Messages for Our Noisy Age in Scorsese's "Silence"
We live in such a harsh and noisy age that silence can sometimes seem unbearable.
But there’s a particular type of silence that is most disconcerting of all. It’s a silence we all can experience—non-believers certainly, but believers, as well.
It’s God’s silence in response to the violence and persecutions that ravage our world. It’s God silence in response to our seemingly unanswered prayers.
Or it’s what we take to be God’s silence.
That’s the “Silence” in Shusaku Endo’s historical novel and Martin Scorsese’s recently released movie adaptation of the book.
Non-believers point to this silence, sometimes with contempt, in making their case against God’s existence, but even the most devout believers have experienced that silence. Saint Teresa of Calcutta certainly did—for the last 50 years of her life—as her letters and diaries make painfully clear. The martyrs depicted in “Silence” most certainly did while experiencing the brutal persecutions of Christians in 16th and 17th century Japan.
Endo’s main character, a Jesuit missionary, writes back home to Portugal: “Already two years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.”
“Silence” is the story of two Portuguese priests (Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garrpe, played by Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in search of their former teacher (Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson). There, they learn that, like so many Japanese Christians, Father Ferreira has “apostatized.” He has been forced to “trample the fumie”—to walk on the image of Christ and, thus, publicly recant his Christian faith. Ferreira is now married to a Japanese woman and living at a temple while working on a book refuting Christianity.
Captured and imprisoned, Rodrigues faces a similar choice: Apostasy or death—not own his death, but the unspeakably cruel deaths of several devoted Japanese Christians. This was just one of many diabolical tortures Japanese authorities employed to try to eradicate a Christian presence that once numbered some 300,000 followers.
“What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand,” Rodrigues writes home to his superiors as he experiences his own Gethsemane and listens to two Christian friends being tortured. “Only that today, when for the glory of God, Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish, God remains with folded arms, silent.”
Rodrigues’ agony becomes, and remains, ours. In accomplishing this, “Silence” at once enlarges our capacity to empathize with the Jesuit priests and Japanese Christians who stepped on the fumie and reduces our ever-ready inclination to judge and condemn.
That’s part of the beauty and truth of Shusaku Endo’s book and Martin Scorsese’s film.
The issues of religious persecution, martyrdom and apostasy are all too real—from Syria to Iraq to Nigeria and other corners of the world today. Stepping on the fumie can take less graphic, more intimate forms in even the most peaceable societies, where it’s easier—more tempting—to deny faith on a daily basis in order to maintain comfortable private lives and a tranquil public life.
“Silence” helps us explore whether we have stepped on our own private fumie in our daily trials. Do we not face religious persecution of a different kind in today’s public square, and how do we respond? And what is our response to those deemed to have fallen short? Is there redemption beyond betrayal? Have we not all raged against the silence?
Yes, “Silence” teaches us that God works in the silence and our suffering, but it teaches us more: that we are so much more than what is evident on the surface, that we are all weak and fragile, and that we owe it to ourselves, our neighbors and God to focus less on God’s silence and more on ours. To be less ready to judge and condemn and more ready to accept that there’s something greater at work in the world, in our brothers and sisters, than we’ll ever know. Christian, Jew, Muslim or pagan, secular or sectarian, Republican or Democrat, left or right, Trump or Clinton or Obama... whatever—we all only see through a glass darkly. At times, God’s silence may be God’s testimony and our silence is itself a witness, for good or ill.
It doesn’t require a “spoiler alert” to share the novel’s last, beautiful words. “Even now I am the last priest in this land,” says Rodrigues. “But our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of Him.”
Endo and Scorsese’s “Silence” abounds with grace, both artistic and spiritual. See the movie, read the book, though not necessarily in that order. “Silence” is a story for all times, and maybe especially our own harsh and noisy time.