Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)
A defect in the shepherding: Part two
In such moments, you can not only get overcome by doubt, you can even lose your mind itself from fear, so it would be quite impossible to reason.
—The Brothers Karamazov, I.3.7
No. No—He’s here, Christ is here, I just can’t hear Him.
I respect Martin Scorsese for asking questions which few Christians are willing to ask. Sometimes doing so has gotten him into trouble with his fellow believers (such as the fracas which erupted after the release of his The Last Temptation of Christ1 ). In his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence, Scorsese asks, “Are there situations where a committed, faithful Christian would publicly renounce their faith?” On the surface, the question seems absurd. Why would such a situation ever happen? Doesn’t the Bible explicitly require Christians to stand firm despite the severest persecution? But Scorsese is really asking what would cause such a Christian to renounce the faith—what would drive them to that point—and if, indeed, they could do so out of Christian love, and if they could still remain a believer.
The setting of Silence is the persecution of Christians in Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Cristóvão Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, had gone to Japan to try and aid the spread of Christianity; the last anyone had heard of him was that he had apostatized. Two of his disciples, Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, try to find him and confirm whether or not the rumors are true. They make contact with the local Christian community around Nagasaki, who have been driven into hiding due to persecution. The authorities find Rodrigues, and torment him psychologically by telling him that unless he renounces his faith, the Christian peasants will be tortured. Eventually he is brought to Ferreira, who has, indeed, renounced the faith; he also tries to persuade Rodrigues that he must apostatize to save the remaining Christians. It is worth mentioning that Cristóvão Ferreira was a real person, who renounced Christianity, converted to Buddhism, and worked for the Japanese inquisition; and that Sebastião Rodrigues is very closely based on the real-life figure of Giuseppe di Chiara, who also apostatized and lived as a Japanese, just like in the film.
The Japanese government requires suspected Christians to publicly show disrespect for the faith by stepping on a fumi-e, a ceramic tile with an image of Christ or the Virgin on it. “It’s just a formality,” the authorities repeat over and over; “Look at how easy it is to trample.” Formality it might be, but everyone knows the real meaning behind this trampling; it amounts to a public declaration that the requirements of the state are of more importance than the Christians’ duties toward God. And lest we forget—which Rodrigues does—these duties are clearly spelled out in the Bible.
In the New Testament, when Peter and the other apostles are hauled before the Sanhedrin and told not to preach about Jesus anymore, their response is bold and blunt: “We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).” When king Nebuchadnezzar threatens Daniel’s three friends with being burnt alive in a furnace if they don’t bow to the ground before a large golden idol (“It’s just a formality”), their answer is similarly direct: “If we are thrown into the fire, our God Whom we serve is able to save us from it. And He will save us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the object of gold that you have set up (Daniel 3:17-18).” Jesus is not at all ambiguous about the inevitability of his followers experiencing persecution, and the importance of their standing firm, without equivocation or sophistry. And lest we think Jesus is not talking about public, visible “formalities” like trampling on a fumi-e, he says this: “Whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my father who is in heaven (Matthew 10:33)” and “He who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (Luke 12:9).
Of course, Scorsese is not saying, in Silence, “The stuff Rodrigues did was right. He was right to trample.” Neither does he say “he was wrong to trample”; he is not trying to be didactic or to lay down some universal principle. Silence is the story of how Rodrigues himself could come to the point of apostasy, and of publicly denying the faith. (Did he privately keep his faith though? The film’s famous ending leaves that question ostentatiously out in the open.)
We can see—are shown—why he would capitulate. The tortures and executions that the Japanese Christians endure are extremely cruel. And even after they themselves apostatize, their torment continues because it’s really Rodrigues’ capitulation that the authorities want. The inquisitor, his assistant, and Ferriera himself all mercilessly gaslight Rodrigues, tormenting him with the idea that he is only refusing to apostatize due to his own vanity and pride. Ferriera claims that even Jesus Himself would have apostatized to save the Christians from further torment. In the end, before the climactic moment, Rodrigues is a blubbering wreck. And who can judge him for that? When faced with such overwhelming horrors, anyone could weaken and waver, as this essay’s epigraph from Dostoevsky attests. Who can say what they themselves would do if it were them, and not Rodrigues, in that situation?
Except that’s not what happened. Rodrigues tells Mokichi that it is permissible to trample the fumi-e before Rodrigues sees any of the torture. Rodrigues’ ethics are in direct contradiction to Scripture: “In the hypothetical event of one’s being captured and told to trample—before any torture happens at all—public apostacy is always OK.” The moment when Rodrigues tells Mokichi that it is okay to commit the “mere formality” is the most puzzling moment in Scorsese’s intensely thought-provoking film; it is puzzling for Garupe as well, who is totally incredulous upon hearing what Rodrigues says, and who vehemently contradicts him. Why would Rodrigues say that? Doesn’t he know the Scriptures referenced above?
Several times throughout the film, Rodrigues seems to exhibit a much weaker faith than that of the Japanese believers. They welcome persecution, and the chance to die for Christ; at one point, one of them tells Rodrigues, “Isn’t it good to die? Paradise is so much better than here.” Rodrigues’ continual questioning of the will of God (“Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God make them bear such a burden?”) can only be explained as a weakness, a profound defect in his shepherding.
In literature, there is another discussion of the duty of a believer to stand firm in the faith; it occurs in The Brothers Karamazov, after the scene where Fyodor makes a fool of himself and causes a scandal at the monastery. Once everyone is back home and talking with Fyodor over brandy, Smerdyakov and Grigory get into an argument about a Russian soldier who was flayed alive after being captured by Tartars and refusing to renounce his faith. Smerdyakov says that the soldier should have renounced, because to do so would not have been a sin; in his words,
As soon as I say to my tormentors: “No, I’m not a Christian and I curse my true God,” then at once, by the highest divine judgment, I immediately and specifically become anathema, I’m cursed and completely excommunicated from the Holy Church like a heathen, as it were, so that even at that very moment, sir, not as soon as I say it, but as soon as I just think of saying it, not even a quarter of a second goes by and I’m excommunicated—is that so or not, Grigory Vasilievitch? [. . .] Because at the very time when I immediately become cursed by God, at that moment, at that highest moment, sir, I become a heathener, as it were, and my baptism is taken off me and counts for nothing—is that so, at least? And since I’m no longer a Christian, it follows that I’m not lying to my tormentors when they ask am I a Christian or not, since God himself has already deprived me of my Christianity, for the sole reason of my intention and before I even had time to say a word to my tormentors. And if I’m already demoted, then in what way, with what sort of justice can they call me to account in the other world, as if I were a Christian, about my renunciation of Christ, when for the intention alone, even before the renunciation, I was deprived of my baptism? If I’m not a Christian, then I can’t renunciate Christ, because I’ll have nothing to renounce.
I can imagine what Rodriques would say if he were involved in this conversation: “That’s right, you can renounce, because the inward reality is divorced from outward actions. The mere formality is indeed just that; it does not reflect the inner state of a person’s heart. Smerdyakov, you’re right to say that the renunciation bears no guilt—yet not because it reflects an inward anathema, but because such a renunciation does not reflect the inward belief and faith.”
But in the Bible, God does not call us to reflect any sort of inward / outward realities or whatever. God calls his people to obedience and trust. Our outward actions are a reflection, not of inward reality, but of action by God in the past—to stand firm for the faith is to say, “At one time, God saved me from my sin, and I will bear witness of that event in the past, no matter what the cost.” I read a great quote recently: “The God of Scripture redeems men for His Kingdom and His Holy and eternal purposes, not to give men peace of mind and a ticket to heaven.” The Christian life is one of radical subsummation to the will of God, and at times that will is for His people to suffer torments for His sake. Jesus is very clear about what happens to people who abandon the faith at times of persecution: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned (John 15:6).”
Or as Fyodor says to Smerdyakov just a little while after the passage quoted above:
Tell me something, ass: before your tormentors you may be right, but you yourself have still renounced your faith within yourself, and you yourself say that in that very hour you became anathema and cursed, and since you’re anathema, you won’t be patted on the back for that in hell. What do you say to that, my fine young Jesuit?
At the heart of Silence is a deep ambiguity—the ambiguity of things happening in time and history. No aspect of their happening can serve as a clue to their meaning. But that’s why, when faced with the utter meaninglessness of raw historical events, we must fall back on a standard. For Rodrigues, I would have thought the standard would have been the Bible, taught to him as part of his Jesuit upbringing. As we’ve seen, the Bible does give advice for what would have been the right thing for Rodrigues to do. Undoubtedly that thing would have been hard for him to do, but it would have been right. Rodrigues does not need to usurp the prerogative of God, who would have been able to deliver the Japanese Christians from their oppressors had He wanted to. Rodrigues should have had the confidence to say, “I am going to do what I know is right, and damn the consequences.”
What would have been the consequences of his actions? If he had stood firm and refused to capitulate to the inquisitor’s demands, would the church have actually grown in Japan? He had absolutely no way of knowing. Although Rodrigues tells the inquisitor that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” that phrase is not actually found in the Bible.2 God never promises that he will bless with earthly deliverance the efforts of those who stand firm in their resolution. It could be possible that the Christian faith would have been entirely wiped out if the priests had refused to trample. We have no idea.3 And that shouldn’t have stopped Rodrigues from doing what he should have known was the right thing—but, confound it, it sure is hard to keep your thoughts collected when you’re watching your fellow believers be tortured and killed, isn’t it?
There have been several times in my life when I’ve wished there were a service which would give me a life audit. I can imagine it taking maybe a day or two: a few office-worker types would come into my house; ask me and my family a lot of questions; check out what kinds of hobbies I have, what I’m spending my money on; what I’m reading, what my views are on a handful of key issues. Then they would issue a report; “Based on our findings, you really need to shift your views on X” or “We recommend that you try Y instead of Z in your parenting,” etc. Wouldn’t that be great?
Such a service does not exist, nor can it ever be possible. There is ambiguity about the future, so there will necessarily be ambiguity about what we should do in the present, but there are enough guidelines in the Bible for Christians to perform their own self-audits in matters of the faith.
The tragedy of Silence is that Rodrigues never performed that audit on himself. He interpreted the ambiguity of the future as silence from God, and acted accordingly.
And with that, I’ll be taking an extended break. I will still be available through the usual channels (Discord and Twitter), but I will be stepping back from this blog for a while to concentrate on some other projects. It means so much to me that you take the time to read my rambling and rough-edged thoughts. Thanks a million, and till later, then!
The fracas resulted in one religious leader saying that the film “has the power to destroy souls eternally,” and a theater in Paris being badly damaged in a terrorist attack which left thirteen people injured.
The first use of the phrase is actually from Tertullian’s Apologeticus from 197 AD.