The story is of two young Jesuits who go to Japan to find their teacher Fr Ferreira. They cannot believe the news that he has betrayed his faith, become Buddhist and is working with the Japanese government. This man has been their teacher, their inspiration and model of what it means to be a good Jesuit. They go off to Japan sure that the information is wrong and wanting to support what had been a flourishing Christian community before the 17th century’s edicts ordering all foreigners and their influence, especially their religion, out of the country and isolating Japan from the rest of the world for 200 years. At the time of the film the Christian community is in hiding, being faithful to their beliefs and willing to suffer for them. The two young missionaries tend some of these small communities, amazed at how they have kept the faith, before they are tracked down, captured and tortured.
Several themes are explored in the book and the film – ones which continue to raise their heads in today’s interfaith journey. I had heard from a friend who translated ‘Silence’ into English, that Endo constantly struggled with the question of how easily Christianity fitted the Japanese character and mind. Certainly there’s a common refrain in Silence that ‘Japan is a swamp in which Christianity cannot flourish’. This would not have been the case in the previous century when the Jesuit mission had flourished in the country and Christianity was seen to be beneficial for foreign trade. But did it sit happily in the Japanese way of life? All religions have their own cultural expression and it is often difficult to separate what is religious and what is cultural. How far Catholicism can adopt other cultural expressions has been controversial over the centuries. In the17th century the Church opposed it but now it’s accepted in what we call acculturation and I have experienced Catholic liturgies which have used Hindu and Buddhist rituals which were very moving. However for some religions conversion means adopting their culture and language and I’ve always felt I would have difficulty taking on and sitting comfortably in other cultural expressions even if I were to accept the faith.
The major theme of the book and the film are the fearful and horrific tortures and executions meted out on Christians unwilling to give up their faith by refusing to stand on metal pictures of Jesus on the Cross. To die quickly for one’s faith is heroic but to suffer awful punishments is something else. What was it that gave these faithful Japanese the courage and strength to be true to their beliefs and faith in the face of these terrible punishments? One thing seemed to be the promise of Paradise – a better reward and a better life – something we’re used to hearing with regard to Muslim suicide bombers. What does suffering matter if the reward is eternal life with God? I must say there is nothing of the martyr in me and I think I would be denying my faith very quickly when faced with horrific torture. Of course none of us know how we would react in such circumstances but I’d hope, I think, that it would be an external act with no real conviction and at one point in the film one of the Jesuits does tell the Christians being tortured to do just that – apostasise, stand on the tablet of Jesus on the Cross, save yourself and your village. Some do take this way out but others are faithful to the end –their integrity intact.
We say in the Christian tradition that there is no greater love that anyone can have than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is true but I wonder if there is not an even greater love and that is to watch other people suffer and die, be discriminated against, to have one’s heart broken and be powerless to do anything about it – to live with unrequited love, misunderstandings in relationships, powerlessness to help or solve another’s problem. This can be like a living death, protracted over time. And this is the pain of the young Jesuit looking on at the torture of others. Where is God amid the struggle to apostasise, to deny one’s truth and firmly held faith, not to save one’s own skin, though torture would make that understandable but to save others from terrible torture and execution. Where is God in all of this? Why does God not speak, not act? This is the dilemma of the central character in the film as he struggles with his faith and the consequences of his fidelity or his betrayal. Why does God not help? How can he continue to live while others have died and sacrificed themselves for their faith? How can he bear the shame and the guilt? What meaning will there be in his future life?
The film does not answer these questions but it takes us into the struggle of Fr Sebastiao and his final denial of his faith, believing that at last God had spoken and told him to do so. Whether he found peace in this decision is not clear. While, thank God, we are not faced with such suffering and terror, many of us will understand the silence of God in the face of contemporary world events and past events such as the Holocaust that we’ll be remembering at the end of this month. How often do we not wish and long for an answer that would take away our sense of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of evil, injustice and suffering and how hard it is sometimes to live with the silence of God?