Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.
Luke 22:31 Jesus’ warning to Simon Peter
Martin Scorsese’s epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō is a stunning but challenging work of cinematic achievement. Like all truly beautiful art, Silence requires demands our full attention to even begin to process it subtlety and symbolism.
Silence starts as a Heart of Darkness search for a brilliant Jesuit priest Father Cristóvão Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) who may have apotheosized his Catholic Faith during the Christian persecutions in 17th Century Japan. Horrified at the slander to their mentor and spiritual father, two younger Portuguese Jesuits, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) volunteer to search Japan for him. At best they hope to clear his name, or if the worse be true, to save his soul for God.
Their guide to the hidden Christian communities in Japan is the drunken outcast Kichijiro who has apostatized his Catholic faith. Of course apostatizing is very simple: all one needs to do is to step on a carved icon called a “fumie.” Kichijiro has survivor’s guilt after watching his entire family martyred for their Christian faith. He begs Father Rodrigues to hear his confession and laments that he is a weak man who should have been born in a more peaceful time.
Fr Rodrigues and Father Garupe find the faith still alive in small, isolated villages. The Japanese Catholics they find there have been without a priest and the Sacraments for years. Christ’s lambs are starving and eagerly embrace the priest who in turn feed them with the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession. For a short time the priests minister their flock but with the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, closing in Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe decide to split up.
Kichijiro, the weak man that he is, betrays Father Rodrigues to the Inquisitor and is placed with other captured Christians. Defiant, Father Rodrigues says that persecution only makes him stronger and says he wants a “real challenge” to his faith. That severe challenge arrives in the person of Father Ferreira, who has indeed apostatized.
Liam Neeson’s Ferreira is a broken, joyless man, who nervously glances back to his Japanese handlers under the shocked accusations from Rodrigues. Not only is Ferreira a defeated man but he is also an evil man in the sense of St. Thomas Aquinas. He’s evil not because of what he does but by what he lacks. He is a man deprived of almost every good: his faith, his culture, his courage, his vocation as a priest, even his very identity. Ferreira’s inward damnation is effectively symbolized by the Japanese name of an executed criminal that is now forced upon him as his own. Very little of Ferreira is left in the shell of a man that sits across from Rodrigues. As Ferreira himself states, “I am he is no longer the man that you once knew”.
That night, Father Rodrigues is forced to watch five Japanese Christian tortured by anazuri (a method that involves being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled). In the shadowy darkness of the Father Rodrigues’s prison cell, Ferreira’s eyes shine black. He taunts Rodrigues, saying that the tortured screams he is hearing is his own fault, if he would just but lightly touch the fumie with his foot it the prisoners would be released. With the fumie just a step away, Ferreira administers the coup de gras, telling Rodrigues if Christ was here right now He would step on the Fumie to save the tortured people and that it would be Rodrigues greatest act of love if he would just step. At this moment, Christ apparently breaks His silence to Rodrigues: “Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.”
As Rodrigues steps, a cock crows three times …
Was the voice of Christ real? Was it just the delusion of a sleep deprived, tortured brain? Or was the voice something else entirely? One hint seems to emerge as the voice continues after Rodrigues steps: “Your life is now with Me.” Jesus said that the greatest love is for a man to lay down for the sake of others but only the Devil would ask a man to lay down his very soul to save himself from pain.
So what about us? Rodrigues fumie undid him because he fell victim to two lies: The belief that the innocent can be made responsible for the evil actions of others, in this case the torture of the Japanese Christians, and that doing evil to counter a greater evil will bring about a good. For Rodrigues the results were tragic, he lost everything and at best he may have only one a temporary reprieve for the Japanese Christians who will likely still face death at a later time.
We are faced with Fumies whenever we believe that doing a “small” evil in the hope of preventing an even greater evil add up to a good. It is only with faith, trust and above all else humility that can give us the strength not to step when we should not.