Over the last few weeks, I’ve tried several times to write a post about Silence by Shusaku Endo, but I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts into any coherent structure. I don’t think any short blog post can do this novel justice, but here we go.
If you’ve never heard of this novel before, it was written in 1966, and it tells the story of Jesuit missionaries who faced extreme persecution in Japan in the seventeenth century. This book is troubling in a lot of ways–mainly because the subject matter is intense and sometimes difficult to read. It’s also troubling because it’s one of those books that makes you think about your beliefs in a new, uncomfortable way.
The book focuses on a young Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues who goes to Japan as a missionary. He goes not only to spread the gospel, but also to investigate reports that a former teacher of his has apostatized and denied Christ. Because of the nature of the book, I’ll go ahead and give you a spoiler alert–I’m not sure how to talk about the novel without discussing the ending, so if you’re hoping to read it with fresh eyes, maybe save this post for later!
Rodrigues, who is based on a real person, was difficult to identify with at first. He is fascinated by the idea of martyrdom in a way that is foreign to me. He knows that entering a spiritually dark country whose government is opposed to Christianity will likely bring about trials, but he seems to take pride in that inevitability. He imagines Jesus’ death and other martyrs’ deaths as moments of supreme beauty and transcendence.
The more he sees and learns about life in Japan, however, the more he begins to question God’s goodness. As the novel progresses, Rodrigues cries out to God and questions why He is silent, even when His people are facing torture and crying out for deliverance. As he watches the people he has come to know and care for be tortured, he is faced with an incredible moral dilemma–should he recant his faith publicly to save the lives of others, or should he hold fast and watch them be killed because of his faith?
He realizes that persecution, torture, and martyrdom are not beautiful, glorious moments. The tortures the Japanese officials invented were brutal and humiliating, and their deaths were painful and full of suffering. Rodrigues’ questions are valid: where is God when these things happen to His people? Why is He silent in those desperate moments? These are questions that don’t have answers on this side of eternity–at least not for me. I’d argue that there are no answers to be found in the novel, either.
For Rodrigues, the final moments come after he realizes how horrendous the suffering and pain of persecution are. In Japan, it was common for Christians to be forced to trample on a carved image of Jesus called a fumi-e as a public declaration of their apostasy. At the climax of the novel, Rodrigues hears Jesus speak to him from the fumi-e: “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”
Rodirigues, exhausted by months of uncertainty and silence, tramples on the face of Jesus and recants his faith in order to save the lives of others.
And I still don’t know what to make of it.
I’d like to believe that I could withstand a similar situation without recanting. Is that prideful? Is that like Rodrigues at the beginning of the novel feeling strong in his own faith and confident in his own abilities? Is that like Peter saying “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” before denying Jesus three times? I’m not sure. There are a lot more questions in this novel than there are answers.
One thing I can say for certain is that this novel paints a beautiful picture of Jesus. I read this book right before Easter, and it made me even more thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus did come to be trampled over. He bore all the suffering that we couldn’t, and He took on all the punishment for our disobedience and betrayal. Ultimately, God is not silent forever, He speaks through His final word: His Son.