Last night the Monday night study group I’m in watched the movie Silence .
The film takes place in 17th century, feudal Japan and is told from the point of view of a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who, travel there in an attempt to find out what happened to their revered teacher and mentor, also a Jesuit priest (Father Ferreira – played by Liam Neeson) who preceded them in their mission to Japan and reportedly renounced his faith after torture at the hands of the Japanese “inquisitor”.
I believe that Martin Scorsese knew that most people would see a particular theme in the film. Reviews and commentary following it’s release certainly followed this thinking.
In a January 5, 2017 article in the Chicago Sun Times, Richard Roeper wrote about the movie and what he felt was the essential message of the film…
“Silence,” the movie Scorsese has been trying to get made for some 30 years, is a two-hour and 40-minute epic about faith.
Faith and how it inspires acts of miraculous, selfless sacrifice.
Faith and how it can be the main source of hope and redemption for oppressed peoples.
Faith and how it can be viewed as a threat to the very fabric of a nation.
Faith and how it can be warped to inspire acts of terrible, shocking, unspeakably cruel violence.
In a December 22, 2016, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that a central theme of the film revolves around the question of God’s silence.
Why, does God not answer prayers and alleviate suffering?
I saw a different message in the telling of this tale. One that I also found in the common understanding of the stories in the Bible. There are the stories most people know and recognize on the surface that are told repeatedly through lectionary cycles in many Christian denominations. But for me there are often other meanings that come alive when I think about and imagine the stories in a broader context.
This is not intended as a critical assessment. I don’t believe I’m being critical when I address a historical reality that may be somewhat unpleasant to consider.
The story of this film centers on the persecution of Christians. But there’s often more than one side of any story. In this case, this other side is even given voice near the end of the film by the character of the fallen priest, Father Ferreria.
When the Portuguese Jesuit’s first encountered the people in the islands of Japan, what did they expect to find and what was their intent regardless of what they found?
The intent of the Jesuit order is the salvation and perfection (i.e. the justification and sanctification) of each individual Jesuit and, ultimately, every human being.
They arrived in Japan with the intent to convert the Japanese people into Christians. They were certain that there was no redeeming value in any belief system that was non-Christian, so they didn’t bother to understand it beyond what they might need to know to build arguments for their Christian beliefs in opposition to the beliefs of the natives.
They arrived in Japan to indoctrinate the local people in the dogma and doctrine of the Christian church. Essentially, to replace one system of domination with another.
I find it very unlikely that this is what Jesus had in mind. Had they been following the Way of Jesus they would not have focused so much effort on teaching that following the doctrines and rituals of the church, in the face of severe oppression, would bring them an existence in paradise after they have endured great suffering and death at the hands of their oppressors.
I believe that Jesus intended to spread the word that there was a way to establish paradise on earth in the current time.
God’s kingdom on earth.
The Jesuits didn’t understood why the Japanese feared their conversion attempts. They failed to understand that Buddhist teaching left room for people to learn about the Way of Jesus without abandoning their traditional beliefs.
We’ve seen these misunderstandings repeated in history. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that resulted in the subjugation of the indigenous tribes of the Americas is but one example.
There are other ways to understand God than the one taught through traditional Christianity. In fact, there are other ways to understand God that leave room for the Way of Jesus and his teachings, as well as those of others.
For me, this movie pointed out that there is real danger in assuming that the beliefs we hold are the only valid or valuable beliefs there can be.
Jesus did not teach us to force our will on others. He taught inclusion not exclusion. His Way was really fairly simple.
Love those around you. Especially those who are different from you. Especially those who would want to mistreat you or harm you. Love them deeply.
Cast off your hold on possessions and things and bring your wealth together into common community to care for those who have less.
Advocate for justice, but not in terms of our western understanding of justice as law. Instead through Jesus understanding of justice as the social manifestation of love.