In Romans 9:3, Paul the Apostle expresses the emotion that, “for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.” A great many commentators and writers have attempted to understand just what Paul meant by these words. We do well to note the conditional nature of the phrase. We get the impression that Paul knows that what he is saying is not the way God works. Paul cannot make a bargain with God whereby Paul is forever cut off from Christ to save the Jewish people. Salvation is more complex than such a scenario implies and Saint Paul is well-aware that he cannot save the Jewish people in such a way.
(Warning: the remainder of this blog contains spoilers for the movie, Silence, 2016 and the blog will make more sense after you watch the movie.) Martin Scorsese also understands that salvation, damnation, faith, suffering, pride, and apostasy are more complex than we may be led to believe and has created a movie that opens up a conversation regarding these concepts. At two hours forty-one minutes in length, it is long and sometimes grueling to watch. It requires substantial concentration to catch the nuances that are significant to the plot of the movie: the triumphant faces of two Catholic Missionaries setting off for fame, martyrdom, and glory as they imagine their fate as heroes of the faith; an expression on a face that betrays inner doubts or tremendous pride; a rooster crowing in the distance following a particularly eventful rejection of Christ.
The movie is also difficult to watch because of the numerous scenes of Christians being tortured for their faith. The movie is set in Japan in the early 1600’s when Christianity was suppressed by fierce war-lords or shoguns. The first missionaries to Japan (Portuguese Jesuits) were well-received and many Japanese became followers of Jesus and members of the Catholic Church. However, many of these new converts were given Portuguese Christian names and encouraged to adopt Western culture which caused the local authorities to look upon Christianity as a subversion of Japanese culture and a threat to their way of life. Persecutions and pressures to renounce the faith soon followed.
The movie follows the lives of three priests, or padres, who seek to understand God in the midst of horrific persecution. The title refers to the quiet with which God responds to their prayers. They pray for rescue, relief from torture, strength to keep their faith, and the growth of the Gospel in Japan - and Jesus is silent to them. When Jesus does finally respond, his voice is unexpected and contradictory to the proclamation we anticipated.
Martin Scorsese based his screenplay and direction of the movie upon the 1966 book (English translation 1969) by Shusaku Endo and has spoken of making the movie as “a pilgrimage” back into his Catholic faith. In interviews about the movie, he identifies pride as one of the key themes of the movie. In the discussion of pride and going to extreme measures to save others, we are led back to the first words of this blog in which we discussed Saint Paul’s words to the Romans (more on that in a moment).
Therein lie the most difficult questions of the movie. What is it that motivates the priests to travel to Japan and preach the Gospel? They are aware that it means certain torture and death, yet they go anyway. Is it truly because of a love for the people of Japan or pride in being the ones to carry the Gospel and die for their faith? The priests are not afraid to die for their faith, but what they were not prepared for was the fact that others would be tortured and killed before their eyes as a way to make them recant their own faith. One priest (Ferreira), who has already renounced his faith, demands that Rodrigues renounce his as well to save those who are being tortured until Rodrigues apostatizes. Another Christian readily renounces his faith, confesses, and takes up the faith again, over and over. What should a Christian do? What should a faithful missionary do?
Ferreira, in his first interview with Rodrigues, identifies that Rodrigues is filled with pride and arrogance. He perceives pride in the Portuguese culture that maintains its superiority and looks down on the inferior Japanese. He is aware of the colonialism that is brought with the Gospel and a lack of understanding that Japanese culture has anything to offer. Rodrigues' own words written to his superiors in Portugal belie his pride as he recounts the joy he felt in baptizing hundreds of Japanese Christians.
Here is where we come full-circle to the initial scripture passage to which I referred. The Apostle Paul recognized his own pride as he wrestled with how he might save the Jewish people. Just in time, he comes to realize that his sacrifice will not save the Jewish people. It is only in Christ that salvation can be found. We must leave the mystery of salvation to Jesus. He is the one who must work in the hearts of others. We are responsible for our actions, our thoughts, and our submission to Christ. Even our own pride in carrying the Gospel of Jesus Christ is pride just the same. Our joy in doing God’s work can easily fall into pride in ourselves. How many times have I done the right thing (even caring for the poor or baptizing those who confess Christ) and my joy turns to pride and sours the very work I have done? I give a few coins to the poor and find myself telling others about this thing I have done – when I ought to be “silent!”
One writer, reflecting on this movie, asks the difficult question, “Is unwavering commitment to one’s understanding of absolute truth itself a form of arrogance and spiritual pride?” The world in which we live is complex and how God is involved in salvation of the cosmos is mysterious. Pride is believing that we have all of the answers for every culture, every circumstance, and every person. I must not commit myself to “my understanding of absolute truth.” My commitment must always be to “seeking the truth.” What can I learn from Canadian culture in all of its forms? What do I learn from Japanese culture? American culture (yes, even culture which seems alien and people who espouse ideas with which I disagree)? How do we live lives that are truly reliant upon Jesus and not be prideful when we achieve some degree of reliance upon Him?
The end of the movie shows how both Rodrigues and Ferreira end up living as hidden Christians who study the Japanese culture and appear to be living as Japanese Buddhists. In fact, their Christian faith (one wonders if it exists at all) is supplanted so far below the surface that all will see them as Japanese Buddhists. Ferreira begins to believe that Portuguese culture might actually have something to offer Japan, but it is in astronomy and not Christianity that he believes Portugal has the most to offer.
There is much more that could be discussed about this movie and perhaps I will come back to it again. Scorsese admits to being a lapsed Catholic and yet, I believe God has given him a voice to ask difficult questions and help us to understand ourselves more deeply. May God give us the grace to live humble lives while speaking boldly for Jesus Christ.