Martin Scorsese’s recent film, “Silence”, is not so much a movie as a meditation. The story is about two Portuguese priests in the 17th century who are sent to Japan to find their mentor and fellow priest, Fr. Ferreira. Their spiritual mentor was rumored to have apostatized (abandoned the Catholic faith) and to be living as a married Japanese man. To the two young priests, this amounted to slander, and they wished to find him to discover the real story.
Along the way, they discover how horribly persecuted the Japanese Christians are, and historically speaking, this really is true. Japan, at the time the movie takes place, was possibly the only country where Christianity got a foothold, but was then almost entirely crushed.
One of the priests ends up dying trying to save a Christian who was being drowned in front of him by soldiers. His fellow priest has better fortune and ends up finding Fr. Ferreira. To his dismay, however, he discovers that the slanderous rumors are actually true. And to make matters worse, Fr. Ferreira and the Japanese authorities attempt to convince the young priest that Christianity has no place in Japan. The old priest insists that the Japanese Christians literally can’t understand the Christian faith because of their Buddhist background. The Japanese officials, for their part, continue to ruthlessly torture Christians in front of the young priest, trying to convince him that he could stop this persecution if he just renounced his faith and stopped trying to convert the Japanese people.
Watching the film, I felt as though I was witnessing something sacred. It was like a sequel to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.” We see Christ beaten and crucified in Gibson’s film. We see Japanese Christians tortured and killed in Scorsese’s. But whereas Gibson’s film is a meditation on the victorious meaning of suffering, “Silence” is a meditation on the lack of meaning in it. The Christian story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which we celebrated a couple weeks ago, triumphantly implies that the trials we go through in life are entirely worth it, so long as they are for Christ. “Silence” does not so much contradict that as play the skeptic. As you watch one Japanese Christian after another get crucified along the sea shore, or get turned upside down and dangled from the feet with their head trapped in a pit, or get burned alive, you begin to wonder, is it really worth it? The beautiful Renaissance-painting depictions of the ancient martyrs feels a little insincere as you see the poor children of God writhing in pain. “I knew God heard their prayers,” says the young priest in his thoughts, “but does He hear their screams?”
In addition to the tragic reality of the suffering Christians, the audience is clued in on the very real concerns of the Japanese authorities. The introduction of missionaries to Japan also meant the introduction of foreign powers like Portugal, Spain, and others. Despite the young priest’s sincerity in wishing only to bring Christ, you can’t help but think that foreign governments aren’t far behind. Who else will the young budding Japanese church turn to for spiritual guidance other than foreigners? And what happens then?
As a Catholic, there is part of me that wants to get frustrated at what monsters the Japanese officials appear to be. I hear Fr. Ferreira saying that Japanese Christians can’t really understand Christianity, and it seems so incredibly patronizing – as though Christianity had never been able to adapt and find a home in countless cultures for hundreds of years. But when all is said and done, I am incredibly grateful for this movie. I grew up hearing stories about missionaries courageously venturing forth into foreign lands, bringing the light of Christ to darkened cultures. Sometimes these stories were honest about the frailties and weaknesses of the missionaries, but a lot of times, they may have overplayed the glory in it. “Silence” forced me to consider at a much deeper level the way in which we evangelize and the price people pay to turn to Christ. Jesus said He did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I don’t know that He meant that sword to be in the hands of Christians, but I think He fully knew it would be in the hands of their persecutors – the same way it was in the hands of His own.
Which brings me back to the feeling I had watching the movie, and what I carry with me after the credits have rolled through. In one memorable scene, one of three crucified Christians takes longer than the other two to die. He hangs there, arms outstretched, while the tide coming in each day crashes against his cold body. Finally, on his fourth day being tied, he sings a hymn. His Christian brothers and sisters in the distance, hearing him sing, are silent – too afraid of the authorities. But he is not afraid. And as he finishes his song, his spirit leaves his body and rises up to God.
I can’t help but feel that before that singular Christian, the excuses of Fr. Ferreira ring hollow, the strength of the Japanese authorities seems pitiful (so afraid are they of the poorest in their country turning to Jesus), and the faith of the young priest seems weak, unable as he is to make the connection between the crucified Lord he studied about in seminary and the suffering Christians he sees before him. That crucified Christian, in that moment, knows enough to trust in God’s love, finds the strength and courage to sing before the very authorities who are killing him, and has faith enough to worship God with his final dying breath.
The scene is a familiar picture for the church. There is somethingholy about it. And before such an icon in this film, I can only sit in reverent silence