Some Thoughts About Silence
What can be written about Catholic film director Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Silence? Various film critics have praised the acting, the development of the plot and the major characters, the cinematography, and the beautiful scenery in the movie. Some critics have said the movie is too long, too gory, and that the best part doesn’t come until the end. Even then the movie does not resolve the basic theological dilemma of the plot. Perhaps Scorsese wants his audiences to think about this weighty dilemma on their own. Never having reviewed a movie, what follows are my comments on the movie. I will also suggest a possible historical parallel between Scorsese’s Japan of the 17th century, and modern China in the 21st century.
Silence is a long movie: 161 minutes. I watched a matinee performance, and perhaps because of the time of day, found myself dozing off in the first half of the movie. Scorsese must have believed that a long background was necessary for the important discussion in the second part of the movie.
Second, this movie depicts people being tortured, so yes it is a gory movie. But Scorsese is known for his many gory movies. Perhaps American audiences today, like the ancient Romans who enjoyed watching violence and death in their arenas, have become used to violence as a part of their country’s violent history.
Silence, the movie, is based on the historical novel “Silence” written by Japanese author Shusaku Endo in 1966. Endo had personally experienced persecution and violence in his own life. Born in Tokyo in 1923, his parents moved to Manchuria (a part of China invaded by Japanese armies in 1931-2 and that today that borders North Korea). After his parents divorce, Endo and his mother moved back to Japan in 1933 and converted to Catholicism.
As the violence escalated into World War 2, Endo was persecuted as a Christian. Although a very small percentage of the total population, (today accounting for less than 1% of Japan) Christians were perceived to be allies of the hated Western world and thus enemies of Japan. Endo later experienced racial prejudice as a Japanese when he studied at the University of Lyons in Catholic France from 1950 to 1953.
In his 1973 book “A Life of Jesus”, Endo attempted to”dewesternize” Christianity so it would be more acceptable to Japanese people. One commentator notes that Endo’s Jesus “…emerges as a more Asian messiah, one whose humanity and spirit of self giving love are given more prominence than his supernatural relationship with an absent “Father in Heaven". This may explain why in the movie, an older apostate Jesuit (Liam Neeson) explains to a younger Jesuit that the Japanese can relate more to the Sun of God than to the Son of God.
The movie Silence (filmed in Taiwan) takes place during the persecutions of Christians in the 1630-40 era by Japanese shoguns (military dictators appointed by the emperor). Although not exactly for the same reasons but equally violent, the persecutions in Japan depicted in Silence took place at about the same time as that of Jesuit missionaries such as Fr. Jean de Brebeuf and many indigenous Christians in present day Canada and the United States. The 1991 movie Black Robe did a good job of showing this violence and persecution.
Japanese shoguns were worried that Christian missionaries would destroy their country’s unity and independence. European traders, governments and their armies would follow the missionaries and eventually colonize Japan, just as Europeans had done in the Philippines and other parts of Asia. Hence, tens of thousands of Japanese Christian converts and priests were martyred and missionaries were forbidden to enter Japan. This policy lasted until 1853 when Japan slowly opened its country to trade with the world
Silence examines the very difficult choice faced by Jesuit missionaries of saving one’s life by renouncing one’s faith by ceremoniously stepping on a portrait of Jesus. Christians had/have been taught many articles of faith, including “ take up the cross” and follow Jesus, but also that “ my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” They have been taught that Jesus is the Lamb of God who died for our sins and thus brought salvation to the world.
But Jesus also taught his followers to love one another and here is the theological dilemma faced by the Jesuit missionaries in Silence. If the Jesuits personally renounced their faith, then their Japanese converts, seeing the example of their priests, would also renounce Christianity and thus not be executed. The lives of the Japanese converts would thus hinge on the Jesuit’s love for their converts. But as the movie shows, for their leadership these Jesuits would henceforth sadly regard themselves as apostates.
Finally, consciously intended or not, Scorsese’s movie may be viewed as a possible historical parallel between 17th century Japan and 21st century China. Today the great powerful Asian country is once again China, not Japan. Historically China had entered a decline that began in the 1840s during the Opium Wars, and was followed by further European colonization, civil war, Japanese invasion and occupation in World War 2, and the ultimate victory in 1949 of Mao Zedong’s Communist armies over Chiang Kai- shek’s American supported Nationalist armies (whose remnants are now on the island of Taiwan, 300 kms. offshore of China).
Economic and social progress in China has been amazing since Mao’s misguided Cultural Revolution, and the gradual opening of China to capitalism after Mao’s death. It is estimated that over 200 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. And yet there are signs today that people who criticize the government worry Chinese President Xi’s Communist Party government. Criticism and human rights protests are seem as a threat to the Party and subsequently to the unity and independence of China including all the progress that has been made by the government in the last 30 years.
The people of Hong Kong, now part of China, and the people of Taiwan, fear the future loss of their democratic freedoms. Some of the estimated 25 million Christian Chinese and members of much smaller religious groups such as Falun Gong also fear for their future. These religious groups today may have more members than the Communist Party of China and hence are perceived to be a threat to the Chinese government.
Proud of their resurrection as being once more a great world power, China may seem to be of the same mind as Scorsese’s Japanese shoguns in 17th century Japan. Add to this dangerous analysis the unpredictable trade and military policies of new American President Trump, and the Christians of China may soon be in a very difficult position. God bless the people of the world, and perhaps especially the Chinese Christians.