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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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador 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 and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Greg Herr

    Wow, Jake, it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s take a scattershot approach.

    [I haven’t yet seen the film, but read the book years ago. It is a life-altering experience and one is not the same afterwards. A bunch of buds and I were just discussing yesterday after Mass when we’ll go see it together and debrief over dinner and drinks.]

    “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.”

    You didn’t talk to me, I’m Catholic, and I’m not scandalized.

    Nowhere in his piece does Fr Martin suggest that Rodrigues maintains fidelity. I understand (I think) how his explanation makes it sound that way to you, but he didn’t say it. I can’t put words into Rodrigues’ mouth. I can only guess. My guess is that he would be the last person to say he maintained fidelity.

    Martin does not say it is a conversion experience. He refers to discernment. Vastly complex. And not (always) the same. You did not use the term; Martin uses it four times. I recommend spending some time among the Jesuits.

    The only mention of suffering in your piece is a quote at the outset by Wilkinson. Martin mentions it six times. Suffering is central to understanding the story, and awkwardly put, is the main character. I can only speak for myself as someone who has never suffered as horrifically as those in the story did. I don’t know what I would do, and that is the Christ-haunting, tormenting question of the story.

    Until suffering is known and experienced, the story remains at a distance.

    Martin should have become Episcopalian: That is of particular offense. Yes, I am aware that we Catholics make strident comments within and among our ranks. You don’t get to. We don’t want people to leave, ever, and we insist on visible unity with one another even when it cuts deeply across the grain. Especially when it cuts deeply. That’s just who we are. We don’t split. And no, Fr Martin should not become an Episcopalian any more than Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Cardinal Bernardin, or Andrew Greeley should (have).

    If you want another perspective, one you may align with more, try Fr Barron. His piece, like Martin’s, was excellent and provocative.

    And remember, if you stop by the parish, I can set you up with a dozen Catholics who will not be silent long into the night about ‘Silence.’

  • RonH

    Rodrigues’ actions are justified because he is doing what Christ tells him to do. The one moment when Christ breaks the eponymous silence is to tell Rodrigues, “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 isn’t taking the easy way out. He is dying to his life, his dreams, his faith, his calling, his reputation. He will be disavowed by his Church and held in the lowest of contempt. He will become another despised Kichijiro. All that to save the others being tortured. Others, by the way, who were not being martyred for their faith. They had already trampled the fumie. They were being tortured not for their own faith but for Rodrigues’. He doesn’t trample out of pride. It is his pride that won’t let him trample, that prefers the glorious and honorable path of martyrdom. But as Ferriera tells him, “Don’t deceive yourself! Don’t disguise your own weakness with those beautiful words… You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say that you will apostatize, those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be saved from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.”

    Rodrigues can’t choose martyrdom, because it isn’t being offered. You say there are worse things than death, and that Rodrigues does not understand that. But that’s not true. By taking on shame, dishonor, and contempt, he is choosing a fate worse than death. This is Japan, after all, where death is far preferable to shame and dishonor. Endo can’t have Rodrigues martyred, because that would in fact be the easy way out. The Japanese way would be for Rodrigues to apostatize, then later kill himself. But suicide is of course not an option for the Christian, and in any event would be ennobling and thus undercutting the notion of sacrifice.

    The old daimyo was right… Japan is a swamp. It drank the blood of those martyrs, but that blood was not the seed of the Church, as it was in Europe. As a percentage of the population, I suspect Christianity has probably never been as strong in Japan as it was prior to the persecution depicted in Silence. The Roman pagans may have been impressed by people willing to die rather than renounce their allegiance to Christ; but in Japan such a thing was merely doing one’s honorable duty — a final act of pride and nobility. No, the incomprehensible act from a Japanese perspective is to knowingly take on the shame and dishonor, and live with them. It is a scandalous idea, much like the notion of a dying Messiah. Rodrigues is very much a Christ-type incarnating in Japanese “flesh”. Silence paints this remarkable icon in a way that could only have come from a second-generation Japanese Christian. Negative Western reactions to it are understandable, but may also partly be to blame for why Christianity has gained such little traction in Japan (unlike in South Korea or China). As the final lines in the book say, “No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. ‘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.'”

    • Daniel

      There is no justification in denying Christ. What was gained by his denial of Christ? Those who had already denied Him where already lost Rodrigues choose only to lose himself.

      Those who were being tortured had the opportunity of repentance, that they maintained their denial even when they saw that it got them nowhere is to their own shame. Rodrigues might not be have been able to choose martyrdom but he could have chosen to be faithful. Christ says in the Holy Gospels, ‘Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven’ does God contradict Himself? Any voice saying to deny Him is not of Christ but of the devil the father of lies.

      • RonH

        But does Rodrigues truly deny him? He never loses his faith. He tramples an icon… Even Inoue doesn’t care if he retains belief and loyalty in his heart, and tells him so. What Rodrigues does isn’t nearly as bad as what Peter does. Peter willingly denies to save his own skin. Rodrigues is forced to trample to save others.

        By the way, I think the church rejected your absolutist stance some time ago.

        Say Rodrigues refuses. Inoue keeps him locked in a cell and every day for the next 20 years tortures a peasant to death outside the cell window, merely because Rodrigues won’t walk on an icon. Is that being faithful? Is that walking in the steps of Christ? Is that what Jesus would do? Is that what you would do?

        In any event, I think you’re missing the point of the novel. See my reply to Margaret below.

        • Daniel

          The three holy youths who where thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace never lost faith, the trampling on foot an icon of Christ was an act of denying ones faith. Now perhaps a man might still retain a level of faith hidden from others, but without repentance what of what use is this faith? He did not just deny his faith for a time followed by repentance but continues to deny his faith throughout his life.

          The Church has not rejected my stance, the Donatists refused to accept the repentance of those who had denied Christ. There is no such repentance in this story.

          In answer to your first two questions yes it is, he is not responsible for the actions of others he is responsible only for his own actions. And before you ask I am not saying this is an easy thing to do or that the sufferings of others should be ignored but denying ones faith leads only to others doing the same. Instead he should seek to set an example that those who are brought for torture might keep their faith and die as martyrs rather than live or die as apostates.

          In regards to whether that would be what Jesus would do, I am not trying to sound impolite but this question is absurd, we are not God the Word Incarnate. But on a human level there is a difference denying ourselves and denying another.

          In regards to your post to Margaret, I think you are taking an approach of cultural relativism too far. In preaching the Gospel there are considerations to the local cultures which can affect how we preach (for example Paul’s use of an altar to the unknown God) but not what we preach. In denying Christ an entirely different Gospel is being preached. You use the example of a father being a source of fear in Japan rather than comfort but this was so amongst the Romans, and to the Jews the father was a figure of dignity and authority rather than comfort, this is why the story of the prodigal son is so remarkable. Indeed I think the image portrayed by the song “You’re a good, good Father” is a little more sentimental than traditionally Christian.

          I also think your metaphorical use of the Incarnation is being put before the actual Incarnation of Christ. But for an account of the preaching of Christ to the Japanese see Saint Nicholas’s conversion of the Samurai send to kill him.

          • RonH

            the trampling on foot an icon of Christ was an act of denying ones faith

            How so? Denying one’s tradition, perhaps. Denying one’s position. Maybe even denying the authority of one’s church. But Rodrigues never ceases to have faith in Christ, never ceases to love him, never ceases to strive to emulate him. Peter denies to avoid suffering, death, and shame. Not so Rodrigues… He expects to be tortured and killed, and is willing to be so treated. Ferriera before him was tortured, and refused to trample. It was not until the insidious Inoue brought the full power of the swamp to bear on him that he was neutralized — used his own beliefs, values, and creeds against him in a type of spiritual judo (also a product of Japan). The point, of course, wasn’t even to force him to renounce his beliefs; rather, it was merely to undercut the political authority of the priesthood. (Though Endo arguably preserves its spiritual authority, in having Rodrigues hear Kichijiro’s confession in the final chapter.) You (and Jake) insist that Rodrigues should have become a martyr, but ignore the fact that Inoue had no intention of making him one. Rodrigues was destined to live out his days as Inoue’s prisoner — either with the cries of innocent victims around him or without. In a very real sense, Rodrigues gave up his life for the sake of others. I think that in this case it was the Christ-like thing to do. If you think refusing to save others when it was in his power to do so was the more Christ-like response… well… we just have different visions of Christ-likeness. It’s absurd to ask what Jesus would have done? I really don’t know what to make of that, given Phil 2:1-11.

            (As an aside, you say Rodrigues doesn’t repent, but what would repentance in this case even look like? He cannot untrample. He cannot ask for forgiveness and be absolved by his superiors, an entire world away. He cannot refuse to do what he is ordered to, or the executions will begin again and he’ll be back to where he started. He cannot even ask God to forgive him, because as far as he is concerned Christ told him to trample.)

            Again, Endo isn’t holding up Rodrigues as an example to be emulated. He’s not suggesting (and neither am I) that Rodrigues’ attitude should become normative. He’s trying to graphically and powerfully depict the cold, hard reality about the failure of Christianity to penetrate the swamp of Japan. I haven’t heard any of Rodrigues’ critics present any viable alternative. Martyrdom isn’t being offered; and even if it were, it wouldn’t matter since many thousands of martyrs still failed to root Christianity in Japan. Furthermore, Endo is asking what becomes of all those like Rodrigues (and there are many,even today) who succumb to the swamp but still retain faith? Endo wants to leave room for hope — that Christ is present even in their sufferings, and not silent as he seems to be. Many of you will damn them however, for not hewing to western ideas of faithfulness. And still Inoue sits, smiling at you, his objectives still being accomplished and the swamp still bubbling.

            (BTW, regarding St. Nicholas… I assure you that I don’t need another example of how to “preach Christ to the Japanese”. That kind of response is simplistic to the point of offense. Nicholas’ own Orthodox church hasn’t even managed to emulate him successfully, claiming only an estimated 30,000 adherents (compare with around a half-million each for Catholics and Protestants, and even 100,000 for Mormons))

          • Daniel

            If trampling on an icon of Christ does not mean a denial of faith it would be pointless to ask him to do so. The whole point is that he is being asked to apostatise. Peter wept bitterly at his denial, likewise as he denied him three times so also he was asked three times whether he loved Christ.

            Yes it is absurd to ask what Jesus would have done. Imitating Christ does not equate to imagining what He would have done in any given situation. The whole point the text you point to is Christ’s Incarnation, the question of what would Jesus have done betrays a low Christology.

            “Again, Endo isn’t holding up Rodrigues as an example to be emulated. He’s not suggesting (and neither am I) that Rodrigues’ attitude should become normative. ”
            I’m not suggesting either of you are, so much as in discussing the character’s actions and their morality it is necessary to discus whether the example he sets is the moral one.

            In regards to your last point, you seem to be focused on quantity rather than quality. The goal of preaching fidelity to the Truth not effectiveness in terms of numbers. The point I was making is that it is possible to preach to the Japanese with an understanding of their culture without abandoning oneself to cultural moral relativism. BTW Historically most Orthodox Japanese lived in Nagasaki which goes some way of explaining their low numbers.

  • Ian

    I may be seeing false parallels, but it seems a bit like Peters action sin Gal 2:11-14. He is fearing the impact his table fellowship with Gentiles will have to stir up Jews against Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (per Longenecker, at least). He bears witness against the Christ by trying to protect people he can’t protect. We are not the Christ.

  • I agree and disagree. I think everyone who thinks Rodrigues did the right thing is mistaking the book. I haven’t seen the movie but I’ve recently read the ending over and over. At the end, Rodrigues considers that he “fell”: the cock crowed and he spends the rest of his life despising himself and Ferriera (who despises him in return) and arguing with himself and wondering what his motives really were. If they both still really thought they’d done the right thing there would be mutual compassion and a sense of peace.

    • RonH

      Inoue, the daimyo, suggests to Rodrigues just that: that the voice he heard was just his imagination. Rodrigues rejects that possibility. Rodrigues knows he is a betrayer, as Ferriera is, and that is why they despise both themselves and each other. However, that is not the same thing as thinking they should have made a different choice! Rodrigues was trapped… He had no other course of action. He does what is for him the unthinkable, but he is met by Christ even in that.

      The book is about Christianity in Japan. What Inoue says is true: Japan is a swamp where Christianity has failed to take root. Ferriera and Rodrigues demonstrate this. Rodrigues does not lose his faith, but he is rendered ineffectual. This is very real. My family were missionaries in Japan for decades. We knew Japanese people who said they believed in their hearts but lacked the strength to live openly as Christians there. We knew Japanese couples who went to seminary and trained for ministry and then left to be missionaries in China, South Korea, or other (more heavily evangelized) parts of Asia because ministering in Japan is so soul-crushingly difficult. Endo is trying to bring this out… To present Inoue’s challenge to the rest of the Church. If Inoue is right — that Christianity simply cannot thrive in Japan — then Christianity is false. If Christianity is to survive there, we must learn to tell the story differently. Christ, through us, must take on Japanese flesh and dwell among Japanese people so that they too can see the glory of the only begotten of the Father. But this is no easy challenge. After all, the very image of God as Father which to us is so comforting (as the song goes, “You’re a good, good Father”) meant something entirely different in Endo’s Japan, where the proverb went “Fear these things: earthquake, lighting bolt, fire, and father.” (I think things are different now, but we’re only talking over the past generation.)

      Many discussions that have sprung up across the ‘net about whether or not Rodrigues was wrong or right are missing the point. Endo asks how Christ can take on Japanese flesh, and he shows us one poignant way which has been a very real part of the history of Christianity in Japan. If we want to tell him he’s wrong (and perhaps he is), it is incumbent on us to face down Inoue ourselves… And that cold warrior has held the upper hand for over 400 years.

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