Scene from "Silence"

Scene from “Silence”

By pastor Marre Ishii 

In my capacity as a senior pastor of a Protestant Christian church in Japan, I was invited to a screening of the film “Silence.” At the end of the film, the director, Martin Scorsese, dedicated his film to people like me, noting that the work was “for Japanese pastors.”

As one of those “Japanese pastors,” I was trying to make sense of this dedication. Was he trying to encourage people like me to continue to work to convey the Gospel of Christ, or was he urging us to become like the protagonists in the film, to be ready to give up our outward expressions of faith when faced with oppression that could one day come again?

When I was in my teens, I read “Silence,” the book upon which this movie is based, in my high school history class. In class we discussed the book with great interest and intensity. Our teacher began the discussion by declaring, “Today’s lesson is entitled: ‘There is no God.'” We were dumbfounded. Why was this topic being covered in a history class? Then he added, “There is no God because God did not help the Christians who were persecuted during the Edo period.”

He told us about how severely Christians were persecuted during the time in which the fictional “Silence” takes place and declared: “If God is omnipotent, He could have saved them, and If God is love, He should have saved them.”

That echoed the cries of those who persecuted the Christians in Japan back then when they told the believers: “If Deus is god, he will help you!” And today, Christianity’s impact here has been minimal, as the Christian population is less than 4 percent.

At the age of 17, after reading “Silence,” I agreed with my teacher’s conclusion that there was, indeed, no God, but one of my classmates disagreed, crying and shouting to the entire class, “No, this is wrong!”

“What’s wrong with you?” I asked her. “If you believe in God, then why didn’t he help them?”

She didn’t have an answer for me but kept crying and repeating herself: “This is wrong! This is wrong!”

Although I didn’t believe in him, I was nonetheless angry at this God who did not help those innocent Japanese followers of His. I was also keenly aware that this tragedy wouldn’t have taken place in the first place if foreigners hadn’t come to Japan as missionaries and, as a result, many Japanese experienced unjust suffering, and the God they embraced abandoned them to their fate. Who would believe in this if this was Christianity? Not me. I felt fierce hatred toward Christianity.

The anger and doubt I had toward the Catholic missionary efforts during the era of white colonization are the same emotions that many Japanese people have when it comes to the topic of the persecution of the hidden Japanese Christians. For those who have a strong attachment to Japanese culture and traditions, these feelings are intensified. The release of “Silence,” far from making most Japanese interested in Christianity, on the contrary only serves to further drive them away from any interest in the God of the Bible. And yet, this film is dedicated to the clergy in Japan? Surely, Mr. Scorsese is being ironic.

The author of “Silence,” Shusaku Endo, is known as one of the Catholic literary giants of Japan, but, strangely, he wrote that he did not voluntarily accept this religion for himself. Instead, he wrote, it was like clothes he was forced to wear by his mother. She forced him to be baptized as a Catholic and, perhaps as a result, he struggled with the burden he was subjected to and continued to question and wrestle with the Catholic faith, which he felt did not fit in Japan. But he continued to be a Catholic, out of respect for his mother.

It’s also important to note that he expressed serious doubts about the resurrection of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible, believing that “Jesus was revived in his disciples’ hearts.” This meant that he never knew what it was like to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit as the Bible tells us in Acts 1:8 we can be. And so he suffered, and it might be said that this book and film is a record of his own anguish, the anguish of a life that knows only suffering without resurrection.

There is great suffering over the negative history of the Catholic Church, which is a part of Japanese history. “Why was God silent in the midst of this tragedy in history?” But this is not limited to the Catholics; it can be applied to other tragedies that affected other religions and races. Jews have also no doubt asked, “Why did God allow the Holocaust?” For Africans, the question might be, “Why did God allow us to become slaves?” In the contemporary history of the United States, “Why didn’t God prevent 911?” These are questions that all believers of different faiths have asked of their gods at one time or another, pointing toward the ultimate question: “Why was God silent when I needed His help the most?”

Those who are mature in their faith, often after much soul searching, eventually come to the conclusion that they will still trust in God, remembering Job’s words: “Though he slay me yet will I trust in Him.” But it is a question with which all believers wrestle.

In Japanese schools, “Silence” is often taught and is the vehicle some teachers use to teach about Christianity. Unfortunately, it creates a major obstacle in the attempts of people like me to communicate to the Japanese people that God is a God of love, because God seems indifferent to the pain and problems of His followers in the book. Apparently, there are those who think this film is going to reach non-Christians with the Gospel, but I can tell you from my experience in Japan and as a pastor that this it will accomplish the opposite: portraying a God of great love and compassion as indifferent to the suffering of his saints.

“Silence” is a fiction movie, but it is based on historical facts, and this raises the important question: “Why did Japan prohibit Christianity at that time?” It’s easy to blame my forebears, but they had their reasons, and there is more to the story than merely that they hated Christianity and wanted to stop its spreading. In fact, I’d contend, as a Christian pastor, that that was secondary to their distaste of being conquered by a foreign government.

Sadly, the letters of such luminary Jesuits as Alessandro Valignano in 1582 and Francisco Cabral in 1584 reveal that many missionary activities in Japan’s history have not been purely conducted to communicate God’s love but also with the intention of conquering our nation on behalf of their earthly majesties.

Among the Christian missionaries, the Portuguese Gaspal Coelho, the junior district superintendent of the Jesuits, was the most active. In 1585, he asked for a fleet to be dispatched from the Philippines to support the Christian Daimyos. He also met with Japan’s rebel leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was close to conquering the whole country, and encouraged him to subject the island of Kyushu to his rule. In doing so, Coelho promised to unite all of the Christian Daimyos to side with him. In other words, he tried to make a substantial Portuguese territory in Japan using Christian force. Furthermore, he supported Hideyoshi’s dispatching troops to Korea and offered two large warships which at that time could not be made in Japan because of a lack of Japanese technology. The work of the missionaries at that time was extremely political. The padres dominated the Japanese Christian Daimyos from behind and were acquiring the power to oppose Hideyoshi.

But Hideyoshi was not stupid. He perceived that the padres were active in accordance with the national ambitions of European countries trying to rule the Far East. And he realized that they were political threats. Still, he was open to Christianity. However, after conquering Kyushu, he discovered that the Christian lords were involved in the slave trade of Japanese by guiding the Portuguese slave merchants.

In 1587, Hideyoshi called Coelho to the Osaka Castle and ordered him to stop buying and selling Japanese slaves and to return all Japanese who had been sent overseas. He issued a decree “purging all missionaries” from Japan on June 18, 1587. In the provisions of the decree were regulations strictly prohibiting the purchase and sale of Japanese slaves by Portuguese merchants. In other words, the historical fact that Japan at that time became skeptical of Christianity gives evidence that it was tied directly to the slave trade by a “Christian nation.” A delegation which was dispatched to Rome in 1582 was shocked to discover that a large number of Japanese were enslaved all over the world.

“When I saw Japanese people who were sold into slavery in person, I could not help but burn with anger toward my people, who let go of them to be enslaved in that way,” wrote one member of the delegation.

The Christian Daimyos, who had begun to closely associate with Portugal and Spain, became dedicated to selling their brothers to foreign countries through the padres using Christian connections. Hideyoshi issued a decree to expel the padres who were behind this slave trade. Still, at this time, Japanese Christians were not oppressed, as it was stipulated that there was no problem for people to have faith voluntarily. The padres had not yet been deported but continued their activities with tacit consent. This is an important historical fact that needs to be remembered to counter the popular perception that the Japanese people were simply cruel and barbaric racists who indiscriminately suppressed Christians and the Christian faith.

However, when Hideyoshi became convinced that Christianity was merely being used as a cover for a foreign invasion, he implemented a law to ban Christianity altogether. A civil war in Japan further steered her into isolation and resulted in the suppression of Christianity and the persecution of many Christians.

I am a pastor who believes in Jesus and all of the tenets of the Christian faith that Christians have believed for two millennia. However, I also understand that given the reality of European colonialism and the slave trade, it was inevitable that Japan at that time chose to forbid the spreading of the Christian religion that it perceived as a threat to its existence as a nation. When church and state are mixed, inevitably, the church will suffer as it did during this time.

But does this make the biblical New Testament faith, inherently colonialist or imperialist? Many in today’s world believe it does. But the same New Testament Christianity that spread through a Roman empire as culturally diverse as today, also proclaimed a Gospel that transcended those cultures with a belief in absolute truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Those who condemn these words of Jesus simply display their attempt to colonize God’s truth with their own imperial authority. Missionaries should always be culturally sensitive, of course, but not at the price of denying the truth, and in the Bible, truth is a person, Jesus Christ.

Finally, let me address the matter of “fumie,” the loyalty test that found authorities demanding that an icon of Christ be stepped upon to prove that one was or wasn’t a true Christian, which happens in “Silence.” “Fumi” means to “step on,” while an “e” is a painting or drawing. Whether or not to step on a fumie is the climax of “Silence.” This is the principal issue: What would you do if you genuinely believed in Jesus? Would you step on an icon that represented him to satisfy your persecutors?

The tragedy in all of this is that during the age in when “Silence” takes place, those who joined the Catholic faith were taught that to step on a fumie was tantamount to apostasy, which meant one would go to hell, because that was the interpretation of the missionaries. They came up with this notion and, as a result, refused to do it. That in and of itself is brave, and no one would doubt their courage. However, it was an unfortunate error, for this interpretation was not backed by Scripture.

As a pastor, I am often asked questions like, “My grandmother died without believing in Christ, so where is she now?” I once heard an American pastor answer such a question with this: “Technically, they are in hell!” I was aghast. Scripture does, indeed, say that without Christ all are lost, but it also says, “Do not say in your heart who will ascend into heaven … or who will descend into the deep …” For the Christian, there is no salvation outside of Christ, but only Christ knows the hearts of man and can make those judgments. This type of insensitivity has turned many Japanese people into adversaries of God.

At the time when the events in “Silence” occurred, Japanese believers were ignorant about many issues and certainly didn’t have the ability to judge how to deal with the fumie issue and ended up dying because the padres refused to step on the fumie. But at the end of the movie, the main character, Padre Rodrigo, overwhelmed by the deep conviction of this event, saves people by stepping on a fumie. At that time, the words of Christ echoed in his heart, “You may step on it. I was not silent. I was suffering with you.” At the moment he was presented with a fumie, he understood the meaning of the cross of Christ for the first time, and with that overwhelming forgiveness and mercy, he wept while treading on the fumie.

At first sight, this is a beautiful Christian story, but a number of Japanese people who had little biblical knowledge were killed for refusing to step on a fumie so they could remain faithful to the Portuguese padres as an act of virtue and being afraid to be called an “apostate.” Had the Portuguese padres understood that the treading on a fumie is not equal to apostasy, like Rodrigo, and the great love of God exceeds human knowledge, many people would not have been killed. But the fact is that many people were killed because of the padres’ interpretation of bravery. And the cruel part of this story is that the young missionary Rodrigo’s misunderstandings, which produced contradictions brought about the deaths of many Japanese. Through the padres, who introduced a faith in the God of love, Japanese people were forced to suffer. This padre, who stepped on a fumie as he was convinced of Christ’s mercy and survived, later married a Japanese woman, and as depicted in the movie, lived the rest of his life actively supporting the regime of persecution against Christians.

As a Protestant Christian, the fumie or a Christian icon has no power and meaning to me. I could step on it and grind it into dust and scatter it to the wind, for God himself and his power reside in my heart and not in any object made by men whose worship is strictly forbidden in the Bible. But the Bible also teaches clearly that those who deny Christ on this earth, Jesus will deny in heaven before his Father. In that sense, it is rich in symbolic value. So when, and if, I am ever presented with an opportunity to affirm or deny my belief in the God of the Bible, I pray that I will have the courage to stand firm and accept the consequences of standing firm for my faith, just as heroes of the Bible like Shadrach, Meshiak, Obednego, Daniel and many others did.

While I am grateful for missionaries who came to Japan with a passion to serve Christ, I am also mindful that others came to spread earthly kingdoms. And however well-intentioned some of the people behind it are, “Silence” will further drive Japanese away from understanding just how great and deep and wide God’s love is and will keep them from that saving knowledge.

So when Mr. Scorsese dedicates his film to people like me, I’m afraid I don’t believe him. Perhaps he isn’t being sarcastic or ironic at all. Perhaps he considers Christianity to be imperialistic by its very nature and, if so, that is where we will part company. As a pastor, although I may resist those who want to make our nation like theirs, it is my duty to proclaim the Gospel to my people, and urge all people everywhere to adjust their culture to God’s ideas, and not the other way around.

Pastor Marre Ishii is pastor of Committed Fellowship located in Tokyo, Japan


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