In his novel Silence Japanese writer Shusaku Endo tells the story of two Portuguese missionaries in 17th century Japan. After initial pioneering work by Francis Xavier in the 16th century, a small native Japanese church had begun to flourish in the mid-to-late 16th century, possibly growing as large as 100,000 people. Then the government took a hard anti-Christian turn, closed the island to foreigners, and began a harsh regime of persecution against the Japanese Christians.
At the center of this persecution were small icons called fumi-e, pictured above. During the torture, the government officials told the Christians that all they needed to do to end it is agree to trample on the fumi-e, which was understood to be a way of renouncing the faith. To make sure it took, it was common practice in much of Japan to require former Christians to step on a fumi-e once a year. (Silence spoilers below the jump.)
The drama of Endo’s story, however, does not concern whether or not Japanese Christians will step on the fumi-e, but if the Portuguese missionaries will. The story begins with the younger missionary, Fr. Rodrigues, traveling to the island to see if his former teacher and mentor, Fr. Ferreira really has apostatized as some say or if he has died as a faithful martyr. Much of the book’s power comes from the final third of the story after Fr. Rodrigues has been captured and is being interrogated by Inoue, the local magistrate overseeing the torture of the Christians.
Eventually Fr. Ferreira, who we learn did apostatize, comes to speak with Fr. Rodrigues as well. Finally, they begin torturing Japanese Christians by suspending them head first over a pit of feces and tell Rodrigues that they will remove those Christians from the pit only when he steps on the fumi-e.
Here is the key account:
The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’
‘It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?’ The interpreter urges him on excitedly. ‘Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.’
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘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.’
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
The entire torture account feels like a scene out of Orwell. The prosecutor is not after simple assent, but wishes to break the person entirely. It’s a blunt force instrument applied with such power that those subjected to it are shattered. In the epilogue to that scene we see that this is precisely what happened to Fr. Rodrigues.
This sort of persecution—aggressive, coercive, meant to break us—is what evangelicals have long-feared. And, as it happens, we now live in an age where this sort of fear is not unreasonable, not as an imminent threat coming tomorrow, but as a reasonable concern given the trajectory of some in the contemporary west.
But, ironically enough, we evangelicals seem to have forgotten our Bibles. If we remembered them, we would know that often (though not always) in Scripture more explicit, coercive persecution of God’s people is a consequence of their own disobedience and lack of fidelity. Persecution from without comes to assail a church that has rotted from within. There are, after all, two ways of killing a church. The Japanese found a way of doing it through aggressive, coercive methodologies. But in America even that may not be necessary.
That’s as good a place as any to consider the latest news on Donald Trump, I suppose. Yesterday, Focus on the Family founder and religious right icon James Dobson endorsed the short-fingered vulgarian. He joins a depressingly long list of religious right endorsers that includes Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and many others.
The membership list of his evangelical outreach committee is similarly depressing, including Sarah Palin wannabe Michele Bachmann, Mark Burns (who gave the blasphemous benediction earlier this week), Ronnie Floyd (recent president of the SBC), Richard Land (former president of the ERLC), James MacDonald (former Gospel Coalition member who left at the same time as Mark Driscoll), and Ralph Reed. All this elite support comes alongside recent data suggesting that Trump’s evangelical support runs deep as well, even deeper than Romney’s support from evangelicals did in 2012.
What this shambles of an election has exposed is that there is a sizable group of evangelical leaders for whom the power and prestige of partisan politics is more dear than fidelity to our resurrected king, that we would chase glory alongside a thrice-married serial adulterer even if it means our Lord who calls us to a cross rather than the ephemeral glory of the moneyed mobs, that we would sooner cast our lot with a pathological narcissist than dare to, like our fathers and mothers in the faith, face the danger and vulnerability of life with Christ in the wilderness.
There is a second famous dystopian novel from the mid-20th century, after all. It is not the story of a silence achieved via torture and brainwashing, but of a similarly devastated people who need no external pressure to obliterate them. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is no need for loud Big Brother slogans or wooden fumi-e to test a person’s loyalty to the powers and principalities. There are no tests at all because the people, sated with the wonder-drug Soma, police themselves, drugged on a cocktail of medication, cheap entertainment, and the illusion of happiness, success, and (no doubt) safety.
If tomorrow’s evangelicals face their own fumi-e, and we very well might, it won’t primarily be the fault of those on the left forcing them into the position of having to make such a choice, although they will bear some responsibility. The primary fault will be with the generation that proceeded them which, doped up on Soma, sold their fidelity for a bowl of pottage served to them by a charlatan who promised them the world.