The Sinister Theology of Endo’s SILENCE

This past Wednesday, July 9, was the Feast of Saint Augustine Zhao and Companions, a group of 120 Christian priests, nuns, seminarians, and lay people martyred in China from 1648 to 1930. Sister Marie de Sainte-Nathalie, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary who was beheaded with her companions in 1899, was heard to say in going to her death: “Do not be afraid. Death is only God who is passing by.”

This silence of Jesus who passes by at the moment of persecution is the theme of Shusaku Endo’s elegantly written, gripping, and much-acclaimed 1966 novel, Silence (a film adaptation of which, directed by Martin Scorsese, will appear in 2015). The scene of Endo’s novel, however, is 17th-century Japan rather than China, and his missionaries young Portuguese Jesuits who set out to keep the light of Christianity burning in a country which, after initially embracing Christianity through the efforts of Saint Francis Xavier, now has outlawed it.

But a more substantial difference between Sister Marie de Saint-Nathalie and the protagonist of Endo’s tale, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, is that Rodrigues chooses, in a moment of great anguish, to trample on the fumie, a bronze image of Christ, and thus renounce his faith.

What, then, is Endo trying to say about the silent Christ who passes by at the moment of the martyr’s death? Is Silence a simple story of decline and fall, or does Endo find a deeper mystery in Rodrigues’ apostasy?

In persecuting Rodrigues, the Japanese authorities are cunning in making him witness the horrific physical suffering of Japanese Christian converts. If only he will step on the fumie, Rodrigues is told, then not only will his own persecution end, but also that of the Christian converts hanging in the “pit.” The authorities assure Rodrigues that they are only asking for an external sign of renunciation; they do not care what is in his heart.

In certain ways, Endo signals that Rodrigues is a simple traitor. As soon as Rodrigues steps upon the fumie we are told that “far in the distance the cock crew.” But then what are we to make of what Rodrigues hears just before? “And then 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 was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’”

Is this really the voice of Christ as he passes by the scene? I cannot think so. I believe it is the voice of Satan tempting Rodrigues to imagine that by betraying his Lord he will be serving him.

After trampling on the fumie Rodrigues lives on for another thirty years under a sufficiently comfortable under house arrest with his state-provided wife and boy. “I fell,” he confesses to himself. “But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith.” He admits his weakness, but he also professes, “that my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches.”

It is this kind of tortured theology that reveals Endo’s debt to Graham Greene, in particular the Greene of The Heart of the Matter. “No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege,” Rodrigues tells himself; “but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord.”


You can easily sympathize with the moment of Rodrigues’ weakness. What we can’t understand is his thirty-year acquiescence to the Japanese authorities, during which time he turns government informant and agrees to write a disavowal of Christianity. Is his “private understanding” with God meant to make up for these further betrayals? Or is Endo’s point that Rodrigues, despite his fall, has not put himself beyond the mercy and love of God?

Of course, God’s mercy is still available to Rodrigues, but the troubling thing about Silence is the split that occurs in Rodrigues after his apostasy between the faith he claims to keep in his heart and his habitual public renunciations of it. What is faith if it does not express itself in action? What is love if it is not, despite its falls, willing to die for the beloved? If Endo is speaking for himself through Rodrigues, then he is defending the indefensible.

About Silence Gregory Wolfe has written, “There are those who would read Silence and see it as an exercise in compromise and dilution.” What Endo is trying to explore, according to Wolfe, is the West’s arrogant perception of its “strength” as opposed to the East’s “weakness.”

I don’t think this captures all that Endo is up to in this novel. Endo also wants to explore what I would call the sinister possibility that Christian faith and love are internally conflicted, making a lack of integrity, at least in extreme circumstances, inevitable.

Though Rodrigues does show some contempt for Kichijiro, the pathetic, sometimes convert who ultimately betrays Rodrigues to the authorities, the pride Rodrigues manifests is not so much a disdain for the East as it is a refusal to possess himself and the integrity of his faith by making public witness of his love for Christ.

Christ is silent as he passes by because Rodrigues won’t open up his mouth to give him voice.

Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at

  • Haunter

    I understood this novel differently, so I wanted to offer my view for interested readers. The important thing to note from the outset is that Rodrigues’ apostasy becomes a possibility for him only when his fellow Christians, whom he feels responsible for, are to be administered horrific tortures. Thus, he pays a price for his redemption of others. Isn’t this also a parallel to Jesus’ own sacrifice; can’t we see in it echoes of the cry of dereliction? The cock crowed for Peter, too, who was both Jesus’ trusted disciple and a human liable to moments of extreme weakness. The point is, Christ’s redeeming sacrifice is enough to save the weak–which encompasses both Peter and Rodrigues, the faithful who deny him, and the naive and fickle Kichijiro who can’t seem to ever get it right. And this is the message the persecuted Christians of Japan ultimately needed. As Endo has said elsewhere, the Japanese Christian understanding of God was more maternal than paternal, and this may well have been because forgiveness and mercy were the constant requirement of a people who saw no way out other than to trample the image of either Jesus or Mary. In fact the mother Mary became the main focus of the underground Christian movement that remained in Japan until the formal ban on Christianity was lifted in the 19th century. In some places in Japan, Christian groups who had their origin in the early modern Catholic missions, and who persisted underground throughout Japan’s ban, still exist separately from the orthodox church. Among some of these communities, the colloquial term for Christian translates as “despised person”. I think Endo is really trying to paint an image of a Christian god who understands the plight of these despised people of the 17th century, and who would allow them to trample on manmade images of his visage in order to save them from a fate worse than death. The sacrifice of Christ was enough to redeem them, Endo seems to say, for a God in the business of salvation, and salvation never comes without sacrifice.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I read Silence, and it is a haunting book, one which I will read again…and perhaps again.

    One thing that stands out is that the Japanese Christians who were being tortured and killed were willing to die for Christ, and Rodrigues never acknowledges their courageous love of Christ, a love, like his own, all the way to death itself.

    Rodrigues is silent about their witness for Christ.

    The theme of being confronted with martyrdom, and being willing to die for the sake of Christ, the personification of the TRUTH, is brought out in the beginning of the novel, and Rodrigues and his Jesuit companions are preparing for their mission to Japan.

    Yet it is the converts who see and profess the value of the Gospel in their lives, and it is Rodrigues, alas, who first delivered the Gospel, who did not see, and thus, stopped professing.

    In this morning’s Gospel in Matthew, Jesus performs healing of several people, and Jesus always asks the same question first: “Do you believe that I can heal you?”

    Salvation in Christ, so great a salvation, is offered on one condition, as men of free will. We must answer Jesus’ question: “Do you believe in me?”

    Sadly, for Rodrigues, his response to Jesus was: Silence.

  • gsk

    @Haunter: your interpretation would make more sense if Rodrigues thought better of his betrayal later and reasserted his faith (as Peter did). Rather, he lived in his gilded cage for thirty years, hardly revealing a parallel journey with the man crucified upside down for preaching Christ.

    We must keep in mind that there is not only “a fate worse than death,” but also “a fate worse than torture,” which is eternal separation from God.

  • ron a.

    “It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” No! There is a much different pain to endure. “Take up thy cross and follow ME.” (Jesus Christ is the absolute focal point!) It was to allow us to share Jesus’ pain that He took up His cross—the cross that leads to Heaven.

  • Schm0e

    “But whoever disowns me before men…”

    I know, I know – its *so* much more complicated than that, right?

    Anyway, Scorcese strikes again.

  • Chris in Maryland

    And with gsk, ron a., and Schm0e, after we say yes to Christ, then Christ says to us “Take up your cross, and follow me.”

    Yet another part of the Gospel not featured by the neo-Gnostic peddlers of “re-engineered” Christianity.

  • Myshkin

    This novel must be placed in the context of time and place of its composition to grasp what the character of Rodrigues is really about. In 1966, the year of the novel’s publication, Japan was undergoing one of the greatest economic expansions the world has ever seen. Japanese GDP grew at 9.7% from 1960 to 1973, while the OECD average for those years was 4.9%. Recall that in 1964, Japan hosted the Summer Olympics and in 1970, the World Expo. It was reinventing itself as the leading place for industrial and high-tech manufacturing. It was the best of times.

    But many older Japanese saw that in the midst of all this material plenty, much was being lost. Many movements secular and religious either emerged or grew more prominent to provide a response to this sense of loss (Yukio Mishima’s Tatenokai was one of theses reposes). New types of Buddhist and Shinto groups (called Shinshūkyō) also became important (Soka Gakkai is perhaps the most well-known of these). Among some Catholics too there was an attempt to respond to the unprecedented material success in a spiritual manner. Endo’s work should be seen as an integral part of this Catholic response. His work drew up the autochthonous tradition of Kakure Kirishitans who, after being deprived of priests (partly due treachery of Protestant merchants who sabotaged the Catholic missions relationship with the Shogun), developed a hidden Christianity imbued with tropes of Buddhism and Shinto.

    Novels are not meant to function as theological treatises. But a good book on Endo’s theological outlook is “Christ in Japanese Culture: Theological Themes in Shusaku Endo’s Literary Works” by Emi Mase-Hasegawa. Readers of TCT will find much to ponder in Endo’s work.

  • Manfred

    @Mr. McInerny: Thank you for an excellent book review. It is my loss, but I have never enjoyed fiction, as the author controls the characters, the venues and ultimately my emotions. Rather than concern ourselves with fictional characters of three hundred years ago, why don’t you write a non-fiction best seller about Catholics who are being persecuted in the U.S. today? The Catholic at Chase Bank, e.g., who refuses to answer whether he supports LGBT, who travels great distances to participate in a Traditional Mass,who is persecuted by his pastor or bishop because he prefers to kneel and receive the Body of Christ on his tongue, who can’t secure a position on a hospital or college faculty because he will either not teach that sodomy is normal or that abortion is not murder, who has to be continually reviewing his children’s textbooks at public or catholic (sic) schools for either heterodoxy or immoral/unnatural sexuality. The Catholic who is always being reminded that he is the only parent who comes in to check the textbooks which the local bishop has approved, even after the parent has brought subjects in the books to the principal’s attention which the principal refuses to read aloud they are so unpleasant. There will be plenty of grist for the writer’s mill in the next few years.

  • Louise

    It’s been some years since I read this book but I interpreted the supposed words of Christ to be meant as a projection of Rodrigues’ own wishful thinking, rather than a theological statement by the author. But perhaps that was my own wishful thinking? I must have lent it out because I can no longer find it among my books so I can’t at the moment go back and reference the scene.

  • mjb881

    This is a beautiful expression of the great novel
    Esp the final paragraph
    I am not in agreement with what DM
    Says about endos purpose
    But all in all a deep look into the light
    Of grace in a dark world
    Hurray to DM !

  • Joe Dan Shelton

    I’ve just this evening finished “Silence”, and it is as you said, gripping and elegantly written. But I think with this statement,

    “What we can’t understand is his thirty-year acquiescence to the Japanese authorities, during which time he turns government informant and agrees to write a disavowal of Christianity.”

    you are confusing the characters of Ferreira and Rodriquez. It was Ferreira that was writing the disavowal of Christianity, not Rodriquez.

  • Mr N

    While there are many good points made in this review of Endo’s heartbreaking novel, I see it differently. For me, Father Rodrigues does make the ultimate sacrifice–he gives up his notion of a glorious martyrdom and his pride to save others who die needlessly–and he adopts as his own the shame of Christ himself. It is only when he treads upon the fumie that he truly understands this, and therein lies the novel’s power. Rodrigues is not exhibiting weakness, but strength. It should also be mentioned that the church is not deterred by Rodrigues’s apostasy; in fact, it thrives, without the trappings of ritual, underground, for centuries–a fact attested to by history and in Endo’s own life. This is a book that every Christian should read.