Apostasy and Ambiguity: ‘Silence’ Asks Hard Questions

ON FILM: Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation has received mixed reception among Christians.

CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION. Andrew Garfield (second from right) and Adam Driver (r) portray Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan amid a culture that demands apostasy for Christians. Paramount Pictures
CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION. Andrew Garfield (second from right) and Adam Driver (r) portray Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan amid a culture that demands apostasy for Christians. Paramount Pictures (photo: Paramount Pictures)

“Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32–33)

“If we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful —
for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:12–13)

These New Testament verses, among others, preserve and enshrine an essential precept of Christian praxis from its earliest days: the obligation to confess or acknowledge Christ, to publicly own one’s faith in him, even in the face of persecution, torture and even martyrdom. So grave is this obligation that we are told Christ will repay denial with denial; those who disown him he will disown.

Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence honors 17th-century Japanese martyrs who sang hymns as they succumbed slowly to grueling deaths. But it also empathizes with, perhaps even exonerates, many who capitulated to official demands for ritual renunciations of Christian faith — typically trampling on images of Jesus or Mary, called fumie, designated for this purpose. (Climactic spoilers follow.)

The climax depicts the protagonist, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield in Martin Scorsese’s haunting adaptation, apparently hearing the voice of Christ himself, speaking from the fumie, permitting and even urging him to trample.

The early Christians treasured the stories of martyrs like Polycarp who accepted death rather than participate in a ritual act — burning incense to Caesar the divine — considered tantamount to rejecting Christ. Those who capitulated, who apostatized, were considered beyond the mercy of the Church, at least until after the Decian persecution.

Understandably, Endo’s novel met with fierce controversy among Japanese Christians, and Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation has received a similarly mixed reception among American Christians.

One protesting voice comes from the always-thoughtful Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. While acknowledging the complexity and ambiguity of the film’s treatment of its themes, Bishop Barron asks whether this emphasis on complexity and ambiguity is really so helpful.

Suppose, Bishop Barron suggests, that, instead of Jesuit missionaries, the story were about American special forces behind enemy lines who renounce their loyalty to the U.S. under torture and go on to lead comfortable lives among their former enemies:

Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors?

I appreciate this interesting effort to transpose Silence’s moral dilemma into a different framework. This analogy omits, though, the most crucial element of Rodrigues’ final crisis: a point curiously neglected or ignored by many or even most of the recent critical religious responses to Silence.

Rodrigues is entirely prepared to face torture and martyrdom. He even hopes and asks for it. Whether or not he is a traitor, he is no coward.

In perhaps the most insidious of all their inspired torments, authorities instead subject Japanese peasants — “hidden Christians” who have already capitulated to every demand to reject their faith — to slow, unimaginable torment that will end in their deaths unless Rodrigues gives in.

No response to this climactic crisis can be adequate without engaging this extraordinary dilemma, memorably expressed in a thoughtful essay on Silence by science-fiction writer (and self-proclaimed infidel) Adam Roberts:

If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would, of course, take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength?

This is a dilemma for which the Christian cultus of the martyrs has not fully prepared Rodrigues. St. Augustine, in his treatise On Lying, considered the hypothetical case of a man who refuses to apostatize even when threatened with the execution of his father. (Juicing the drama, Augustine imagined the father not as a willing martyr but as a heathen begging his son to save his life.) Such a man, Augustine concluded, is not a parricide; the authorities, not he, are responsible for the father’s death.

Whatever we make of Augustine’s reasoning on this point, the Christian faith does tell us that there are things that are intrinsically wrong, that can never be done under any circumstances for any reason — and apostasy, repudiation of the Christian faith, is one of those things. Does the act of stepping on an image of Christ always entail apostasy?

Even to ask this question may be to invoke Bishop Barron’s concerns about unhelpful ambiguity. Yet when five people are being tortured to death, it would be moral insanity not to look for any possible means of escape. Sir Thomas More, in A Man For All Seasons, argues with Meg regarding the necessity of looking for such means of escape in regard to the Act of Succession:

God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping.

Finding no escape, More goes to the Tower and ultimately to the executioner’s block. Before accepting the latter — and certainly before condemning others to that fate — we must be very, very sure of the former.

Polycarp and others accepted death rather than throw incense on a fire. The physical act of throwing incense on a fire, though, is unobjectionable; Christian clergy do this all the time. What made it wrong in this case was what it was understood to express by all present in that particular context.

The meaning of a physical act is not always as straightforward as we might suppose. The same act can mean different things in different contexts; it can also mean different things to different people. When Judas kissed Jesus, that act had one meaning to Jesus’ other disciples but a different meaning to the armed men nearby.

In principle, almost any act could signify apostasy, in the right context. (Raising one’s hand could be an act of apostasy if an inquisitor has just said “All those who deny Christ, raise your hands.”) On the other hand, it is not obvious that we are obliged to accept any interpretive framework an inquisitor might impose. (Suppose an inquisitor put fire ants on one’s face — or one’s children’s faces — and said, “If you brush off these fire ants, that means you deny Christ.” Would be we obliged to accept this interpretive framework and not brush them off?)

The act of stepping on an image of Jesus or Mary would seem to have an obvious meaning — but, like other acts, context may alter that meaning in unexpected ways. (To give a trivial example, some churches have mosaic floors with sacred images, including symbols of Christ. To walk across these is no act of desecration or apostasy.)

Midway through Silence, hidden Christians who have duly stepped on the fumie are unexpectedly subjected to a second test: Doubting the sincerity of their apostasy, a samurai commander requires them to spit on a crucifix and blaspheme the Virgin Mary. Inability to capitulate to this second test is what leads to the movie’s most prolonged martyrdom scene, with three believers lashed to crosses in the surf, succumbing over a period of days.

Later another official takes a startlingly different tack, telling captives that stepping on the fumie is “just a formality.” He goes on: “You don’t have to do it sincerely. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t betray your faith. I really don’t care. … Just touch it with your foot lightly if you like.”

The first incident with the follow-up test suggests a tacit understanding among the hidden Christians, at least, that stepping on the fumie does not really constitute apostasy — though this is problematic if authorities regard it as such. But what if everyone present, Christians and officials alike, tacitly or even explicitly recognize that treading on the fumie is not necessarily betraying the faith?

The words “just a formality” come back in the final crisis, as Rodrigues is urged to step on the fumie and end the suffering of the five peasants hanging upside down with their necks in stock-like platforms, their heads in pits full of putrescence. Refusing to capitulate with a formality is one thing if it means one’s own suffering and death; is it right to consign others to suffering and death over a formality?

Except it’s not “just a formality.” Whatever officials tell Rodrigues at the time, the next day they proclaim throughout the region that the last priest in Japan has apostatized. Every year he must renew his apostasy, taking written oaths along with the fumie ritual. With his one-time mentor Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), an apostate priest who now writes anti-Christian polemics, Rodrigues serves the magistrate by examining imported artifacts for Christian contraband.

Despite this, the novel implies that Rodrigues continues to covertly minister to those around him as best he can. This is less clear in the film, although we do see Rodrigues’ servant Kichijiro, who once betrayed him, come to him for absolution.

Silence depicts the development and refinement of a ruthless, nearly perfect machine for destroying Christian witness. What is the Christian response to this machine? Thousands of Christians professed their faith and died martyrs’ deaths. Others made compromises, trampled the fumie, and lived their faith in secret. It was due to the latter, in part, that Endo’s own faith came down to him.

Silence is many things: an indictment of Western imperialism and cultural chauvinism, a jeremiad for the ruthless ingenuity of Japanese cruelty, a hymn to Japanese martyrs and a tribute to hidden Christians. Thinking about it over the last several months, I confess, I’ve gone back and forth on what I think of the climax.

The cock crow, among other things, clearly frames Rodrigues’ act as a betrayal. Is it Jesus he betrays? Could he possibly have heard the voice of Jesus at the climax, and what would it mean if he did? However we answer these questions, we shouldn’t answer them too quickly.

See also
SDG Reviews Silence

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.