One of the books that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time, but which I finally sat down to read this Lent is Silence, by Shusaku Endo.

Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s foremost novelists, and he wrote from the perspective of a Japanese Roman Catholic.  Sometimes referred to as  Japan’s Graham Greene, Endo’s novels engage in questions such as how Christians should engage a culture when that culture is foreign.

That he addressed such questions is not surprising; I read in one piece about him that “The Christian faith never did rest easily on Endo’s shoulders. Ever since his baptism at the age of 11 at the behest of his mother, Endo often spoke of a faith as awkward as a forced marriage, as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes. ‘This clothing did not suit me,’ he later wrote. ‘The clothes and my body were not made for each other.'”  In the novel, he has a Japanese officer argue to the protagonist that  “A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed.  As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and not bud appears.”  (Later in the book, a former Catholic priest makes the same argument to the protagonist.)

A novel of historical fiction, Silence is the story of a Jesuit missionary who endured persecution in Japan, and most of the book is written in the form of a letter written by him. As many people know, although early efforts to bring Christianity to Japan met with some success, Christianity was outlawed in the early part of the 17th Century, ushering in a period of great persecution of Christians.  The priest is presented (or at least sees himself), particularly in the latter part of the book, as a Christ figure, and Endo gives us a Judas figure in the form of the Japanese man who betrays the priest and other Japanese Christians.

The “silence” of the title is the silence of God in the face of suffering.  God’s silence is remarked on a various times, but becomes almost unbearable when the priest is in prison hearing the sounds of Japanese Christians who are being tortured.  They are being tortured, not so that they will renounce Christianity – they have already done so under the strain of the torture, but so that he will.  If the missionary is willing to step on an image of Christ, they will be released.

In the pain of that situation, the priest prays, “Lord, it is now that you should break the silence.  You must not remain silent.  Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love.  You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.”  As his mind remembers others who have died in Japan for their faith, he recalls that then, too, God was silent.  Why, he asks, “Why is God continually silent while those groaning voices go on?”  As question that has been asked at so many times by so many people who suffer or witness suffering.

In fact, the silence goes on.  God’s silence is not broken until the moment when the priest is led to the image of Christ and encouraged to step on it.  At that point, as he looks at the image, “the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot.  Trample!  It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.  It is to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”  And so the priest placed his foot on the image.

Was his act of apostatsy a sin?  The priest does not believe so, although he knows he will be judged harshly by those that hear of his act.  I suspect Endo himself may not believe so.  Earlier in the book we read, “Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies.  Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

Whatever one’s judgment of the protagonist’s actions, the book will offer much to reflect about – with respect to faith, suffering and the effect to spread Christianity to other cultures.


4 thoughts on “Silence

  1. God’s silence broken, “Trample!” speaks clearly of the Good Shepherd’s call to each of us.

    “Earlier in the book we read, ‘Sin is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.’ ”

    Does passionate vitriol expressed in sinfulness proclaimed, rhetoric boisterous, demonstration occasionally destructive, legislation self-serving, . . . heal wounds of struggle and suffering of a woman contemplating or having undergone an abortion – of a same-sex individual contemplating revealing their secret to family, loved ones, friends and co-workers – of one leaving an often abusive or violent marriage uncertain if they are worthy to partake of the Eucharist – or of the many other concerns buried deep within the caves and crevasses of our hearts and minds?

    For those who have chosen and donned the mantel of ‘shepherd,’ too many choose to expediently ‘scold’ while categorizing behavior’s apparent appearances as sin – instead of compassionately formulating message(s) delivered to draw the flock to the ‘shepherd.’

    Sins and / or transgressions need be enumerated, though it is quite obvious many who shepherd are “quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”

  2. For me, Endo’s work reaches beyond Christianity in Japan to confront its uneasy fit with the modern world. God’s silence in the face of man’s inhumanity to man seems more than mere absence of evidence of God’s existence: it seems to be positive evidence of God’s nonexistence. This is the chief theological problem of the modern age, and Endo’s work confronts it with a frankness and vividness matched by few others.

    But Endo’s work does more than explore theodicy. He also explore’s the upside-downness of the Christ vision and its corresponding ethic by placing it in Japan’s pragmatic, this-worldly culture. The companion and foil to Silence is his novel Wonderful Fool, which tells the story of a buffoonish, teenaged, French, devotee of St FraUncis who visits a pen pal in modern Tokyo and gets drawn into a noir-like mystery. Nothing about the way of Jesus makes sense in the modern world, yet when confronted by it, even modern people can’t take their eyes off of it. It speaks to some dormant spark in the psyche of even the most hardened, secular, skeptical modern materialist. Endo demonstrates this vividly in WF.

    Thanks for invitation to think about Endo, Susan!

  3. What is character and goodness if not the ability to make ethical choices? The idea that pictures and images of Christ were not in themselves Christ but a reminder was well established in the early Church. While I understand the broader cultural question Endo asks, the idea of walking on a picture versus ending torture to others does not represent a difficult ethical choice but an artificial one for me.

    If his idea is to portray the externals of religion which are somewhat culture bound as proof against God’s existence, I cannot disagree more. If his idea of God needing to act directly to counteract every instance of intense suffering, he misses the whole message of Jesus and the New Testament.

    It is one thing to say God allows suffering, another to say God causes suffering. It is one thing to say God experiences suffering as Endo suggests versus God is with us in our suffering. Most theologians would say God does not suffer, except through the life and death of Jesus on earth which is over; but God acts compassionately toward those who suffer.

    I wonder how much we project our silence unto God? Is it the old quest to tell God what to do rather than do what we can to alleviate our own and others suffering? Or to ask God in prayer to be with us in suffering? I probably won’t read the book, although I am intrigued by the comparison to Graham Greene.

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