I read Shūsaku Endō's Silence as part of a book club with my pastor
and a few other members of our church. The book was scheduled coming
out of the holiday season so that if we didn't have time or motivation
to read we could at least all watch the new film together and discuss
I hadn't managed to finish the book by the time I reached the
theatre. When I left Rodrigues (on the page) he was being brought
before the authorities for interrogation and defending the purpose of
the church in Japan.
When we passed that moment in the film, I appreciated the fresh
perspective of watching the story play out on screen, but I realized
that I had actually managed to remain unspoiled on the remaining
plot. When Rodrigues was climatically confronted with the decision to
trample on the fumi-e or allow others to suffer, I was overwhelmed by
the cumulative anticipation of not one but two readings: I've never
before experience so palpable a moment of, "I have no idea what is
about to happen."
I've wrestled for years with the question of whether it would be sin
to accept damnation--defined here as separation from God--for the sake
of another's salvation. Self-sacrifice is good; but might such a
sacrifice be construed an elevation of man over God?
Through Silence I've concluded that such a sacrifice is good, but that
its consequence is inherent: damnation. In fact, in Christian
theology, this is the sacrifice Christ made for us, and only Christ
could both endure all of our damnation and still remain blameless.
And still, salvation through Christ is sufficient even for those who
would deny him for the sake of others. It's obvious when you consider
the apostle Peter, who famously denied association with Christ three
times; but I hadn't before seen this portrayed so vividly, and the
story of Peter is perhaps too familiar to be so impactful. It's easy
to vilify Kichijiro when he repeatedly betrays the Kirishitans, and to
become dismissive as Rodrigues when the acts of confession and
atonement becomes rote and seemingly meaningless; but Rodrigues and
Kichijiro both demonstrate what Peter did in the Passion: that Christ
offers forgiveness and reconciliation even to those who betray him.
After more consideration, though, I fear that the Silence that has
affected me so deeply exists only in my own heart and mind. The book,
perhaps more than the film, might actually be more concerned with a
technical definition of apostasy and Rodrigues' prideful self-image as
a Christ figure than it is with deeper questions of the nature of
salvation. He's a bit like Job, in a way: so assured of his
blamelessness and rite of martyrdom that he can't see how he himself
falls short of the perfection he aspires to.
But I still can't stop thinking about Silence, and I'm struck more
than ever by the potential discontinuity between the story the author
wrote and the story in my mind.
I can't imagine what Silence must mean to a Japanese Buddhist. From my
western Christian perspective the story is familiar enough, and I
implicitly understand the context and motivation of Rodrigues and his
fellow Jesuits. But what I read was an English translation from
original Japanese, ostensibly intended for a Japanese audience, and
that presumably non-Christian. How could a Japanese person, with no
experience with the church or Christ, possibly react to any of this?