Silence by Shusaku Endo (Part 1)

An Overview

SILENCE: A PICTURE OF CHRIST AND HUMANITY

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is a historical fiction concerning the work of Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. The story is complex and warrants thoughtful consideration. It is not always easy to understand the imagery and events that Endo employs, but the work is so impactful that it has attracted much critical analysis over the years and eventually drew the attention of director Martin Scorsese. The story was made into a film last year and has been nominated for numerous awards.

The central character of Silence, Sebastian Rodrigues, hopes against all fear that his former teacher, Father Ferreira, is still alive and that he has not apostatized and renounced his faith. Rodrigues’ and Francis Garrpe’s journey to Japan is reminiscent of the hope that Noah and his family had at the end of the flood; a bird descends and branches are seen floating in the water—land is nearby. But the land that Rodrigues and Garrpe find in Japan is nearer to the darkness of Gethsemane than the brightness of the rainbow adorned covenant. The ensuing story creates a picture of Christ's love and faithfulness in the midst of sinful and misguided people.

For the first part of this reflection essay, I’ll be exploring apostasy and forgiveness through Shusaku Endo’s character development in Silence.  The second part will focus on atonement. Needless to say, the reflections that follow give away major plot points.

Endo’s character development in Silence is significant in that it is aimed at showing man in his fallen state. The priests’ guide to Japan, Kichijiro, is a nervous sort. He is set up as the Judas of the story. Endo’s view of Judas, however, does not appear to be the traditional perception of the villain that most would assign to him. At multiple times in the story, Rodrigues wonders why Jesus told Judas “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27).[1] Rodrigues concludes that Jesus says this because he knows how much Judas is suffering under the terrible act he has determined to do. Here is what is said of this event at the end of the story:

“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?”

“I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.” …

… “There are neither strong nor weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?” The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. “Since in this country there is now no one else to hear your confession, I will do it... Say the prayers after confession... Go in peace!”[2]

The narrative heavily foreshadows Kichijiro’s later betrayal of Rodrigues. After learning of his multiple accounts of apostasy, it is no surprise to the reader—or Rodrigues for that matter—that Kichijjro gives him over to the authorities. The depiction of Kichijiro as the Judas figure broadens as the story progresses, turning from the view of a villain to a picture of the state of all humanity. While Rodrigues and Kichijiro are wandering in the mountains, Rodrigues says, “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains.”[3]

Although Kichijiro is compared to Judas multiple times, he can also be compared to other disciples. His being a fisherman, his multiple apostasies, his appearance when Rodrigues is being marched through the town––all of these and more could relate him to Peter and some of the other disciples. Rodrigues bridges this link and begins to think that apostasy is in even those that are ultimately saved, not just the condemned Judases. He says, “As for you (I now spoke to myself) which category do you belong to? Were it not for the consciousness of your priesthood and your pride, perhaps you like Kichijiro would trample on the fumie.”[4]

Rodrigues’ view of martyrdom and suffering changes vastly throughout the story, and in a similar yet converse way, he moves from a heroic figure to the same picture of humanity that Kichijiro represents. He displays the state of fallen man; no matter how much we intend to follow Christ and honor God, we have or will defect to denying God when we think we cannot handle the circumstances we are facing. Herman Bavinck, translated by Anthony Hoekema, described the human condition in this way:[5]

Man through the fall . . . has not become a devil who, incapable of redemption, can no longer reveal the features of the image of God. But while he has remained really and substantially man and has still preserved all his human faculties, capacities, and powers, the form, nature, disposition, and direction of all these powers have been so changed that now instead of doing the will of God they fulfill the law of the flesh.[6] 

When it comes to sin and betrayal, the priest is just as subject to these things as the fisherman. Rodrigues eventually discovers that Father Ferreira apostatized in order to save the Japanese Christians from the pit where they were being tortured. Rodrigues, in a similar way, apostatizes and forfeits the glorious martyrdom that he had desired. As he steps on the fumie a cock crows in the distance just as when Peter denied Christ.[7]

If Rodrigues is a Peter figure in the story, what does this say about apostasy and redemption? Endo’s obvious reference to Peter seems to have two aspects that must be considered: Peter’s primacy and his denial of Christ. Considering Endo’s Catholic perspective, Peter is considered the first Pope and the head of the Apostles. However, Peter also denied Christ. The Catholic Encyclopedia says this of Peter and his denial of Jesus: “This denial was of course due, not to a lapse of interior faith in Christ, but to exterior fear and cowardice. His sorrow was thus so much the greater, when, after his Master had turned His gaze towards him, he clearly recognized what he had done.”[8] In a similar way Rodrigues is both ashamed and yet views himself as faithful, saying, “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”[9] In his weakness, Rodrigues met Christ. Peter was weak, and yet he was restored as head of the Apostles according to the Catholic view:

In spite of this weakness, his position as head of the Apostles was later confirmed by Jesus, and his precedence was not less conspicuous after the Resurrection than before . . . most important of all, when He appeared at the Lake of Genesareth, Christ renewed to Peter His special commission to feed and defend His flock, after Peter had thrice affirmed his special love for his Master (John 21:15­17).[10]

The story ends with Rodrigues viewed as apostate by the authorities in both Japan and Portugal, who focus only on the external act of betrayal, but Rodrigues internally sees himself as living in a state of grace and still as a priest that feeds Christ’s sheep.


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[1] ESV.

[2] Shusaku Endo, Silence (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969), 190-191.

[3] Ibid., 78.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bavinck, Herman. Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (abbrev. Dogmatiek_). 3rd. ed. 4 vols. (Kampen: Kok, 1918), 2:617.

[6] A. A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 83.

[7] Endo, 171.

[8] J.P. Kirsch, St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathe... (March 5, 2014).

[9] Endo, 191.

[10] Kirsch, St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11744a.htm.