In a weekend of prolonged inner shadow, I sat down last night and finally opted to watch the Netflix movie I had had sitting around in the house since December 11, 2017: Silence.
Sometimes I do that, for cloudy reasons- get a movie, and let it sit for months. In this case, I let the film sit for three months, and really, I often do that because I am ambivalent about what I am going to see. In this case, some reluctancy was warranted, although I liked the film. It is a film about faith and apostasy, and as such, for a person of faith, it offers some discomforting material.
Silence is a film by Martin Scorcese that came out last year, and that stars Andrew Garfield (of another faith-related film that I liked, “Hacksaw Ridge”), Adam Driver (“Kylo Ren” of Star Wars fame), and Liam Neeson. It is the story about two young Jesuit priests in the early 17th century who are pricked by reports of great persecution of Christians in Japan. Most priests in the country have been ran out, or have been turned to deny their faith. An inquisitor leads the country’s oppression on believers and the padres, and Japan’s church seems all but lost under the persecution, with reports returned to Portugal that there are few to none priests left in that country.
Among the last reporting priests was a father who had been a confessor, a guide, and a mentor to the two young men when they entered the priesthood, Father Ferrara, and his missives from Japan had been challenging but encouraging- until they had just stopped coming. And rumors came in their wake, saying he had apostatized, which the two young priests largely dismissed. He had been so strong.
With zeal, they entreat their superior to allow them to go to Japan themselves- to check on the church there first-hand, and to see if they can find Father Ferrara.
The two find an expatriated young drunk in China who ecomes willing to smuggle them into Japan. Once arrived, they find fragments of a local Christian community, and hiding by day, they offer services and sacraments at night for this small congregation. They must remain hidden by day- the Japanese crackdown on priests is harsh and broad, and it is feared that if they are seen by non-locals, the inquisitor will find the priests and the church.
But in time calls from a neighboring village came for the priests to visit them. The padres were “revealed” in the second village by their shifty guide, in which the village was his home village.
It’s a risk, but the priests are compelled by their calling to attend to needs in the next village.
Inevitably, things happen, and the inquisitor’s entourage arrives at the original village that the priests had to returned to. “Out the priests, or send four of your people to Nagasaki for trial.” The community protects the priests and sends four of its leader to Nagasaki for trial before the inquisitor’s court.
All the while, the two young priests see the development of persecution in their host hamlet, and questions about Ferrara remain. Is he still alive, working as a Jesuit somewhere on the island?
The two young padres decide to separate to better their abilities to serve local Christians, and so that one might see if he can locate Ferrara.
And in time, both men are found out, identified, and captured as Christians evangelizing in Japan.
Which brings us to the wrestle with the hardest question asked by Scorcese in the film: What would you do if, as a priest, “denying Christ”- in this case, stepping on an icon of Jesus on a clay tile- meant that you would directly spare ten, twenty, or fifty people tied to your decision from torture, suffering, and death?
That was the ultimate question asked by the film, which one of the young priests is presented with after his capture, and which his mentor, Father Ferrara, also had to make a decision on.
It’s a challenging question, because in their cases, it was offered to them when they were in deep states of depravity and duress, and as our young priest wrestles with it in prison, the question bubbles up for him in a suggested restatement: what would love do here, for these people, given an opportunity to return to them their lives?
Of course, the harsh consequence of the decision on the other side is spiritual calamity, because the priest who apostatized would be disloyal and a denier of everything he had asked his followers to embrace. His apostasy would wound his followers in another, inward way, despite the fact he might give them life by his choice.
And of course, these priests wrestled with this question through their knowledge of Scripture and their understanding of theology, but in a vacuum created by the weight of their situations, by their dislocation from all familiar, and by the equivocations of human nature, which in the end they come to experience as, like Jesus in Gethsemane, God’s disregard.
Naturally, the film left me uncomfortable.
In the end, choices for apostasy are made. A veil of shame and reversion drops over a man of God. Lives are saved, but Christianity is squeezed, and Japanese believers are stripped of leaders. The inquisition has its moment.
Thankfully, God is not merely doctrine and dogma, and grace and mercy work outside of the box- which I think is a little bit of Scorcese’s point in the film.
It is deeply saddening to see apostasy from a believer’s viewpoint. In most cases, it is repulsive and deeply troubling.
In this case, though, when a community will be crushed by remaining adherents, the film asks the question: when, if ever, is apostasy a loving response to persecution?
I doubt my own ability to be a faithful believer and disciple of Jesus if my own life was put on the line over my faith. It is a sad admission I make. But if my choice to to remain a believer would directly result in the death of five, or ten, or twenty other people, could I choose to do that and stand like steel in my faith?
That is what this film asks each of us, each viewer.
Well, each believer.
What would we choose, in the silence?
If anything, I appreciated the movie’s poignant challenge to my own life about the meaning of my own Christian faith. I didn’t leave the film feeling like it was a justification of apostasy, but rather an examination of it.
I have been on auto-pilot for some time as a believer, offering my own set of un-unique excuses to minimize the significance discipleship should play in this Christian’s life- and that is how you become a cultural Christian. You affirm the general while rejecting the personal aspects of being a believer. You make faith a backdrop in daily living. “All that churchy stuff doesn’t really apply to me.”
Love, as Jesus says and shows, is anything but peripheral. Love is a physical demonstrated manifestation of faith and hope, which demands actualization and participation, not merely suppositions and sentiment.