Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
So I’ve just caught the Martin Scorsese’s Silence after having read the book some time ago. If I may summarise this movie, it would be in this one sentence: It is moving only to the secular mind, but an outrage to anyone who actually believes in God. As such, I am not judging it on its aesthetic merits, which no doubt is considerable and excellent, what is deeply and fundamentally problematic are the theological premises upon which it operates, basic theological problems which must outrage those who cannot compartmentalise their faith from their aesthetic judgement, especially since this is a movie about the Christian faith.
Before I begin my own critique proper, I would need to draw quite a bit from a mastery theological critique of that movie in the Mere Orthodoxy article “Silence,” Martyrdom, and the Call to Die. The article very helpfully outlines the issues as those which hinges mostly upon Roman Catholic premises, especially on the role of the priesthood on the faith. The exalted role of the priesthood in the Church has lead to several theological problems in the movie, not least to that of the Messianic Complex of its priests as well as a radical secularisation of the natural realm.
The Messianic Complex of the Priests
The book and movie is set in the Tokugawa period which was a period characterised by the most intense persecution of the Christian faith, even to the point of utter extinction. For more information about this period and the Christian persecution, Philip Jenkins’s article DESTROYING JAPANESE CHRISTIANITY would be rather helpful.
In Roman Catholic theology the life of the Church hangs critically upon the priesthood or the “padre”. As literal “Fathers” of the spiritual community, their had a direct responsibility for the wellbeing of their flock. Without them there could be no Mass and no absolution. Thus the Christian villagers, who had for years been deprived of what Roman Catholic theology teaches them are essential to the life of the Church, are perilously dependent upon the presence of these padre from whom alone they could receive their spiritual life and sustenance. The priests themselves, when they see how the Christian villagers were so reliant upon them and looked to them so much for spiritual direction, cannot help but feel a strong sense of responsibility for their wellbeing, they are after all literally their Fathers and fathers will do everything to help protect their “children”.
However this perilous dependence of the Church upon the padre is precisely a weakness which the Japanese authorities could exploit. When word of the padre’s presence in Japan was made known the Japanese inquisitors arrived and began interrogating and threatening the villagers to give up the priests or face severe punishments. At first the villagers refused even though the priests felt the burdens inflicting such sufferings upon their “children” on their behalf. But after the Japanese authorities put four such Christian villagers to a slow and tortuous death, the villagers decided that it was not safe for them to remain anymore and sent them away.
One of the themes which runs through the movie is the idea that the priests has brought nothing but trouble to the Christian villagers. If the priests had not come, the villagers would not have suffered at the hands of the authorities who are only torturing and killing them because of the presence of the priests. This was a thought which was not only voiced by the Christian villagers themselves but was continually insisted upon by the Japanese authorities themselves. If the priest would but renounce their faith, the Japanese authorities claim, they will cease their torture and prosecution of the poor Christian villagers.
Now if you were in a state of mind where you think of yourself as “Father” to the Christian villagers who are your “children”, you would naturally feel a sense of responsibility for their wellbeing, and if the authorities told you that it is you who are making them suffering for not renouncing your faith, and that you are the one causing their pain, death and suffering, you would be brought to the brink of feeling that you have to save them from their sufferings because of the burdens you bear for their wellbeing. Thus did one of the priest precisely took that logical step to renouncing his faith by stepping on the fumi-e to save the villagers from further suffering.
As the subtitle of this section should indicate, this line of reasoning is problematic because it is the argument of those who are possessed of a Messianic complex. As the Mere Orthodoxy article outlines so clearly, no “padre”, no matter how exalted, can possibly be the saviour of his flock. Each and everyone of them are called to die for Christ, the priest have no duty, and no right, to absolve them of that calling. To quote a passage from the article:
A true conversion experience, a true dying-to-self for Rodrigues, would have looked quite different. It would have meant acknowledging that he is not Christ and cannot be Christ to Inoue’s victims; only Christ can save. All that he is able to do is remain faithful to Christ in a moment of unspeakable pain and difficulty and trust the rest to God rather than himself. (Of course, if denying the necessity of Christian behavior is a common Protestant problem, priests equating themselves with Christ is a common Catholic problem.)
The central problem as such I would argue is that the priest had no consciousness of the limits of this agency and responsibility. Naturally sometimes it is within our power to help another, even to save their life, but that is not the case in this situation. The Messianic complex gives the priest a sense of unlimited responsibility for the wellbeing of his flock, a responsibility which he must fulfil whatever the effects it may have upon his own soul, his own confession, and his own worship of God, to the point of renouncing Christ. We maybe called to imitate Christ but not to supplant him. We cannot take the place of he who is God himself.
The necessary implication of the premise of the limits of one’s agency is the recognition of the existence of other actors and agents who themselves are responsible and will answer to God for their actions in due course.
The Judgement of Thrones, Rulers and Dominions
One of the flaws in the priests’s justification of their apostasy is their lack of the sense that they did not persecute or torture or kill the villagers, the Japanese authorities did out of their own will, and their own agency. The premise that the Japanese authorities were simply mechanically acting in accordance with some “Japanese nature” which necessarily leads to the persecution of Christians must be questioned. They cannot simply be allowed to shove that responsibility upon the priest’s shoulders and claim, “We can’t help it, we’re Japanese and it’s in our nature to hate Christianity, but the whole burden is upon you now to redirect our wrath away from the Christians.”
However, just as the priests implicitly absolved their flock from their duty to die for Christ, the priests have also implicitly absolved the Japanese authorities from their duty to God to stop persecuting his witnesses. Throughout the show the most natural response to the Japanese authorities wicked torture and killing of the Christians, at least to anyone who believes in an avenging God, would be to warn them that if they did not cease, there will come a Day of Reckoning, either in this age or the next, when they will answer for their abominable crimes against the Japanese Christians, and the vengeance which will be visited upon them will be of such unspeakable horrors that the cries of the saints and martyrs will be vindicated before the world. It should surely be basic to Christian theology that when Christ returns in glory he would judge, not only Christians, but also non-Christians and especially the thrones, rulers and dominions, no one will be spared from the Judgement Seat of Christ.
From this lack of consciousness that not only are the Japanese authorities and Japanese Christians directly answerable to God, there is also a lack of consciousness that all tribes, cultures, and spirits will also be judged by Christ. The highly idolatrous premise which was unquestioned throughout the movie is that a national culture was something rigidly fixed and embedded in nature which cannot be amendable to Christianity. But Christians are called to judge the spirits themselves, even the “Spirit of a nation”. They are not immutably divine but perilously contingent creations of God, infinitely plastic in his hand, existing only for his mere pleasure and glory. If the “Spirit” of a place refuses to bend the knee to Christ the cornerstone which they rejected will grind them to dust.
As such, there is very little consciousness that God will act and intervene in time, and that in the case of God, justice delayed is not justice denied, the Japanese authorities and people, who in this era denies Christ, will receive their reckoning in the next. What they attempt to stamp out today, will flourish with even greater vigour tomorrow. More importantly, if God chooses he can even send a storm, some gunboats or armies or even an atomic bomb, to give the Japanese their own just deserts and make a way for Christianity in Japan.
The Confined Eschatology of Roman Catholic Theology
I believe however that these problematic Roman Catholic theological premises go much deeper than an overexaggerated role of the priesthood. It goes I believe to what I shall call the confined eschatology of the Roman Catholic Church. The confined eschatology of the Roman Church postulates that the Kingdom of God is wholly, if not completely, realised within the confines of the visible Church. In the visible Church alone, defined around a clergy, could be found the divine action and presence. If the Church is the sole locus of God’s agency then by implication God could not act anywhere else except via his ecclesiastical agents. This highly exaggerated role of the Church however gives it a burden to which it is simply not equal.
There is this quote from “St” Teresa of Avila which is commonly shared by Roman Catholics but which I think illuminates the point about the visible Church as the sole locus of divine agency.
Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world.
While many Romanists have shared this with approval, to me it reflects the most horrifying practical deism. Christ sort of left behind his visible Church and then simply disappeared into heaven twiddling his thumbs while his Church has the entire responsibility for making everything work. As such, God is not going to save the Japanese Christians, since he has more or less subcontracted all the work to the Church and he can’t act except via the Church, the padres will have to do it whatever it takes. This is practically deism where God is crippled of his agency over the whole realm of nature and he can only work through his believing agents.
It is from this “practical deism” whereby the movie acquires all its existential force and profundity, that, in the face of a “silent” God, the Church or Christians only could depend upon themselves, not upon God, and if and when necessary, the priests will sacrifice their own faith to “save” their flock because God is not about to.
Conclusion: China as the Alternative Christian Response to Systematic Persecution
To a Protestant mind the movie is very hard to appreciate theologically. The perilous dependence upon a clergy or visible symbols for their faith is difficult to understand. Protestants for example won’t be able to appreciate the stepping on the fumi-e or images of Christ or the Virgin Mary, since to them images generally mean nothing and to some may even themselves be idolatrous. After all we were iconoclasts before it was cool. Furthermore, the confined eschatological realisation wholly on the Church, with no possibility of providential eruption or guidance outside of ecclesiastical agents, is also incomprehensible to the Protestant mind.
The history and example of China itself is very much a response to the problems of Silence. When the Chinese expelled Christianity from China, God providentially sent the British to blast them open. When the Communist government expelled all the Western missionaries from China, Protestant Christians promptly reorganised, and armed only with their Bibles and their faith, Protestant Christianity has exploded in China today (for an account of this see this article Beating the State: Third World Christianity in the Third World Today).
Protestantism grew much faster than Roman Catholicism in this period because it did not suffer from the perilous dependence upon an identifiable priesthood. Arrest one pastor and another one can easily take his place. Because Protestantism has no easily identifiable symbol or head, it is a lot harder to control it, whereas in Roman Catholicism it is a lot easier to control the church by simply controlling its clergy. Squeeze the neck and the whole church is simply paralysed.
Above all however, Protestantism, especially of the Evangelical and Charismatic sort, is driven by a sense of providential destiny, that God does and will intervene in time, in answer to the cries of the faithful, to give glory to the name which is above all names. And not only are all powers, tribes, spirits, thrones and dominions, under the rulership of Christ, although we do not see them as subject yet, but we also know that Christ is bringing them and will bring them into subjection under himself, which subjection they could either receive willingly, or be forced under it brutally.
It is this eschatological certainty, this consciousness of Jesus Christ as Creator, Ruler and Judge of the world, the Christ who will return in glory, vengeance and power, which is so utterly missing from the movie and book.