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“Silence,” Martyrdom, and the Call to Die

January 23rd, 2017 | 10 min read

By Jake Meador

In her review of Martin Scorsese’s new film “Silence,” Alissa Wilkinson wrote,

The struggle for faith in a world marked by suffering and God’s silence is present in every frame of Silence. The answers in Scorsese’s film, as in Endō’s novel, are found not in words, but in the spaces between them. …

In Silence, Scorsese has found his natural match for plumbing those questions, which he does with considerable restraint. (Readers of Endō’s novel know the descriptions of torture are sickening; in Scorsese’s hands they are more psychologically than visually distressing.) He dives deep, and comes up not with answers so much as an honest suggestion that whenever we think we’ve found the answers, we’ve veered off track. He’s described making the film as a “pilgrimage” of sorts, which denotes both a journey and a struggle, and it shows. Silence is beautifully shot and moving, but it is not what you’d call uplifting. It’s a film that demands reflection, and a rewatch.

This response to the film seems to be fairly typical amongst evangelicals and some Catholics: The movement is to downplay whatever answers (I’ll resist the urge to use scare quotes) the characters come to in favor of emphasizing the journey they take to get there. It’s about process and what one learns in the midst of it rather than destination.

Fr. James Martin’s comments about the film, to the surprise of no one familiar with his work, do many of the same things I think Wilkinson does in her review and even suggest that there is a kind of fidelity in Rodrigues’ betrayal. (Pete Rollins is nodding along happily, no doubt.) Friend of Mere O Brett McCracken also reviewed the film, writing in Christianity Today about how the film exemplifies the sort of power-in-weakness teaching that pervades Scripture.

In all cases, I am struck by the fact that each person seems to either minimize or even justify (in the sorry case of Fr. Martin) Rodrigues’ decision to explicitly renounce Christ and to continue renouncing Christ regularly for the remainder of his life. Or, to perhaps put it more accurately, they suggest that the external action that symbolizes a rejection of Christ is, in fact, an act of fidelity to him. (SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

What is the connection between belief and action?

One of the curious things I have noted in conversations about the film is that the response amongst my evangelical friends has been mostly like what Alissa and Brett have written in their reviews. (I know and appreciate both of them and admire much of their work, so I hope these comments are received in the friendly spirit with which they are intended.)

On the other hand, the only Catholic I’ve read or spoken to who has responded in this way is Fr. Martin who, let’s be honest, would make much more sense and be far more credible if he just converted to Episcopalianism. Literally every other Catholic I have spoken to has been scandalized by the story, arguing that it is a horrifying misinterpretation of Scripture and church teaching to suggest that trampling an icon of Christ and publicly denying him can, somehow, be an act of fidelity to him.

When I asked them about what they think is behind this divergence of opinion, my Catholic friends (predictably) blamed sola fide. “It’s fine for you guys to act in ways completely out of step with Christian faith,” they basically said, “you don’t think you need works anyway.”

Without re-litigating that debate, I do think they are on to something. I don’t think the problem is sola fide though, given that from its earliest days the major leaders of the Reformation were rather unambiguous in their insistence on the necessity of good works as a sign of saving faith. We are, as the saying goes, saved by faith alone but not a faith that is alone.

However, what I think we can say is that Protestant theology does (rightly) keep saving faith and the works that are evidence of that faith separate and this has, when misunderstood, led to a tendency amongst less careful Protestants to minimize or even deny the necessity of Christian behavior that is in keeping with Christian confession.

For this reason, I think, many evangelical viewers can more easily imagine a scenario in which fidelity to Christ actually requires denying Christ publicly.

There are, however, two problems with this.

  • First, Scripture is full of references to the necessity of a spoken confession of faith. Paul writes in Romans that those who confess with their mouth Jesus as Lord will be saved. Elsewhere and clearer still, Christ says in Matthew that “if you deny me before men I will deny you before the Father.”
  • Second, there is a broader point to be made as well: It would be one thing if Rodrigues apostatized in order to spare the Japanese Christians and then later on, like Thomas Cranmer, retracted his retraction and accepted martyrdom. This is not what he did. Rather, he continually apostatized for the rest of his life in order to live a life that was close to the halls of power, fairly influential and, by the standards of 17th century Japan, remarkably comfortable. This doesn’t exactly shout out “profiles in courage.” But the larger point is this: What effect does repeatedly trampling on Christ have on the human soul? Here one is helped by knowing their Lewis: Imagine the souls wandering about in The Great Divorce. To trample on Christ is to cut oneself off from the source of all loveliness, life, and truth. To do that repeatedly and willfully, as Rodrigues does till the end of his days, is a severe and horrifying thing. How does it affect the soul? And if we are eternal beings, as Christianity teaches us we are, what might the person who does such a thing become if that pattern of sin continues on into eternity? You can have Christ and goodness or you can have neither.

The Silence of the Martyrs

When you read the Scriptures and church history, you are immediately confronted by the fact that martyrdom is not an unusual vocation in the history of God’s people. Jesus routinely tells his disciples to expect fierce, violent persecution.

If tradition is trustworthy, that is exactly what they received: 11 of the 12 apostles died as martyrs and the one who did not, John, did not survive due to a lack of effort from the Roman emperors. Revelation speaks of the blood of the martyrs crying out to God. One of the most well-known hymns in church history, the “Te Deum” makes specific mention of the martyrs. It is normal in church history that God would call some of his followers to quite literally lay down their lives for him.

The point, as Rosaria Butterfield said so beautifully late last year, is that the cross is ruthless. Whatever our idols are, whatever sins we harbor in our hearts, those are exposed by the work of Christ. This is one of the reasons Lewis spoke of himself as being a “reluctant” convert; he knew what Christianity would cost him—everything.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the film is that Rodrigues’ apostasy, which Fr. Martin treats as a conversion experience is anything but: Rodrigues’ characteristic sin throughout the story is spiritual pride. He knows the mission to Japan is dangerous, but he can handle it. The Japanese Christians can trample the fumi-e, but he will not. Even his loyalty to Ferreira can be seen as a kind of pride: No one who had once been his friend and confessor would apostatize.

According to Martin, Rodrigues’s apostasy is when he realizes that he is no better than anyone else, when Christ calls him to give up his pride and “die” in a manner of speaking for the Japanese.

When you think about it, the mental gymnastics that Fr. Martin does to get there are kind of hilarious: What Fr. Martin is actually saying is that the supposed conversion of a man whose characteristic sin of pride is the scene in which he determines that Jesus is speaking to him directly and that he can be exactly like Jesus by dying in order to save others.

This scene is many things, but it is most certainly not Rodrigues’ conversion. If anything, it is the moment that damns him, not only because of the apostatizing, but also because it confirms him in the spiritual pride that has been his great struggle throughout the story. The actual call being given to him is likely the same as the call given to the Japanese Christians set before him: martyrdom. It is to die to his savior-complex, trust the goodness of God, and rest in the knowledge that the blood of the martyrs will be avenged.

A true conversion experience, a true dying-to-self for Rodrigues, would have looked quite different. It would have meant acknowledging that he is not Christ and cannot be Christ to Inoue’s victims; only Christ can save. All that he is able to do is remain faithful to Christ in a moment of unspeakable pain and difficulty and trust the rest to God rather than himself. (Of course, if denying the necessity of Christian behavior is a common Protestant problem, priests equating themselves with Christ is a common Catholic problem.)

While this might seem severe toward Rodrigues, more than a little unfeeling, and perhaps also rather disconnected from the stuff of daily life, it is in fact quite the opposite. The reason that our Scriptures treat martyrdom as normal and even as a reasonable expectation for Christians to have is because our deaths are not the final word. We live in what Francis Schaeffer called a world with windows; the raw physical creation set before us is not the sum total of reality. We go to death gladly for Christ’s sake because in the resurrection we will be reunited to him.

All Christians are called to die.

There is an important sense in which the choice being set before Rodrigues is no different in nature than the choice facing all Christians. Paul likens the Christian life to carrying a cross. That’s not surprising—the Christian life consists of being transformed by grace into the image of Christ who, of course, died on a cross.

The failure of Rodrigues, then, is the failure to understand his calling and this failing would have crippled him whether he had gone to Japan or not. His self-image was that of a savior, the heroic (white?) Christian man who would go into Japan and save the benighted country. Far from dying to that false idea when he apostatizes, he doubles down on it, going so far as to see in that idea justification for publicly renouncing Christ.

Martyrdom is not unusual in church history. Indeed, it is normal. In order to be resurrected, we must first die. There are, then, far worse things than death. The tragedy of Silence is that Fr. Rodrigues does not understand that point.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).