I recently watched “Silence,” the latest Martin Scorsese film, based on the novel written by Shusaku Endo. It was a deeply troubling movie. The film portrays the fictional story of a 17th Century Jesuit Missionary from Portugal named Father Sebastian Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) who sets sail for Japan in 1640, determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians of Japan. Christianity was first introduced to Japan by Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1549 and for the next fifty years began to grow in influence and popularity while it was largely tolerated by the Japanese court. Problems between the Catholic church and the Japanese Emperors came to a head in 1587, when Shogun Hideyoshi ordered the expulsion of all Jesuit missionaries and then later crucified twenty-six Christians as a warning to any remaining believers. The Emperor would not tolerate further political interference from the Church. Later bans against the Jesuits failed to slow the church’s growth and the haphazard executions of believers only created more martyrs for the faith. The arrival of English and Dutch Protestants who were antagonistic toward the Spanish and Portuguese speaking Catholics, along with the coming to power of Shogun Ieyasu created an explosion of violent persecution toward Christians. In 1614, a second expulsion order was issued and this time, any missionaries still found in the country were brutally physically and psychologically tortured in an effort to get them to deny the faith. Later, in 1632, the Catholic world was shocked to learn that Father Christovao Ferreira, (played by Liam Neeson in the movie) the leader of the underground Portuguese mission in Japan, had apostatized and was even collaborating with the Buddhist provincial governors. This is the context in which the fictional story “Silence” is set. Rodrigues and a colleague travel to Japan to assist the Christians there, and hopefully learn the truth about their mentor Father Ferreira.
The first unsettling thing about the movie (and the book for that matter) is the whole struggle surrounding the question, “How can God allow such terrible suffering to happen?” How can God be all-loving, and all-powerful and still allow the prayers of thousands of suffering Christians to go unanswered? That same question is still one that haunts people today. By the turn of the early 17th Century, there were almost half a million Christians in Japan but today only a vanishingly small percentage of the population would identify with any Christian faith. Where was God when the Christian faith was being exterminated from Japan? Today there are many who ask, where is God as the Christian faith is being erased from places like Iraq and Syria by ISIS and other extremist groups? It seems that God is either all-loving and not all that powerful, or that God is all-powerful and not all that loving.
This is where the movie gets its title from. Christians suffer through horrible torture and desperately pray for deliverance and sometimes, what they get from God is silence. Most of us, at one time or another, have felt the pain of waiting on God’s response to our prayers. It is not a “yes;” it is not a “no;” it is silence. How do we deal with God’s silence?
The Psalms are filled with David’s and other writer’s cries to God,
To you, Lord, I call;you are my Rock, do not turn a deaf ear to me.For if you remain silent, I will be like those who go down to the pit.Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help,as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. (Psalm 28:1-2)
Some of the darker psalms are filled with pained cries, some of them speaking out of darkness and horror. The Bible pulls no punches when it speaks of dealing with God’s silence. We are often left bewildered at God’s actions-or his failed actions in the world. The Scriptures give us one word of advice, and it is probably not what you want to hear. “Wait. ”
The book of Job is an ancient account of the collision of contemporary wisdom and godly instruction on the topic of suffering. Job loses everything and his friends respond with the contemporary wisdom of the day: “Good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. If you are suffering, it is because you have committed sin. Say your sorry and God will make good things happen again.” Job refuses to accept this picture of reality. Life doesn’t work like that! Through it all, Job suffers, but he does not despair. He is not happy with his lot in life but he is not fatalistic about it either. He suffers bitterly but he doesn’t give up hope. In Job 13: 15 we read him reply “Though [God might] slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” Here Job is saying that the world doesn’t make sense to him but God is still good.
Endo’s book and Scorsese’s film provides no cheap and easy comfort either (thought the film does give us a subtle glimmer of hope at the end). History, however does have something to say about the true legacy of the Portuguese mission to Japan.
Unfortunately, we now have letters written by Jesuits Alessandro Valignano and Francisco Cabral, who served in Japan in the late 16th century, which reveal that the missionary’s motivations were not entirely trustworthy. There were eager to spread the teachings of the Catholic church, but they were also active supporting the colonial interests of Portugal. In the late 16th century, many missionaries were actively involved in plots to overthrow the Emperor and establish Japan as a Portuguese colony. Other missionaries were active in the slave trade, working with Japaneses Diamyos to capture and sell Japanese villagers around the world. (For more about the sad reality of the darker side of the missionary’s interests see this review of the film)
The more one reads about the wicked colonial interests of some (definitely not all) of the missionaries in Japan in the 16th century, the more familiar it sounds when we consider Western military interference in the Middle East. Imagine what we will know about the American-Iraqi War effort a hundred years from now. Similarly, I also wonder what is really behind the current struggle in Syria. It could be that Syrian and Iraqi Christians have suffered bitterly more because of selfish Western political interference than because of anything else. Has God abandoned Christians in Bagdad, Mosul and Aleppo, or are we watching the consequences of governments sins over the past 30 years? It becomes a much more complicated picture when you consider how we are sometimes implicated in our own suffering. If God had intervened and kept the Americans out of Iraq in the 1990s we would have rejoiced or would we have cried out “How long O Lord? How long will evil people like Saddam Hussein be allowed to stay in power?”
Sometimes God is silent because we could not understand anything else. Sometimes God is silent because we couldn’t bear to hear the truth. In times of struggle and great suffering we can trust two things. Firstly that God is morally good in ways that we cannot fully understand, and secondly that God knows what it means to suffer. God knows first hand what it means to suffer because he-in the form of Jesus Christ- has lived, and suffered injustice, and died as a human being himself. God has also raised this same Jesus as a witness that there is life beyond the grave, not just silence. God is silent, but not forever.