If you know anything about Christian persecution — its history or its modern-day reality — you’ve probably heard the quote from Tertullian about the blood of martyrs being the seed of the church. So then what of the non-martyrs? The ones who suffered and succumbed to humanity’s fallen-ness? Those who chose to live, rejecting Christ routinely.
That’s what Martin Scorcese’s Silence is about, inasmuch as it is based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. The movie hasn’t done as well as a Scorcese film would be expected to do. And for that I have some sympathy for Scorcese: People don’t want to hear about persecution. They feel powerless in the face of it.
And a movie about Christian persecution is the opposite of escapist entertainment. We may watch others suffer humiliation on reality TV, but this film is historical fiction that might ultimately hit too close to home for a country that is relatively religious but that has also let religion be privatized, compartmentalized, politicized, manipulated, and narrowed (or the Little Sisters of the Poor would have never had to go to the Supreme Court). Religion, for many, is often a priority only as a refuge in times of tragedy or as an exercise in nostalgia.
Others have posited that the movie isn’t doing as well as might have been expected because people don’t want to hear non-inspiring stories. The missionary priests — as you probably know, but I’m giving you a spoiler alert anyway — do what they need to do to live. They are not the Coptic Christians who were beheaded two years ago on the shores of Libya or the people of Mosul who left their homes instead of converting to Islam, living in storage containers indefinitely in Kurdistan. But is a fictional priest who steps on an image of Christ non-inspiring, or does he help us gain a deeper insight into and confrontation with the mercy of God in the face of our poverty? Is it only in facing this that we can move forward in faith?
That’s something of what artist Makoto Fujimura addresses in his book Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, reflecting on the original novel and movie. I don’t know the answer myself, but I know it’s something we need to reflect on more deeply. We all too often look away from persecution and our own unbelief. Ignorance may be an anesthetized bliss, but it doesn’t make for conversion.
About the Tertullian quote and the Japanese experience of persecution, Fujimura writes:
Japanese authorities cleverly devised a way to poison the seeds before they could take root. They realized that in their culture the deaths of believers would not halt the growth of the church; what would discredit the church most decisively in Japan would be for Christian leaders’ failures to be on display. They realized too that the ultimate failure would be for leaders — especially priests — to recant their faith. The path of a martyr is noble, but the path to failure is one of betrayal and shame. Forcing Christians onto that path was the most effective way to prevent other Japanese from converting to Christianity.
He points out that “the typical reaction to the painful history of the past is to try to move forward by ignoring what happened.” He recalls talking to a German friend
who confessed that he got so sick of rehashing Germany’s Nazi past in school that as an adult he refused to return to Auschwitz or to visit places with a painful past, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But when he was confronted with the front-page news of the beheading of captives by terrorist groups in the Middle East, he realized that the past he was trying to avoid is in front of us now, and that the only way to move forward is to first recognize what happened in the history of trauma.
Open wounds. It’s those that Fujimura is so concerned with. The walking wounded, who so often wind up doing everything except that which will heal them.
Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability. In other words, the only way to escape the violent cycle of the age of feudal struggles is to remove one’s sword; then, in safety, one can communicate truly. Beauty, one might add, is a gift given through this vulnerability. Beauty that integrates virtues, nature and religion can guide us into wisdom.
I can’t help but think of both the Christians in the world today who are languishing in displacement and the anger and violence in our own country, some of which centers around the big headline of the day, Donald Trump’s inauguration. But also the violence we’ve seen on city streets and in our law — this weekend marks the 44th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, after all.
Fujimura says, “When we consider our journeys in and out of trauma, the most important place of healing may be at the table of a gathering of a family, in which bread is broken and wine is shared.”
The blessing of Inauguration Day is the peaceful transfer of power we all herald. Or try to. Or once did. The point of vulnerability in the day’s events, the point of encounter, is probably where we remember again the beauty of the Republic and consider what exactly it is we have and seek to be. Can we begin by realizing we do have blessings? That we have been given gifts? There’s a place for gratitude and hope, no matter who is president of the United States.
The world of Silence is a brutal mess. But we need silence in our mess — a faithful silence that illuminates truth and hope.
In talking about “what Americanism seeks to be,” Bill Buckley talked about this need for gratitude, pointing back to Bethlehem. We need to remember that we are not the ones we have been waiting for and not only that we’re duty-bound to be good stewards because we have been given tremendous gifts — most especially our lives — but also that there should be joy and wonder at the beauty of creation and resilience and human ingenuity and love. There should be joy, even in the mess of the world as it is. Because there’s more to the world than political elections, and it is only if we restore a healthy balance, and a recognition of the power of healthy families and communities to raise up virtuous leaders, that we will have a healthier politics.
The world of Silence is a brutal mess. But we need silence in our mess — a faithful silence that illuminates truth and hope. And there’s a beauty in the humility it requires to see that. Let’s try to realize that a president cannot solve the deepest problems of our lives. That comes instead from an openness to the Savior of the world who gives us the freedom to make choices — even at times wrong and humiliating ones — so we can realize where real power lies, in Him.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.
Editor’s note: This has been edited since posting.