Over the last couple of weeks I have read a number of reviews about Martin Scorsese’s movie “Silence,” based, of course, on the 1966 (Eng., 1969) novel by the same name written by Endo Shusaku. Endo (1923-96) was a Catholic Christian who became widely known and read as a Japanese novelist.
One major problem with most reviews of “Silence” is their, well, silence concerning the historical background and context of the events portrayed in the movie.
Francis Xavier, one of the original seven Jesuits, was the first Christian missionary to set foot in Japan, landing at Kagoshima August 1549. Kagoshima is on the southern tip of Kyushu, the island on which Nagasaki is located in southwest Japan.
Xavier’s missionary activities were so successful that by 1587, Hideyoshi, the most powerful daimyo (feudal lord) in Japan, promulgated the Purge Directive Order to the Jesuits in July 1587. That Order included a ban on missionaries.
Hideyoshi’s primary concern was not about religious beliefs. Rather, it was about the power of the Christian feudal lords in Kyushu. The ban was Hideyoshi’s attempt to expand his political power.
Ten years later Hideyoshi took even harsher measures against Christians in Japan: he had 26 Christians (literally) crucified in Nagasaki in February 1597. Six were missionaries and 20 were Japanese believers.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and after a decisive battle in 1600 Ieyasu became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, which lasted until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
In 1614, Ieyasu was so concerned about Spanish territorial ambitions that he signed a Christian Expulsion Edict, banning the practice of Christianity and expelling all foreign missionaries. This decision, made partly through discussions with Englishman Will Adams, is described in the fourth chapter of Oliver Statler’s intriguing book Japanese Inn (1961).
All of this stands behind the characters in “Silence,” beginning with Cristóvão Ferreira the Portuguese Jesuit priest who was a missionary in Japan from 1609 until he apostatized in 1633. The beginning of the movie shows Rodrigues and Garrpe, two young Jesuits priests, deciding to go to Japan in order to find Ferreira. They arrive there in 1639.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
The most important thing to keep in mind from the historical background just given is the connection of the missionaries to the European countries that were involved in economic activities, and potentially imperialistic, activities in Japan.
While the movie gives the impression that there was a religious reason for the persecution of the Christians, in reality it was much more based on the fear of foreign political and economic influence in Japan. Religion, especially religious beliefs, was of a far lesser concern.
Many who see the movie think the actions of the Japanese were very cruel—and they were. But we need to remember that at the same time, the same sort of persecution of Jews, Muslims, and even Christian “heretics” was carried out by the ruling “Christians” in Europe.
Actually, the Spanish Inquisition lasted from 1478 to 1834. According to Wikipedia, “Although records are incomplete, about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and about 3,000 were executed.”
Also, in 1692-93, a half century later than the main events in “Silence,” the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts resulted in the executions of twenty people.
In a different vein, it is also important to pay close attention to the end of the book, an ending that was amplified in the movie. I found two websites with quotes from “Silence,” but neither had the most important of all, words from the end of the eighth chapter of the book:
. . . the Christ in the bronze [fumie] speaks to the priest [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 (p. 183).
Those who miss the significance of those words, miss the whole point of Endo’s book. According to Japanese-American artist and author Makoto Fujimura, Endo gave this explanation of the purpose of his book: “I did not write a book about the Silence of God; I wrote a book about the Voice of God speaking through suffering and silence.”
INSIGHTS FROM FUJIMURA
Makoto Fujimura, just mentioned, is the author of a book titled Silence and Beauty (2016). It is a marvelous book that gives insight into the nature of Japanese thinking, including the nature of the widespread Japanese understanding of beauty as well as silence.
Among other things, Fujimura explains that Endo’s novel is about grace. He writes,
By stepping on the fumi-e, Father Rodrigues inverts into his genuine faith, faith not dependent on his religious status or on his own merit, but a faith in grace— grace that, like the rays of sunshine after a rainy day, provides an aroma of the light (loc. 2263-65).
Then, in spite of the several times Inoue, the Japanese “inquisitor,” refers to Japan as an unproductive swamp for Christianity, Fujimura writes, “Christian faith is more than a mere rational proposition. It can take root deeply in a muddy swamp if it is designed for propagation there, like, for instance, planting rice in rice paddies” (loc. 1189-91).
Later Fujimura claims that through Endo, “we may begin to detect the aroma of the sunshine and to see the possibility of the Golden Country of Japan, a country filled with rice paddies, a muddy swamp now resplendent with golden hues of the abundant harvest” (loc. 2239-40).
That is the reason why Scorsese dedicated “Silence” to Japanese pastors. However, a review by a young Japanese pastor, while insightful and helpful in some parts, misses the point, even saying that “Silence” will drive Japanese people away from an understanding of God’s love.
I hope that that pastor, and that you who read this, will at some point read Fujimura’s book and learn from his insights.
And while “Silence” is probably too “heavy” for the general public and even though it demands more thoughtful reflection than most people are willing to expend, I do hope there will be many who go see the movie and then spend adequate time thinking and talking with others about its deep meaning.
In this time when the “prosperity gospel” continues to grow in popularity (think about some of those who will be praying at the presidential inauguration on 1/20), this is a good time to consider the gospel of grace for those who are not, and will never be, rich and powerful.
God is not silent. God speaks through suffering–and through the hidden beauty of the gracious Christ on the cross.
(This article was first posted on my supplemental blogsite, see here, and there are some important comments made there and copied below.)