‘Silence’ and Suffering: A Review and Reflection

WARNING: SPOLIER ALERT!

Note: This review is different from previous ones, for it is more of opinion piece than a historical analysis.

Suffering is an unfortunate part of life that happens to all of us. We see it play every day in many ways. On a larger scale, suffering has come in the form of the Coronavirus that has held its grip on the world for the past two years, to the war in Ukraine. On a smaller scale, suffering comes into our lives in the forms of job losses, illnesses, divorce or even the death of a loved one. Suffering is a part of our lives, but the question is, why do we go through it at all? Shūsaku Endō’s famous book Silence brings up the topic of suffering by focusing on one of the darkest chapters in Japanese history: the persecution of Japanese Christians. In this article, we will be looking at the events that take place in Silence and will try to answer the question of suffering. Please note that I am not a philosopher or a theologian, and that this is my own opinion on the matter and my main takeaway from the 1966 book and 2016 film under the same name.

Silence

2016 Film Poster

The story takes place after the infamous Shimabara Rebellion and is told from the perspective of Sebastião Rodrigues, who goes to Japan with Francisco Garupe in search of their teacher, Cristóvão Ferreira, who reportedly apostatized and had not been heard from since. Once they get to Japan, they find that there are still Christian communities in the country, but they practice their faith in secret. Not long after their arrival, however, their presence becomes known in the country, and Rodrigues and Garupe end up having to split up. Rodrigues is later turned in by Kichijirō, their guide in Japan and a Christian who had apostatized in the past. Rodrigues sees the suffering of the Japanese Christians firsthand, and he prays that their suffering ends, yet he begins to feel like God will not answer.

Rodrigues becomes more troubled when he meets with the Inquisitor, Inoue, and becomes witness to the Japanese treatment of Christians, including the death of Gaurpe. After some time, he is finally taken to see Ferreira, only to be faced with the fact that his teacher did indeed apostatize. Ferreira explained that Japanese Christians do not understand Christianity the same way, pointing out that the Son of God is just the Sun. Between language and cultural barriers, Ferreira states that Christianity will not thrive in Japan. Rodrigues does not believe this to be the case, stating that he had seen men die for their faith. Ferreira states that they did not die for God but for him. Rodrigues refuses to believe Ferreira, and leaves.

They prepare Rodrigues for the pit, a form of torture that hangs people upside down and they make a tiny cut by the ear. While he waits, Rodrigues complains of a noise from his cell, which he later learns is the cries and moans from Japanese Christians hanging in the pit. Rodrigues tells them to apostatize, but Ferreira informs him that they have apostatized. To save them, Rodrigues must apostatize. Rodrigues is faced with a difficult decision, but while staring at the fumi-e, a holy image that became a symbol for apostasy, Rodrigues finally hears God’s voice, who tells him that it is okay to step on the image, that He had suffered alongside him and He understands his suffering, that He was born into this world to share men’s pain. With much pain in his heart, Rodrigues steps on the fumi-e and renounces his faith.

Years later, he lives in Japan under a Japanese name, identifying possible foreign items that might be Christian. Despite that he renounced his faith, it is hinted that he never fully abandoned the faith, as he is buried with a tiny, crude, hand carved cross in his hands, placed there by his Japanese wife.

The Paradox of Suffering

Ferreria in the opening scenes of Silence (2016)

Silence highlights the struggles of being a Christian in trying times. We pray that the suffering will end, but when the suffering continues, we begin questioning our faith. Some of us feel bad for questioning our faith, especially when our prayers are answered, but other times, when our things do not go our way, some speak against God and abandon faith. This mainly comes from how God is viewed in our faith and religion along with our circumstances in life. For most of us, we were taught the God is the ultimate good in the world, so it is hard for us to comprehend suffering, which is never seen as good.

Suffering can come in multiple forms. Take examples from life today. For the past two years, the world has been battling Covid-19, which has not only caused illness and death, but even division in families, whether it is because of the virus or how the virus has seeped into politics, dividing people even more than we already were. The world is looking down the barrel of another possible major war, with Russia invading Ukraine. As of writing this article, the war is still ongoing with no real end in sight, and it has caused issues for all involved. Here in the United States, inflation has made it difficult for low-income families as prices keep going up on necessities such as food, rent and gas. Moreover, there is the unknown issues going on in everyone’s personal lives. It could be an illness like cancer, a nasty divorce, a miscarriage or death of a child, friend, or family member, or even struggling with a mental illness or a job loss. The main question is, why is there suffering in the world with a God that is ultimately good? The answer is not as complicated as you might think.

For a really long conversation on this subject, I would recommend you check out the book Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft. He comes at this question from a more philosophical standpoint and breaks down every argument on suffering in the world. In this article, however, we are not going to be going as deep into the subject as Kreeft. As I stated before, I am not a philosopher nor a theologian, but I have struggled with this exact problem in my life, and we can find answers in Silence.

First, let’s look at the most obvious thing. If everything in the world was good, we would not need God, would we? If life was always sunshine and rainbows, we would not need to look up to a higher power for guidance or help. A world without suffering would be a perfect world, but that is not the world we live in. People in our world starve, are thirsty, endure through wars, illnesses, and oppressive governments. On the other extreme, the world is not being controlled by Satan either. If that were really the case, the world would be even worse than any one of us could imagine. There is still good in the world, it is just hard to see with the constant negative news that bombards us on social media or push notifications on our phones. It is more immediate in our lives, like someone paying for our meal in a drive thru, the community coming together for a food or clothing drive or volunteering to work in homeless shelters. People are not inherently bad; we just need to take a step away from the negative reports in the news to see this clearly.

Looking back at Silence, we can see this play out. Had the world been perfect, there would be no story, for converting people to a religion, war, and persecutions would not exist. While it does seem that evil has its grip on the world in Silence, the people are not the definition of evil that most of us would think of. From a Christian standpoint, we might look at the persecutors in more of a negative light, but the same could be said if looked at from the Japanese perspective, for the Christians could be seen as invasive. Yet, this does not answer why there is suffering in the world.

Going back to the “perfect world” analogy, let’s think about it from a storytelling perspective. Conflict is what makes a story work well, mainly, it gives the story a purpose, the momentum to move forward. Resolution of the conflict usually involves some sort of struggle, and depending on the story, the struggle could be described as suffering. If a story was placed in a perfect world, it would only be a few pages long, if that. It would be difficult to have a story, and it would not keep most readers’ interest. Putting this another way that is not as bleak, we do not grow if we do not go through hard times. Though we usually do not remember our first steps, we struggled to start walking. We fell, but we stood up and tried again. Though it took some time, we learned how to walk. While this is nothing compared to illness, poverty, or death, it shows how we learned from the times we struggled.

As mentioned before, the events in Silence would not have taken place if there was no suffering in the world, yet because there is, Rodrigues learns that God never abandoned him, but suffered alongside him. Even more powerful is that God is not asking Rodrigues to go through anything that He himself has not gone through.

Looking at the Bible, we learn the story of Jesus, who becomes the Son of God and eventually is crucified. Let us remember why He took human form: to die for humanity and its sins. Jesus was betrayed by Judas, put on trial, tortured, then died. He suffered so much, but here is a small reminder: though Jesus was the Son of God, He had taken human form. Even Jesus suffered and he suffered for us. Rodrigues went through similar sufferings, from being betrayed by Kichijirō to apostatizing to save the lives of those being tortured who had also publicly apostatized. Though it may seem hard to understand in our moments of suffering, we must remember that God understands our suffering because He once went through the same suffering because he was once human. He experienced life like we have and understands how we feel.

Final Thoughts

Kichijirō confesses to Rodrigues in Silence (2016)

Though it is not ideal, suffering is a uniquely human experience. It is an inevitable part of life that allows us to learn, grow and change. Our suffering becomes a part of our personal story, the thing that makes us uniquely us. In an odd way, it keeps life interesting and reminds us that we are human, and mainly, that we are alive. There is good news about suffering too: it does not stay in our lives forever. One way or another, our suffering becomes resolved and we do heal from our times of struggles. In Silence, we see this played out in the lives of Rodrigues and Kichijirō. Both men suffered for their faith. In Kichijirō’s case, he apostatized but his family did not, and he watched his family die for their faith. Despite asking for forgiveness from Rodrigues many years later, he turns the priest in for 300 pieces of silver, a call back to Judas who betrayed Jesus for only 30 pieces of silver. Years after Rodrigues apostatized himself, Kichijirō comes back into his life, asking for forgiveness yet again. This time, instead of looking down on Kichijirō, Rodrigues can humble himself, especially after the voice of God reminds him again that he was never silent, that he suffered not only alongside Rodrigues, but also those who were tortured and killed for their faith. Rodrigues and Kichijirō accept the past, secretly holding on to their faith until the bitter end, knowing that Heaven awaits them both, an end to their suffering.

I am not advocating for suffering. No one wants to suffer. Yet, I cannot be the only one who has sat and wondered why we go through hard times in our lives. This is especially hard to think about when going through such times and trying to maintain faith. Despite this, I have found comfort in Silence because it reminds me that suffering, though unpleasant, is part of the human experience and even God understands what that is like, and we will be rewarded in the end for our suffering.