Silence – Movie Discussion
There is no way I can do justice to Silence with a brief review. It was not a fun movie; it was, however, haunting, powerful, gripping, disturbing. It was the kind of heavy you can’t shake off, the kind I’d rather not see…and the kind we all, especially in our comfortable, American lives, probably need to see. I had the extreme privilege of seeing it with two women who had been missionaries in Taiwan for much of their lives and discussing it afterwards with them. I’ll give a brief synapsis and a few thoughts (and a few links at the end to other articles worth reading), but I want to focus on some practical ways to think about and respond to this movie from the perspective of two women who have come much nearer to the hardships in this movie than I have. I also encourage you to check out this list of quotes from the movie—they are provocative and good for discussion.
Two young priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, head to Japan in search of their spiritual mentor who, rumor has it, has apostatized (denied his faith). The movie is predominantly through Rodrigues’ eyes and his journey, brilliantly written, follows Christ’s in many ways. They are met in Japan by villagers who hide their Christian faith—people who are desperate for a priest to teach them about Jesus, encourage them in their faith, and hear their confessions and forgive their sins. It’s beautiful to see the hunger for Jesus, but it’s hard. It’s hard for Rodrigues (and frankly, for myself) to reconcile the “why’s”. “Why did they have to bear such a burden? Why did He pick them [the Japanese] to suffer so much?” “Why must their trials be so terrible? …And why when I look in my heart, do the answers I give them seem so weak?”
There are other hard questions, too. After a few villagers were killed for refusing to give up the priests, Rodrigues asks, “What happened to all the glorious possibilities we found here? What have I done for Christ? What will I do for Christ?” “I’m tempted to despair. The weight of your silence is terrible. Or am I just praying to nothing because you are not there?” (Who hasn’t struggled with the silence of God at one time or another?) About the man who betrayed him, “‘What you will do, do quickly’—Your words to Judas at the last supper. Did it come from anger or love?” The betrayer himself asked, “Where is the place for a weak man?” And he wondered why he had to live in a time of persecution, when he could have been a good and faithful Christian in other, easier, times of history.
Probably the hardest questions of all surrounded the predicament the priests found themselves in—should they apostatize to save the lives of others? When the Japanese persecuted the villagers, one of two things happened: 1. They died for their faith and that only increased the power of Christianity in the area, or 2. They denied their faith, in which case nothing really changed. The only way to truly squash Christianity was for the priests, the Christian leaders, to deny Christ. If the ones who brought Christ to the region denied it, that carried weight. And yet, martyrdom was no real threat to the priests. They were prepared to die. They truly felt that to die was gain. They were prepared to die; they were not prepared to watch others suffer and die for them. The Japanese relentlessly tortured people in front of the priests until they couldn’t take it anymore and denied Christ. Every. Last. One.
Was it worth it for the priests to be there, even though they put others in danger? Who did the villagers and martyrs die for, Christ or the priests? What about the ones who apostatized and yet were still being tortured because Rodrigues had not denied Christ? Ferreira (Rodrigues’ mentor) challenged Rodrigues, “Do you have the right to make them suffer?” “They are here for you, Rodriguez, as long as you are here. They die for you. Show Christ you love Him – act as He would; save their lives. You are about to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been fulfilled [- denying Christ].” WAS it an act of love for Rodrigues to deny his faith, to deny the thing he held most dear, so that others might not suffer? And, if he did as the Inquisitor said – “I don’t really care. Just touch it lightly. It’s only a picture. Put your foot on it. You don’t really have to renounce your faith. Just do it quickly so we can get out of the sun.” – is it true that he didn’t really renounce his faith? Is there any “fake” denying of Christ or is any denial a denial?
Some of these questions might seem obvious, but they are not so simple when you watch the movie. Theologically we may have an answer, but emotionally? Is it really that simple? Like when Rodrigues asks, “Surely God heard their prayers as they died, but did he hear their screams?” Of course he would say that the answer to his question, theologically, has to be yes. Emotionally, however, he’s having a hard time believing that if God really had heard their screams, as he had, that He wouldn’t have intervened.
The movie is called “Silence,” but was God silent? Rodrigues says, “He’s here; I just can’t hear him.” The only times we do seem to hear God speak, I had to question if it was something God would say. This is, fiction, after all, based on some true events about “missing” priests. As Rodrigues was struggling with what to do, knowing the torture of innocent people around him would never stop until he apostatized, I had to ask myself what I would do? Even more, what was the right thing to do? I’m not sure I know, frankly. (Side note, this is why missionaries are often told to evacuate if the climate turns hostile, to protect the native people, even though it seems selfish to run to safety.) I don’t believe in suicide, but honestly, given the options… it might be tempting. It was in that scene that God was not silent. He urged Rodrigues, “Come on now; step on me. I understand your pain… I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.” According to the movie, God gives His blessing to Rodrigues to sacrifice his belief, his witness, his priesthood, and even, (because he’s Catholic), his ability to confess and be forgiven as there would be no priest around to absolve him—all so that the suffering, his own and others, might end. I know that is in line with the kindness and grace of God, but is it in line with His holiness and righteousness?
Towards the end, Rodrigues seems to hear God one more time.
Rodrigues: Lord, I fought against your silence.
God: I suffered beside you. I was never silent.
Rodrigues: Even if God had been silent, my whole life to this very day, everything I know, everything I’ve done, speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard your voice.
So was God silent or wasn’t He? How do we hear Him in the silence? And what about Rodrigues? He lived his life in Japan serving the Inquisitor by eradicating all signs of Christianity in the nation. It seems he turned away from Christ, but this is a movie of questions, not of answers and even in this, we are left with questions. Rodrigues had asked God, after his “Judas” betrayer had, once again, after apostatizing and denying Christ over and over again come for forgiveness, “Father, how could Christ love a wretch like this? … He is not worthy to be called evil.” He may not have understood it, but he extended grace and forgave the man, knowing Jesus would have done the same. And we are given the sense that later he not only identified with that poor “wretch” of a man in weakness and shame, but also in the forgiveness and grace of God. A Dutch trader who had been in Japan comments on Rodrigues, “The man who was once Rodrigues ended as they wanted him, and as I first saw him, lost to God. But as to that, only God can answer.”
As I said, it’s a movie of questions, not answers, and we miss the point if we move too quickly past the questions to our theological answers. We might do well to linger here a little, to feel the pain and confusion, to let our answers be undone for a bit. A teacher of mine once said (speaking partly about the field of science), “Christians know the answers, so they are lousy at asking questions. Non-Christians don’t know the answers, so they ask great questions—it’s just that because they don’t believe in Christ, sometimes their answers aren’t very good as they try to come up with answers that don’t involve Christ. But still, they are better at asking questions than we are.” This is one reason why I think we need to allow ourselves to really feel the questions in this movie, because they are the kinds of questions many non-believers are asking. If God is real, why is He silent? If God hears our questions, does he hear our pain and our screams? And if so, why doesn’t He do something about them? Get a sense for why these are such hard questions for people before you even try to formulate an answer. In the end, Rodrigues didn’t get answers from God any more than Job did. What he did get, however, (much as Job did) was a God who listened to Him and was there with him, in the suffering. We love our answers, but sometimes the more powerful thing is just to listen and identify with someone’s questions and their pain.
A few thoughts from my discussion with my missionary friends:
- When Rodrigues apostatized, he was, in many ways, giving his life for others like Christ did when He died for our sins. Both sacrificed themselves to save others. Both felt separated from God because of it. It wasn’t the same, however. When Christ died he brought hope to the world and became a symbol of hope. When Rodrigues apostatized, he removed hope (or at least its symbol) from the world of Japan. Also, Rodrigues gave of himself in a negative way, by denying the Lord. Jesus never denied the Father.
- As much as we wanted the pain to end, we were all hoping Rodrigues would hold out. As hard as it is to know people are suffering because of his faith, at the same time, you hate to see the darkness win.
What do we take away from this movie?
- Be more prepared. When Christ says “take up your cross and follow Him,” we have some idea that we may have to suffer for Christ, (though we are probably ill prepared for that, too), but it may not be ourselves that suffer. We may have to see our children, family, or friends suffer for our belief in Christ. What would we do in such a position? It’s a horrible thought, but all the more reason why we probably need to consider it ahead of time and prayerfully consider how to respond in such a situation.
- As for the thought of how our actions affect others, Oswald Chambers had a great discussion of this in his Jan 11 entry of My Utmost for His Highest. He points out that Jesus’ obedience to die on the cross affected Simon who was enlisted to, forced to carry Jesus’ cross. “Will we remain faithful in our obedience to God and be willing to suffer the humiliation of refusing to be independent? Or will we do just the opposite and say, ‘I will not cause other people to suffer’? We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him.” We have to trust that, when our obedience costs another, God can and will work these things to good. We do not know how God is working in their lives and how He might use these hard circumstances. We only know what we called to do—obedience, no matter the consequences.
- There is something worth dying for and dying has a benefit to others, to show others that the value of what we die for is worth more than life itself. Also note, that dying for something is not the same as suicide. It is for GOD to determine the days we live and die. Who is to say how God might use our suffering when we are willing to give it to Him. It is up to the Lord to decide what will bring greater glory to Himself.
- The grace of God. Even though two priests knew they had denied Christ and couldn’t get absolutely, still, at the end, they say, “our Lord” and Rodrigues holds the cross. The priests denied Christ for the sake of others, and yet, we sense they were steadfast to the end in their love of God. (Compare this to Judas who hung himself after denying Christ.) The grace of God, His love and kindness are pervasive in this movie—most palpably towards the weak wretch who repeatedly denied Christ and betrayed others and yet sought forgiveness and towards the priests who denied Him.
How can we prepare ourselves for persecution?
- Deepen your life in God.
- Pray for grace.
- Do what God says. Walk now in obedience.
- Ted Dekker’s book, The Forgotten Way, encourages us to cut ourselves off from other identities so that when it comes time, we can go with God no matter what.
- Study heroes and martyrs of the faith. They give us courage and show us that we are not alone. They also help us mentally prepare for what realities might await us so that we aren’t caught unprepared.
- Practice dying to self through obedience, fasting, prayer, service to others, etc. This helps free us from our dependence on earthly comforts.
- Enjoy all that we are given now as an act of worship and gratitude. Paul said he’d learned how to abound and how to suffer, how to live in plenty and in want. Don’t be so focused on preparing for future struggles that you don’t enjoy present ease with joy and gratitude. Whatever season God has you in, embrace it to the glory of God.
Related: Speaking Softly