Shūsaku Endō, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969).
I have known about Silence for a long time, and its basic plot, and deliberately avoided it because it seemed too painful to bear. But on our first trip to Japan, amidst the beautiful cherry blossoms in full bloom and warm welcome by our future colleagues, I decided I was ready to brave it. I am glad I did.
The novel is based on the true story of Christóvão Ferreira, a sixteenth-century Portuguese Jesuit missionary who, to the shock of everyone back home, apostatized under pressure from local officials in Japan. Sebastian Rodrigues, the protagonist of the story also based on a real figure, Giuseppe Chiara, goes in search of the surviving Christians of Japan and hopes in the process to find Ferreira, whom he simply cannot believe to have done what is said of him.
What ensues is a battle between providence and the cross. To face the cross is to allow the possibility—implicit in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”—that there is no God at all; that all of one’s life has been staked on a falsehood; that all meaning has therefore been rendered ludicrous. It is a risky thing for believers to meditate on the cross at the best of times, in full safety and surrounded by sisters and brothers in faith. But to do under pressure to give in, without any fellowship, under the relentless assaults of another religion’s hostile powers, is to toy with fires of hell. It is not anything anyone could freely choose to endure.
By the end of the story, Rodrigues has been deprived of all of his illusions that martyrdom is a glorious action he undertakes. Instead it is a humiliating passion he undergoes, without even the benefit of death as an end to suffering, sealing his status. He feels “an inexpressible dissatisfaction—a kind of disillusion that he was not privileged to be a tragic hero like so many martyrs and like Christ himself.”
Nor can he see the purpose of the deaths of the martyrs around him. “I do not believe,” he writes to a superior back home, “that God has given us this trial to no purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all its sufferings has been bestowed upon us—for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of those last stammering words of Kichijirō on the morning of his departure: ‘Why has Deus Sama [God] imposed this suffering on us?’ And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. ‘Father,’ he had said, ‘what evil have we done?’” Providence is invisible in the darkness of the cross.
The relationship between Rodrigues, the passionate priest devoted to Jesus, and Kichijirō, the irritating, fawning, cowardly Japanese on-again-off-again Christian, plays a key role in leading the priest to his particular cross. There are strong correlations between Rodrigues and Peter, and Kichijirō and Judas—and the tragic relationship they both have to Jesus. Peter swears he will never fall away, and yet he does, spectacularly. Judas seems to be a bad egg from the start, and yet his remorse over his betrayal destroys him. Endō imagines for us here what the relationship between Peter and Judas might have been like (something we are not shown in the Gospels): the alternating pity, contempt, hatred, and reluctant self-identification that Rodrigues/Peter feels with Kichijirō/Judas, the one person he was determined never to end up like.
It makes a difference, of course, that Kichijirō acts out of his endemic cowardice (complaining regularly that “God made me this way,” so how could he do otherwise?), while Rodrigues finally capitulates out of love for those who are being tortured because of him. Yet the act is the same. They both formally apostatize; they both trample the Lord they serve. It is a bitter way for Rodrigues to learn that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Throughout the story, Kichijirō’s behavior provokes Rodrigues to speculate again and again on why Jesus said to Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly,” and whether Jesus ceased to love Judas, or never loved him at all, in allowing (or assigning?) him the role of betrayer. “Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijirō was not even worthy to be called evil… True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters.” These are questions that, we infer, Rodrigues will be asking of himself till the end of his days.
However, it’s not Kichijirō but the already-apostate Ferreira who smooths the way for Rodrigues’s own apostasy. Ferreira’s apostasy runs on two tracks. On the one hand, he has given himself over to despair about the prospects of Christianity in Japan (a concern Endō himself as a Japanese Catholic shared, according to the translator). Ferreira insists to a disbelieving Rodrigues that the apparently Christian locals had simply warped the message they heard into a Japanese version that was neither authentic nor faithful. It’s impossible to say whether Ferreira was right about that; or if, perhaps, on some level of his mind, he suspected that maybe the Portuguese version of Christianity was also warped and distorted into something inauthentic, which would render mission work all the more ambiguous. There is never an opportunity for a true reckoning over the difference between evangelization, bringing the gospel as a message of good news freely offered, and proselytization, trying to impose or insinuate a foreign (religious) culture on the grounds that it is superior.
But in the final crisis of the novel, Ferreira reveals a different motivation for his apostasy, as expressed in his accusation against Rodrigues: “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… A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here… Certaintly Christ would have apostatized for them.”
Throughout the novel we have been taken further and further from Rodrigues’s own mind. We begin, after a short introduction, with his letter to his brother Jesuit back home; then we switch to a third-person narration of his experience, still dipping into his mind but without the immediacy of the first person; and finally, the book ends, in what appears to be intentional anticlimax, with extracts from a Dutch clerk’s diary and an Appendix with names and dates obliquely touching on the fates of Rodrigues and Ferreira. The translator’s introduction notes that both historical figures on whom the novel is based died professing to be Christians, despite their formal apostasy and silent cooperation with the Japanese regime for their remaining lifetimes. But Endō doesn’t take the story there. He simply leaves us to wrestle with two figures who cannot be restored to any respectable place in the history of the church. The gradual shift away from Rodrigues’s voice disallows any satisfying resolution. (Apropos of which, I should note that the film version directed by Martin Scorcese is impressively faithful to the book, more so than movies usually are, only slightly pumping up the drama and making the verbal exchanges more explicit than the subtlety of the book. But it does resolve the story more clearly than Endō does.)
Much of the power in Silence derives from Endō’s refusal to spend any time on the evil motivations of the Japanese torturers. The closest he gets is to reflect that sin “is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and to tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.” We have a sense that dwelling on the evildoers would be the easy way out. Endō wrote his book not to advise religious toleration but for Christians struggling with their faith in the midst of God’s persistent inscrutable silence and the death of religious illusions, even of the noblest kind.
But, if I may stray briefly into territory Endō has declined to visit, two things stand out about the tactics of destruction inflicted on Rodrigues and others.
Both of them relate to the fundamental evil of torture, which is to take that which is given and created good in human beings and to turn it against them. The officials in the novel exploit the human body’s necessary sensitivity to pain, which is intended to protect life, for a purpose entirely at odds with that sensitivity: a kind of self-refutation of the bodiliness shared by torturers and tortured. Rodrigues grieves that such bodily pain can break the spirit of Christians to the point that they apostatize—but there is something false, opposed to the doctrine of creation, in the implicit notion that there should be limitless physical resistance in the truly faithful. It is precisely because we are bodies, created bodies, who share in the finitude and limits of all other human bodies, that we can’t have—and can’t be expected to have—limitless tolerance to pain and dishonor visited upon our bodies. To collapse under pain is not a sin in itself: it is human in the best sense, not the worst. The problem is not the limit to human powers but God’s silence—the apparent refusal of the grace of supernatural bodily resistance. Also grievous, but not the same thing. But as so often happens in cases of bodily abuse, the shame inappropriately falls on the victim, whether as finite-body or as not-granted-supernatural-resistance-Christian. In truth, the shame belongs on the torturer who refuses to honor the common bodiliness between himself and his victim.
Similarly, another strategy of the officials in the story—in fact, the key one—is the infliction of solitude on the Christians. They are separated from one another even when they are spared to live for a time. The officials finally break Rodrigues by breaking all possibility of solidarity between himself and the Japanese Christians, because the officials torture them as long as he refuses to apostatize. Throughout the book, Rodrigues has been determined to stand by his Lord no matter what. But, as he gradually realizes, there is something atomistic and individualistic about this determination—as Ferreira so acutely identifies. For the best of reasons Rodrigues longed to be a priest and a martyr, but it’s only in the act of treachery that he realizes what it really means to love and serve the flock, however counter-intuitive.
God’s silence, which has pervaded the novel, is thus broken only when Rodrigues chooses to trample the cross. Christ speaks to him then and only then: “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.” Moments later the rooster crows—leaving us in no doubt that Rodrigues has betrayed and broken something. But to place the blame fully on him is to overlook the fact that there is no solitary Christian, no believer without a church. The very evil of the officials’ strategy was to deprive the Christians of their fellowship. Ultimately, it was not an option for Rodrigues to carry on alone, even if he believed he should be able to do so. In some painful sense, apostasy was what allowed Rodrigues to stay in the true church even while it placed him forever beyond the borders of its formal structure. Here again, though, there is no victory in the torturers’ strategy: all they have done is proven that Christians cannot live solitary lives—and there is no shame or sin in that.
What struck me mostly deeply about Silence, though, was how close and familiar the spirituality expressed in it was to me. Of course there is throughout and predominantly what Lutherans call the theology of the cross, but other themes as well: the great desire for the forgiveness of sin, the hunger for the sacraments, the very personal attachment to Jesus, the turn to song in bleak moments, the reconfiguring of good works as being for the sake of the neighbor and not to establish a flawless track record with God. The story is set in the sixteenth century when those loyal to Rome and the emerging reform movements distrusted and despised each other—and, on occasion, even killed each other, just as the Japanese officials did the Christians. And yet it is far off from the center of European in battle, in the vulnerability of mission to an entirely different people, that there is a powerful convergence in the lived faith of Catholics and Lutherans.