By Elijah Keay
“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Martin Scorsese loves to tell stories that deal with identity crises and deep personal struggles. Silence, while perhaps not his best movie but far from being his worst, draws out those crises and struggles in the protagonist, Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues, and in those religious viewers who vicariously put themselves in his shoes. The film is historical fiction based on a novel which includes one historical character: Jesuit Priest Cristóvão Ferreira.
The story recounts the journey of the two priests, Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe, as they journey through Japan in order to find and query their mentor and Japanese missionary, Fr. Ferreira, as to why he abandoned the Christian faith.
Throughout the movie there are important interfaith and colonial themes that are worth their own blog posts. However, right now I want to focus on the developments of forgiveness and love.
Kichijiro and the Question of Forgiveness
As the journey begins, Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe encounter a shabby Japanese man named Kichijiro. Kichijiro guides the priests to the tiny village of Tomogi, a community of “underground” Christians without a priest. It is during this time that the motif of confession and forgiveness steps center stage. The viewer must begin wrestling with the confessions of the unfaithful Kichijiro. Kichijiro confesses to Fr. Rodrigues that, while his family resolutely refused to trample upon the image of Christ and were subsequently burned alive upon pyres, he was too much of a coward and trampled upon the image.
Fr. Rodrigues absolves him, and perhaps from this point on, the viewer would expect to see in Kichijiro a courageous standard of Christianity.
But the film continues, indifferent to the expectations of its observers.
Kichijiro crumbles in the face of persecution repeatedly, almost without hesitation. He tramples upon the image of Christ, he spits on the crucifix, and, worst of all, betrays Fr. Rodrigues to the Japanese official inquisitors.
Each time he fails, however, he returns to Fr. Rodrigues in utter shame and self-loathing, admitting his cowardice and pleading with the priest to absolve him. At one point, he asks: “Will [God] forgive even me?”
It is at the lowest point of Kichijiro’s faltering that the imprisoned Rodrigues wonders if Jesus had felt anger towards Judas Iscariot, or if he had instead felt pity, and if Jesus could ever love a wretch like Kichijiro. And with that, the priest performs absolution for Kichijiro once again.
At this point, those belonging to the Christian faith should wonder: “How many times would Jesus be able to put up with Kichijiro’s denial and betrayal?” After all, according to Matthew, Jesus did say: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
Would Jesus “deny [Kichijiro] before his Father in heaven,” or would Jesus be able to find within himself the capacity to love a betrayer like Judas Iscariot?
Perhaps, we should, like Fr. Rodrigues, wonder if Jesus could love and forgive even Judas Iscariot, pitying him rather than disdaining him. Perhaps Jesus, when he spoke the words “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing,” had not only the jeering crowds in mind, but even the Judas Iscariots and the Kichijiros of this world. Is not such wondering vindicated by the tender interaction we see between Jesus and Peter who denied him three times?
Dealing with these issues is difficult enough, but the questions of forgiveness and love within Silence only become more complex under closer scrutiny.
“Apostatizing” and the Question of Love
When Tomogi’s elders learn that the inquisitors from Nagasaki are going to visit and determine whether or not the village is a bastion of the Christian faith, the elders tell the two priests that their refusal to “apostatize” from Christianity by stepping on the image of Christ may result not only in their deaths, but in the deaths of all the townsfolk. When asked for advice by one of the senior elders, Fr. Rodrigues distraughtly advises, “Trample. Trample.” Fr. Garupe, astonished by Fr. Rodrigues’ reply, urges them to remain faithful.
Later on in the film, Fr. Garupe is placed in a similar situation. The officials begin binding villagers and tossing them into the water from a boat as Fr. Garupe—screaming in horror—tries to swim out and save them. The inquisitors tell the observing yet imprisoned Fr. Rodrigues that to save the villagers lives, Fr. Garupe needs to forsake Christianity. Fr. Rodrigues begins yelling, “Apostatize! Apostatize!” but was too far to be heard, and, for Fr. Garupe, renunciation was not an option. Fr. Garupe drowns along with the bound villagers.
But all of this may just be a preparation for the finale.
One night, the imprisoned Rodrigues is distracted by what sounds like the guard snoring, and yells for someone to wake the guard, only to find out that this “snoring” is actually the sound of villagers hanging upside down, slowly and torturously dying.
Fr. Rodrigues—horrified at the sights and sounds of these poor humans—calls to them “Apostatize! Apostatize!” However, his new companion enlightens Rodrigues that the villagers had already recanted; they had already given up the faith. The only way for Rodrigues to stop the torture and slow death of the villagers is to trample on an engraved image of Christ.The villagers’ only hope of salvation was that this priest would turn his back on Christianity.
Fr. Rodrigues is in a frenzy. The film becomes silent as Rodrigues approaches the image of Christ. His teary eyes stare down at it, and for the first time he hears the voice of Jesus saying, “Come ahead now. It’s alright. Step on me…” Rodrigues places his filthy foot onto the image before falling to the ground, weeping.
There are some viewers who think Rodrigues’ action betrayed Christ and harmed the cause of Christ. Again, according to Matthew, Jesus did say: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven,” and, furthermore, Rodrigues was from then on publicly known as one of the “apostate priests.” Perhaps, these spectators would suggest, he should have encouraged the apostate sufferers to die with courage.
I get it.
And there’s a part of me that says with some resignation that perhaps Rodrigues did choose poorly. It is possible that the steadfast Fr. Garupe is the true hero in the story. Hopefully Jesus would reconcile Rodrigues like Jesus did with Peter who denied him three times.
But then I think to myself, “Fr. Rodrigues’ sacrifice wasn’t out of selfishness or cowardice like Peter’s or like Kichijiro’s.” Rodrigues denies Christ so that the villagers might live and go free. So is scripture silent when it comes to forsaking Christianity for the lives of others then?
Maybe. However, I can’t help but look at this from a different angle.
What if—bear with me now—what if Fr. Rodrigues’ sacrifice was one of the most selfless sacrifices that any human could make?
Let me explain.
Yes, Jesus did, according to Matthew’s narrative, say: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” I won’t argue with that. So one could surmise that Fr. Rodrigues’ denial of Christ will indeed cost him eternal bliss in heaven.
But here is where things get complicated for me.
According to John, Jesus stated: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and in Romans, Paul writes, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people…”
What if Fr. Rodrigues believed that he was laying down his hopes of eternal life by betraying Christ… for the sake of others? What if—rather than ending his life—Fr. Rodrigues decided to be accursed for the villagers’ sakes?
Would such an apparent scandal for Christianity be so different from the scandal of Christ’s crucifixion that appeared so foolish to the wisdom of the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews?
I can’t help but think that Rodrigues’ ultimate sacrifice—giving up the hopes of eternal life—for the sake of these Japanese villagers is an act of love that would speak in a powerfully Christ-like manner to all observers and to all of those who heard about it.
And if this is the case, what does God think of such a sacrifice on the behalf of others? Is it really a sin that needs to be forgiven? How could it be possible that such a Christ-like act of selfless love for the well-being of others is an unforgivable sin that disqualifies one from entering eternal bliss?
The story of Silence doesn’t end there, and, in fact, I left out quite a few important themes and events found throughout the movie. But as I stated earlier, my intention was to examine the themes of forgiveness and love.
And I think that, while such circumstances are extreme and likely not to happen to any of us, they teach us something about forgiveness and love.
Throughout the entirety of the film, Fr. Rodrigues beautifully displays obedience to Christ by forgiving continually and loving his enemy without seeking revenge or retribution. But that raises more difficult questions for us. If we are commanded to forgive infinitely and love our enemies, what do such commands imply about God who, according to Christians, is love? And if, like Kichijiro, we do fail repeatedly and miserably, do we believe that God forgives us and loves us in the same manner that we are called to forgive and love others?
In fact, a closer look at one passage may show us that loving our enemy and forgiving our offender does in fact stem from God’s example. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Perhaps Jesus didn’t mean keeping certain rules and regulations when he stated: “Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but rather wanted us to have a complete love of those who are our enemies as well as those who are our friends.
But let’s go one step further.
We might, like Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, be willing to lay down our lives to save the lives of others. We might be willing to withstand much pain in order to show our dedication to a person, a task, or an idea. But are we willing to part with convictions and values out of love for the well-being of our fellow humans as long as the laying down of such beliefs does not, to the best of our understanding, also hurt others?