Silence: Apostasy without Consequence

[Spoiler Warning]

What would you do if you were a priest, and your persecutors wanted you to prove you denounced Christ by stepping on His image, or spitting on an image of Mary before calling her a “whore?” Or if you’re a Protestant, what if you were commanded to burn a Bible? “I would never do that,” one might say. Now imagine all of your parishioners were gathered together and systematically murdered because you refuse apostasy? Would you value their lives above your own relationship with Christ, or should you remain steadfast in faith even unto the deaths of those you love?

This is the main question Martin Scorsese asks each and every one of his viewers. I will henceforth call the above scenario “the Scorsese dilemma.”

Inquisitor: “The price of your glory is their suffering!

Whether it is the lush green shrubs, or the overhead perspective of great ships amid violent waves, the cinematography is beautiful. However, despite the visual appeal, the substance of the film left me saddened. My countenance did not fall simply because of the bleak nature of Christians being massacred, because reading the lives of the martyrs is always so incredibly inspiring. My countenance fell when I read Martin Scorsese’s theology all throughout the film.

This film has four major characters. Fr. Ferriera (Liam Neeson), Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver), and Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). Ferriera was the first priest sent to Japan, but apostatized under the circumstances and became a citizen of Japan while Rodrigues and Garupe were sent to find out what became of him. Kichijiro is a Japanese drunkard who the two priests find on the way. They later find out that he is the way he is because he witnessed his own family die after he alone stepped on the image of Christ.

Rodrigues and Garupe represent the two main answers to the Scorsese dilemma (since Ferriera is the same as Rodrigues, and Kichijiro is not a priest). The dispositions of the two men are seen clearly within one particular exchange when the two provide their own premeditated answers to the potential dilemma:

Rodrigues: “You apostatize…!
Garupe: “No! What are you saying?

Even though Fr. Garupe admired the steadfastness of Fr. Rodrigues early on in the film, it is actually Garupe who is the greater of the two. Rodrigues started strong and ended weak, whereas Garupe started weak and ended strong. Jesus said, “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). The same can be said of a priest’s love for his flock. It should be concerning that Rodrigues was so quick to respond in the way that he did, as if standing for Christ in the face of death has no value. “But what about the suffering of those whom He loves?” one might ask.

They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, “Remember the Lord.” Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them. – St Clement of Alexandria

Just before St Peter was willingly crucified upside down, he had to endure watching his wife die. That was part of his trial. But what did he do? Did he cry out to his executioners and denounce Christ to save her life? No. He knew that any man who loves his wife more than Christ is not worthy of Christ. He knew that martyrdom is a coronation, and to stop it would be to steal the “crown of life” (Jas 1:12). However, martyrdom is much more than a coronation; it is birth. It is the very means by which we become truly human.

For if ye are silent concerning me, I shall become God’s; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race… Birth-pangs are upon me. Do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. – Ignatius of Antioch

St Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Rome to force his loved ones to watch him suffer and do nothing. He calls them to not “love” his flesh. Ignatius even frames martyrdom as being born again. To prevent his martyrdom is to prevent him from living. To prevent his martyrdom is to prevent him from becoming human.

Christ said “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again,” (John 3:7). For it is “he who endures to the end” who shall be saved (Mat 24:13). Our Lord also said, “If you deny me before men, I shall deny you before my Father in heaven” (Mat 10:33). These are strong words to behold in the face of the Scorsese dilemma. Though, St Peter is both the rule and the exception, isn’t he? For truly it is he who, like Kichijiro, denied Christ multiple times. However, such denial came with a price. No longer could Peter hope to have a death like St John, but he must drink from that bitter cup of suffering if he wishes to be made whole (Mat 20:23). Christ does forgive, but it is concerning when Scorsese seems to ignore nearly everything Christ said about apostasy in order to portray a forgiving Christ.

When apostasy has no consequence, martyrdom has no meaning. It was Fr. Garupe who responded correctly, because he dove into the waters to save those whom he loved, and he died in the process. Fr. Garupe may have been silenced, but his actions continued to speak volumes. The enormous faith of the little peasant girl put Fr. Rodrigues to shame. There comes a time when man is called to give up those whom he loves back to God, as St Peter had to do with his wife. He called her to remember the Lord, for she belonged not to him, but to God. We can only live our lives by what Christ explicitly said, not hope that we might be a possible exception to what He said.

The name of the movie is “Silence,” and Scorsese was trying to convey the apparent silence of God in the midst of difficult circumstances. However, the sad reality is that the film more accurately conveys the silence of an apostate. A man who once had loud zeal and sought to pray without ceasing eventually closed his mouth for the rest of his life. The only sound that remained was the echo of his foot tramping upon the very face he once adored. The fiery spirit of hope became the flickering of a fire burning his cold mute corpse. His hand, once used to proclaim sacramental blessings as it moved to form the sign of the cross, was consumed alongside the last remaining memory of what a cross even looked like. There was nothing noteworthy or noble about his death, and Christ was not glorified in anything Fr. Rodrigues did after his apostasy. It seems to me that this was the real silence of Silence.

When beholding the most faithful and loving Christians he had ever seen, Fr. Rodrigues said, “I worry, they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself.” This is ironic, because they died with open and outstretched hands upon a cross, whereas Fr. Rodrigues died closed inside a burning tomb, being cremated with the light of the cross hiding under the bushel of his hand. Perhaps it is he who valued poor signs of faith more than faith itself.

I do not claim to know the fate of men like Rodrigues, but such a life is certainly worse than death.


  • Steve

    I think there’s one key piece to the story here that you didn’t address, and it’s what gave me the most pause when watching the film: Fr. Rodrigues’ apostasy is to save the lives of people who have already themselves apostacized. This is an unusual, and exceptional, situation, not something I remember reading about in any other martyrdom context. Peter watches his wife die joyfully because he knows her destination. But in Fr. Rodrigues’ case, he is presented with an awful choice: save his soul and condemn many other people to hell, or “sacrifice” himself and perhaps give them an opportunity to repent. Are there not similarities here to Paul’s wish to sacrifice his own should if only it meant his Jewish brothers were saved?

    I can’t say with confidence that Fr. Rodrigues did the right thing. But I do think it’s a more nuanced issue than it was presented as.


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