This is a guest post by Becky Nightingale. She is a CoE Ordinand training at St Hild and St Bede, Durham. She blogs @ https://inspiredinyork.wordpress.com/
The new film, Silence, by Martin Scorcese focuses on the story of a group of Jesuit priests who go into Japan against the wishes of their elders to find their former mentor who has effectively been ex-communicated for ‘renouncing his faith’ and to continue his mission to spread the Christian message. It’s based on a novel, by Endō and is set in the 1630s, by which time there was already a ban on all foreign missionaries from entering Japan and on all Japanese from leaving. This continued until the 1860’s.
The film is quite difficult to watch. It’s long and full of very graphic descriptions of torture. The most difficult scenes involve Christians being strung up on crosses and slowly dying whilst their friends and family watch. It is beautifully shot, but not in the same glossy way many movies are used as publicity for the country’s tourist board. The plot is painfully slow, and not much happens for a long time. This perhaps reflects life in Japanese villages was actually like in the 17th Century, and the limited ‘underground’ communication available.
The theological climax of the film is in describing the cultural arrogance of the Jesuits in presuming their God, their Jesus can supplant Buddha. They describe Japan like a swamp in which Christianity cannot grow, a plant that won’t take root. The missionaries point out that destroying the land and turning it into a swap is an effective way of stopping the word of God from growing, but even in this context the word of God, the single truth cannot be stopped. It does make you feel uncomfortable in our most-modern world, to think of imposing all our cultural values on a different country. The juxtaposition of these rational debates with ever increasingly more graphic and inhuman torture is really quite distressing. There is no neat sewing up of the issues, no justification of faith, just a lot of people’s lives being lost, because they will not stamp on a plate with Jesus’ face. It made me wonder why we are not more shocked and distressed by the torture and killing of Christians that started with Jesus, but continues today. And also why we are so glib about suffering in general?
The use of iconography and the symbols of religion are really powerful in this context. The simple cross, the sharing of communion, the act of silent prayer, the hidden items that are stashed away in a statue of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. These all become enormously significant when any outward indication of Christianity can lead to your death. I’m training to be a priest at the moment, and I am in a new anglo-catholic context, and watching the film for the first time I felt the need to cross myself in respect of these innocent people dying in the name of the Lord.
At the end of the film there is again no theological wrap-up, it’s left open for us to think about. What is one person’s life worth to God, should we risk other people’s lives in the name of Jesus. How can we make sure the redemptive gospel is heard when it brings death and destruction at the same time? While Christianity was effectively wiped out in Japan at this time, 250 years later when missions started to visit Japan again, they found people living as secret Christians even without a visible outlet for sharing their faith.