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.