St. Francis Xavier travelled to Japan in the mid 16th century and began a successful missionary movement. In 1582 it was estimated that there were about 200,000 Christians in Japan. This new religion was tolerated at first, at least in part because the Spanish and Portuguese traders that came with the missionaries also brought lucrative trade. But it did not last.
When the Tokugawa shogunate took power in the early 17th century, the Shoguns began to be uncomfortable with Christianity. They saw how the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were colonizing China and Korea, and worried that if Christianity continued to grow the same thing could happen to Japan. And so in 1614 all Catholic missionaries were expelled, though a few priests were allowed to remain. Lay Christians were required to swear at least nominal allegiance to the shogunate by registering at a local Buddhist temple.
This was the beginning of the end, though. The colonization of China and Korea continued. The French joined the Spanish and Portuguese, and the Protestant English and Dutch were just as aggressive. And so, by the mid 17th century all forms of Christianity was outlawed, all missionaries and many lay Christians were expelled. Any remaining Christians who refused to renounce their religion were executed. This persecution drove the few remaining Christians underground where they remained until Commodore Perry force Japan to re-open itself to trade in 1853.
In the 1960s Shusaku Endo, reflecting on this history, asked himself what a Jesuit priest would encounter if he smuggled himself into Japan in about 1640s, after the Tokugawas forced Christianity underground. The result was what most critics rank as his masterpiece, the novel Silence. Martin Scorsese has made the novel into, as they say, a major motion picture. I have not seen the film and so I have nothing to say about it. The novel, though, is a different story. It is a wonderful book.
Endo’s main character, the Jesuit priest Father Rodrigues, smuggles himself and a colleague into Japan. Eventually he is captured and is forced to watch as believers are tortured and executed in the most heinous ways. Much of the book is taken up in his agonized reflections on God’s silence. How can God permit such evil to continue? Why does He not intervene? Where is God’s love, God’s justice? Does not His very silence condemn Him as complicit in the evil? Yet how can God be evil? How can we understand the extreme silence of God?
Endo is hardly the first to turn these questions into great literature. Think of the silence of Christ in the face of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Think of the enormous literature of The Holocaust that wrestles with the very possibility of religion in the face of the silence of God. “Where is God?” is Elie Wiesel’s agonized question in Night, and the haunting answer comes “There. On the scaffold.”
In the early 1970s Wiesel and the French composer Darius Milhaud collaborated in writing the oratorio Ani Maamin. The Three Patriarchs confront God with The Holocaust, yet God remains silent. Each tells a story of suffering and after each story, God remains silent. When they are finished, a voice demands of them,
Does not God have the right
To question you, in turn,
To ask of man:
What have you done with my creation?
They are dumbfounded and return to Earth. This time they see faith, infinite hope, flourishing in the midst of suffering. They do not realize that God has come with them, and weeps for the faith of the Jewish people. The oratorio closes with an affirmation:
I believe in you
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing,
Who mock the man who mocks the Jews,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over:
Ani maamin. [I believe.]
At the end of Silence, Rodrigues wrestles one final time with God and says, “Lord, I resented your silence.” And God answers, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” This is also Wiesel’s answer. Rodrigues is comforted by the realization that even Judas suffered. Even Judas was in anguish. Even those who desecrate God’s creation, in their very acts of evil, suffer. And God suffers with them. The books ends with Rodrigues saying to himself, “…Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this point would have spoken of him.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” This infinite hope, I suggest, is the very essence of faith. Both Endo and Wiesel, out of their own traditions, are telling us that it is, ultimately, the answer to the apparent silence of God. I agree with them. Read the book.