Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Silence—a novel by Shusaku Endo and now a film by Martin Scorsese—is a story that depicts humanity as wretched, priests as isolated, and missionary work as disillusioning and dissatisfying. Its teller does not trust God, even though he longs to. This mentality of desiring affirmation from God breeds resentment and bitterness, especially in the context of terrible trial and tribulation. Missionaries and Christians suffer unspeakably throughout the course of this story. The pity and sympathy felt for them is overwhelming—but they are not vindications to put the Lord to the test. In this way, Silence pits charity against faith and hope. It makes apostasy seem a reasonable and even righteous option to prevent suffering. It invites, it even tempts, the acceptance that ends justify means and that man can make decisions that God refuses to make. God’s allowance is not His will, however, and just because one disagrees with what God permits, it is never permissible to assume the inscrutable mind of God when He does not act according to hope. Silence presents a fundamental misunderstanding of God, of human suffering, and missionary sacrifice which foments a persecution complex.
For nearly three decades, Martin Scorsese planned to create a film based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence—a work of historical fiction about the brutal persecution and martyrdom of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan. At long last, the master director has completed Silence. Though more or less panned by the critics, Silence is perhaps Scorsese’s passion piece in his quest to pin down religious truth, even by force. For those who have not read Endo’s painful and punishing book, or those unfamiliar with the violent struggle of faith in many of Scorsese’s films, be wary. Both artists wrestle with God with a robustness that can be reckless and can provoke the inclination some have to receive divine approval for their sufferings—manifestations beyond the revelation of Scripture and the Cross.
Martin Scorsese met Pope Francis after a Vatican screening of Silence to hundreds of Jesuit priests. It is interesting to see the man who directed the blasphemous The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and the filthy The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), clasping hands smilingly with the Vicar of Christ. Yet, there is hope. Mr. Scorsese is clearly on a quest through mean streets for truth, and especially religious truth. Once a hopeful priest himself, entering a minor seminary in New York before turning to a film career, Scorsese is a man and an artist seeking God with a broken spirit in a broken world. He has been searching for an age of innocence among taxi drivers, raging bulls, and good fellas for decades. His notable film, and perhaps his masterpiece, The Departed (2006) is engaged and even engrossed with the dangerous and mysterious interplay of good and evil in a morally muddied world, as though desperately trying to glimpse God in a sea of devilry. Mr. Scorsese has now offered audiences his long-awaited interpretation of Shusaku Endo’s conundrum of Catholicism, Silence—but if Scorsese’s conclusion corresponds with Endo’s, Catholic moviegoers should brace themselves.
The dilemma of Silence is dangerous because it dwells upon dangerous states of soul. Its conflict arises quickly and purposefully, like a handgrip on the throat. Though valiant in many ways, the protagonist is a missionary priest who does not understand the truth of suffering or the true meaning of martyrdom—he does not know the face of Truth. As readers follow him through hiding, capture, and torture, they are forced with him to an unimaginable crisis point where he must make an unimaginable decision. He stands collapsing and convulsing over a sunken, exhausted image of Christ with orders to trample on the face ringing in his ears together with the groans of Christians hung by their feet bleeding through incisions behind their ears. Only his foot, his apostasy, can end it all. What would God want? What would He say? Why is He silent?
Throughout his ordeals, the priest voices the doubts, fears, and frustrations of those who struggle with the faith. Silence batters at the gates of heaven with both complaint and criticism as it wrangles with the problem of evil, of suffering, of martyrdom, and the silence of God through it all. It longs for glory when there is only grime. It longs for praise when there is only pain. It longs for heroism, to be like Christ, when man is only weak and pathetic. It longs for divine support, but there is only silence—silence through atrocious human suffering. The great and grim silence of a great and grim God, a God Who folds His arms while men cry in anguish. A God as impassive as the samurai. Though Christ is shown ultimately to be a sharer and sympathizer in human suffering, the Christ in Silence consents to and commands what Christ would never consent to or command. Silence is a powerful story with a poisonous message.
The two central problems with Silence are, it gives strong voice to divine embitterment, criticism, and even contempt; and it concludes with a subjective interpretation of divine duty. When the priest realizes that he is not resilient enough to be like Christ, he chooses to become like Judas. When he looks on the face of Christ and fails to recognize Him, the priest succumbs to betrayal, and it is then that the silence is broken—by the sound of a cock crowing. Silence represents a persuasive pessimism as it misrepresents the Catholic Faith. The fall of man is cause for despair. Suffering is God’s fault. Humanity is barely worth saving. Christianity is incompatible with happiness. God is cold and silent while mankind writhes and wails, “There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering… Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent…?” The persecution complex stews and spews.
But God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, nor the fire. The still small voice is God’s and it is not one to break the silence. Without silence, there would be no occasion for faith and it is in the silence, in the darkness, that Christians must go gaily and rejoicing. The silence of God is essential to faith; it is not an argument against faith, though Silence uses it to make eloquent argument. This story is difficult and dangerous in Endo’s voice and it will be difficult and dangerous in Scorsese’s because both are good artists with impaired vision. There is a danger involved in looking at the world honestly, and an even greater danger in representing it honestly, because reality is not always benign or clear.
Silence fails in Catholic artistic responsibility, for it tells a tale of tortured theology that can shake and shatter faith in the face of persecution. Scorsese may hunger for truth as an artist and as a man, but if he has decided that Silence tells the truth, his film will do more to demoralize and devastate than enlighten and encourage. Though Shusaku Endo attempts to offer a redemptive crumb, Silence seeks to rationalize and make excuse rather than stand firm in the Faith. There is enough relativism persecuting the Church today. A powerful story by a powerful storyteller that upholds this position can only psychologically beleaguer the faithful further.
No Christian should glory or grumble in their persecution, but offer these to the greater glory of God, for in this only is gladness and rejoicing. This is the foretaste of the promised reward, a rejoicing in spiritual things now and to come—which gladness will be perfected in the kingdom of heaven. Many are the ways to be a martyr because many are the ways of persecuting. What is important is not the form or source of persecution, but the martyrdom. It is not important who or what persecutes, or how—but why. Make no mistake, Catholics are under persecution and Silence may be a further invitation towards either a growing apostasy or a growing sense of indignation over the lack of divine recognition in persecution. Stand firm in faith.