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.