I read Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence many years ago, when I was about 16 or 17 years old. At the time I thought it scandalous. I wonder if I would have a different impression reading it today. When my friend Ludovicus sent me the following review of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel, it made think that my younger self’s judgement was probably sound.
Anonymous and Utterly Silent Christians
Silence in Christian tradition is commonly associated with a contemplative monastic vocation. Thus silence is a prerequisite for any true mystical union between God and man. In Christianity, silence implies a vis-à-vis, hence it favours a personal encounter. In fact, voluntary silence more often than not suggests that I expect someone to talk to me in the near future.
Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence however portrays a particular type of respectful silence very common in our days. Having arrived as missionaries to proclaim the Gospel in Japan, Jesuit missionaries find themselves facing an existential choice: either to deny their Faith and trample upon an image of Christ (a so called fumi- e) before the Japanese authorities, or to see their flock being persecuted and put to death in a most gruesome manner. The death penalty is inevitable if they don’t comply; instead they are promised a generous position in Japanese society if they do. The reader of the novel is then led to believe that denying one’s faith in some cases may be the more virtuous choice. Almost as if through particular gnostic knowledge, one may hold that in some cases, true discipleship of Christ actually consists in renouncing one’s own obstinate belief in Jesus Christ in order to save the life of fellow Christians.
It may help to consider that it was by no means the Jesuit missionary who put innocent Christians to death. Instead, countless Japanese born martyrs freely and courageously accepted martyrdom. They, as well as Christian martyrs in every age, knew that they had received their lives from the hands of the living God, and that no man on earth could possibly take their souls away from them. When Jesus tells the Apostle Thomas, “I am the way” (Jn 14:6), Our Lord states that He is not only one way among many equivalent paths to perfection one may choose to tread. Jesus Christ himself is the Way. Jesus Christ implies a choice. The Apostle Peter summarizes this belief in his question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (Jn 6:68). We may ask, to whom else would we go? The martyrdom of Japanese Christians entails an explicit answer. They have accepted their death at the hands of their persecutors, thereby courageously giving witness to the One Saviour Jesus Christ, both fully human and fully divine.
In his novel, Shūsaku Endō suggests that a follower of Christ, faced with hostile persecution, may alternatively live his faith in a silent and completely anonymous manner thus not offending anyone. More importantly, in this particular case, he would be sparing the blood of countless innocent Japanese Christians. After having stepped upon the fumi-e, the lapsed Jesuit missionary holds a respectable position in Japanese society, and is given a Japanese wife. Eventually he dies a natural death at an old age. Director and screenwriter Martin Scorsese depicts the apostate missionary after his death holding a small cross in his hand. This fact gives a message, equally misleading yet very prevalent, especially on the political stage in western society today: namely, I can live my Christian faith privately, while outwardly making choices that seem to be leading in a diametrically opposite direction.
In his book, The Moment of Christian Witness, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar taunts the sophisticated position of such anonymous Christians. In a fictitious interrogation between a persecuting Commissar and a persecuted Christian, he proves the impossibility of a private Christian belief lacking any substantial public profession of faith whatsoever. The Commissar, on the one hand, is described as one who is doing his assigned job, that is to persecute Christians. And he does it very thoroughly. He finds himself perplexed however, when suddenly confronted with a rather untypical Christian prisoner. His ‘opponent’ happens to be an adherent of the Bultmannian school of theology. This accused Christian defends an enlightened and utterly diluted Christianity, which could not possibly offend anyone (except genuine Christian martyrs). Alluding to Karl Rahner’s concept of ‘anonymous Christians’, the accused Christian character in Balthasar’s novel exclaims to his stern persecutor: “You are associated with us! I know who you are. You are a decent fellow. You are an anonymous Christian.” Whereupon the Commissar laconically replies, “Don’t be stupid, my friend. Now I’ve understood enough. You’ve liquidated yourselves and spared us the trouble of persecuting you. Dismissed!”