in emotional perseverance, but also in spiritual flexibility. You are guaranteed to end up in an uncomfortable place, that place being a question: How could a Christian recant their faith?

And furthermore: Can someone still be a Christian if they’ve recanted their faith?

Almost everyone I’ve discussed the book with has had the same reaction. Of course he’s not really a Christian. Jesus said anyone who denies him before men he will deny before his Father. And Rodrigues not only steps on the image of Christ, but lives out the rest of his life having to regularly renew his disavowal and help root out the underground church. How could he possibly still be a Christian? Maybe he just wasn’t ever a Christian to begin with. 

I struggled with those questions myself for a few weeks after I saw the movie. I have since read the novel and developed my own interpretation. I’m not claiming to have synthesized a full analysis of Sebastian’s soterial status. Even though I think I have understood what Endō was trying to convey, and I think he is mostly right, there are still a few ideas expressed that I would consider “iffy”. But what proceeds from here is what I’ve learned by sitting with Sebastian.

2017 was a really hard year for me. If I’m being honest, I’ve had a lot of hard years. But the context in which I saw Silence helped me to receive it in an unusual way. I had been through seasons where I had questioned if what I believed was real, and I had been through seasons where I was mad at God or felt like he had abandoned me, but this season was different. I received harsh censure for something I had been working hard to do well in, but I knew it wasn’t the time to defend myself. I had to end a long-term toxic relationship, but I couldn’t find any peace about the decision or its aftermath. I was given a job that perfectly fit my needs at the time, but it meant having a lot of time by myself to replay my anxieties over and over again. I was having to learn how to be hidden, how to be meek, and how to submit to prolonged, erosive suffering. This was not the time for a victorious, bold, vigorous faith.

It was during that time that I began to see Sebastian differently. Up until the moment he stepped on the fumi-e, Sebastian had been relying on his own strength, his own will, and his own pride to sustain him to the end. He had a kind of faith in Jesus, but he was still reliant on himself. And that could never be enough. Psychological abuse and spiritual warfare stripped him of his strength, his will, and his pride, until he finally came face-to-face with that image of Jesus. And there, for the first time, he saw the gentleness of God. He had been carrying a great burden of his own design, and Jesus invited him to lay it down. By trampling on the image, Sebastian cast aside his own righteousness and threw himself on the mercy of Christ.

How I had never seen the riches of God’s gentleness until that moment!

If you’ve read the book, you might be thinking, yeah, that’s a nice interpretation, and it could have been accurate if Rodrigues then repented and subsequently remained faithful until he was martyred or delivered from his persecution. But that’s not what he does. He goes on denying his faith and seemingly helps the government in its efforts to disprove and root out Christianity. To which I would say, sure, that’s one way you could read it. It would be, in fact, a very Western way to read it.

But Shusaku Endō was a Japanese Catholic, and thus found himself in a continual internal war between his European religion and his Japanese cultural identity, between the way of victorious faith and the way of meek faith. And I think this is very important for understanding what Endō is trying to get across.

Rodrigues gains nothing by recanting his faith, save ending the suffering of his flock. He, in fact, loses everything that was important to him: his status with the Jesuit brotherhood and the ability to be a priest. If he had repented and subsequently died a martyr, Sebastian could have potentially earned this status back. But something prevents him.

Sebastian is summoned to meet with the lord who imprisoned him, and they have an interesting talk. Lord Inoue tells Rodrigues that the government is no longer hunting Christians. Why? Because their priests are all dead or apostates, so there is no longer anyone to lead the flock. Their belief has already begun to drift into something “other”, and the tree has been cut off at the roots. He then sends Rodrigues to live out the rest of his life as a Japanese man under the careful watch of the government. While sitting in his home, Rodrigues is visited by Kichijiro, a servile and faint-hearted believer whom he used to despise for his patterns of betrayal and repentance. Kichijiro begs Rodrigues to hear his confession, and Rodrigues says he can’t – he’s not a priest anymore. But Kichijiro insists that if Sebastian won’t, no one else can. So Rodrigues agrees and sends Kichijiro away, forgiven.

In the last few moments of the narrative, Rodrigues reflects on how the European priests will say he’s committing sacrilege, but he knows even if he is betraying them, he is being faithful to the Lord. The period of silence, the period of prolonged, erosive suffering, gave Sebastian a different kind of love for Jesus. It was not the love of one who only sees Jesus as the victor, the warrior, and the King of Life as Jesus’ own disciples did before the crucifixion. This picture of Jesus is good and true and something we should hope in, but in order to see the fullness of Christ, there are some things that we can only learn by coming to him in his shame. Sebastian had to learn the love of the Jesus who hid his deity in human flesh so that he might endure insults and beatings from his own creations, who said that the meek will inherit the earth, and who said that only by participating in his suffering will we partake in his glory.

As my pastor once preached, Hebrews 11 tells of two paths of faith, both of which will enter God’s rest. The first is the way of victory, where those who hoped in God, “…conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” This way is an amazing work of God’s will through the faith of those who call on him.

But there is a second way, and there is glory in it as well. This is the way of silence and suffering. “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” 

Sebastian lived out the remainder of his life on the second path. Though the Japanese government provided for him to live comfortably, he lived as their prisoner, stripped of his earthly identity, and under constant threat of his continuing aid to the underground church being exposed and his flock being executed. He lived with the knowledge that his Japanese neighbors and the Catholic church alike mocked him and despised him for his apostasy. But he did not choose this way because he loved his life too much to spend it for Christ’s sake. He chose this way of life because it was the only way he could feed Jesus’ beloved and harassed sheep.

As he reconciles with the silence of God that he once resented and commits himself to a life of this new kind of silence, where he will not defend himself or exalt himself but rather live as a stranger and a target of derision for the rest of his life, he realizes that, “Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love.” And so Rodrigues ends by saying, “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

Silence is hard. It leaves us feeling as though we’re stumbling around in the dark, crying out to God to give us direction, and he says nothing. But as my favorite musical, Hadestown*, says, this is not a trap – it’s a test. Not a test in the sense that you either pass or fail, and if you fail you will be cast out, but a test in the older sense of the word, “an event or situation that reveals the strength or quality of someone or something by putting them under strain”. Silence is a means by which qualities of God are produced in us, because it is a means by which we can know God more. Clinging to his promises, forsaking our own earthly hopes in order to cast ourselves on his mercy, trusting that he is there and that he cares for us even when he is silent – that makes us more like Christ. And if we are more like Christ, then we are experiencing even more of the fullness of eternal life, even now in the silent, difficult time.

I am sorry if any of this sounds like trite, proverbial wisdom. I know that these things are hard to hear in the midst of suffering, and I do not mean to use them as an easy band-aid for a difficult problem. I hope you can trust me when I say that these convictions of mine have been hard-won, and that I am not saying them entirely from the other side of silence. Silence has done a work in me, and it is still doing a work in me. But I am comforted to know that it brings me closer to this truth about Jesus: that in the glorious plan of salvation for his creation, Jesus submitted to experience the wrath of God by his rejection and silence at the crucifixion. He did not want to go there, but he did, because he knew God would be faithful to him. It is hard to go to Jesus there and to learn from him how to be gentle and lowly in heart in the midst of God’s silence. But we will be with Jesus, and God will be faithful to us.

*Dang it, Hadestown would be another great piece to examine through the lens of silence…

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