The Silent Community

Silence may have more to say about the faith of the Church than the personal journey of the individual believer.

Silence is the story of a strong-minded Christian leader reduced to a collaborator against his own faith–unable, unwilling, or otherwise led astray from the path of martyrdom and consistent affirmation of the truth he loves. For a Christian, it is the ultimate horror story, because in the end it seems to either damn the follower or damn the faith. For the believing mind, these are two equal and opposite sources of spiritual depression–the Scylla and Charybdis lying on either side of the narrow way. Silence would have been somehow more bearable if only the faith of a naive minister was at stake, but the novel’s aim goes further: Endo wants to put the faith of the entire community of Japan on the operating table. Here lay the most challenging and perplexing theme of Endo’s book for me: the question of whether an entire community of people may fall outside of God’s grace despite their best efforts, or else that they had never accepted the truth at all.

To enter this wound, Endo uses the disturbing device of the antagonists being more insightful than the protagonists. But for there to be any hope in Silence, evil could not have the last word. Throughout, I read with rapt attention trying to discern whether there was any lie or mistake in Ferreira and Inoue’s appraisal that Christianity is incompatible with Japan.

I think I found it: I have to think that Ferreira is mistaken when he claims that the communities of Japanese believers are not Christians on the basis of their understanding of God. He says that they cannot conceive of God as anything other than “a glorified man.” Ferreira regards this as pure syncretism, but there is another way to look at it: that the lived experience of suffering brings the Japanese to a deep understanding about the incarnation. After all, God became a man, a man of sorrows, who suffered like they did, and was glorified for it. What if, due to their sufferings and their lack of Aristotelian categories of being, the Japanese believers found it either impossible or irrelevant to see beyond the humanity of God?1 The point that, I think, Endo desperately wants his readers to hear–so desperately that he scrupulously avoids coming out and saying it–is that the Lord did establish his church in Japan, but he spoke to them in a language and through experiences that the Western church could neither hear nor understand.2

My hunch is that neither Ferreira nor Rodrigues can fully grasp this. Inoue does, but only up to the limit of his concerns. Because he is not a believer, and is really only interested in stopping the influence of foreign powers on his people–the political implications of faith–he is content to let the “strange Christianity” of the farmers pretty much alone, supposing they will eventually wither and die out. But though the Church never flourished, it never died either–the author’s own upbringing proves it. Throughout the novel, Rodrigues too supposes that if he and Garrpe are captured or killed, the Church in Japan will be lost, apparently forgetting how the Japanese community subsisted on lay-leadership before his arrival.3 At the end of the novel, after Rodrigues apostatizes, the magistrates still find it necessary to put to death yet another stubborn family of Japanese Christians. If Japan is ultimately inscrutable to the Western Church, so too is native Japanese Christianity inscrutable to both the Japanese authorities and (sadly) the Western Church. Perhaps Silence is Endo’s attempt to make his church comprehensible both to Western believers and Japanese nonbelievers. Today, the literature on indigenous Christianity is much more robust and accepted by orthodox Christians and practitioners of mission. But if I’m right about Silence, Endo was surely ahead of his time.4

While I was living in Africa, I had the chance to meet a Catholic priest named Claude Boucher. He founded a mission in central Malawi named Mua with a very different philosophy of mission than most other churches in the region. When Boucher arrived in Malawi in the the 1970s, he did not lay plans for a Bible college or a chapel. Instead, he immersed himself in the culture of the Chewa tribe so thoroughly that he was the only white man to ever see certain of their sacred rituals. For this reason, he was the subject of no small amount of controversy–many rituals involve the sort of dramaturgy that appears to invite spiritual possession. But he felt it was necessary for the flourishing of the Church. Boucher described to me the culture of the Chewa people as roots which nourish the trunk and branches of the Christian faith. “Let them grow into good Chewa, and then they will grow into good Christians.” After finishing Silence, I wondered whether the same could be said for the believers in Japan, and how history might have turned out differently if the “strange thing” of Japanese worship could have been recognized by the broader Church, not as a syncretic bruised reed, but as a good shoot awaiting full flower–a spore ready to permeate the swamp. One way of interpreting Rodrigues’s fate is that of a forced conversion–not to Buddhism–but to the Church of Japan.

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1 At any rate, true heresy has to be a willful rejection of truth and an unwillingness to be corrected–attitudes the Japanese community of believers certainly never espouse. Ferreira, to my mind, is simply falling short of the mercy of God and his forbearance of the limited understanding of his creatures.
2 A minor detail at the end of the book supports this reading. While identifying Christian artifacts for the magistrate, Rodrigues and Ferreira find an image of the Virgin Mary with a Dutch inscription which they cannot read. The incursion of Catholicism from an entirely different culture and language presents some problems for Inoue and his apostate priests, and it subtly reveals the universality of the faith and how it grows up in many languages and cultures.
3 I would hazard to say that lay-leadership is another important practice of the Japanese believers that the Western Church has neglected to see. In the 20th Century, the Church in Africa exploded in converts through the strategy of giving lay-leaders a very long leash to preach the gospel, plant their own congregations, and administer the sacraments (blessed elsewhere by a priest.) Often, these ‘catechists’ will have ministered to a congregation almost exclusively for years before they are ordained to the priesthood. A growing body of evidence from churches around the world suggests that lay-leadership is the most effective tool in establishing the Church. To my mind, the Japanese magistrates might have done a better job stamping out the Japanese church had they the reserved largest reward for informing on a catechist rather than a priest.
4 The only other writer I can think of to articulate these themes explicitly was an Anglican missionary named Roland Allen whose written work in the early 20th Century was strongly critical of his own culture’s cumbersome philosophy of mission and advocated for releasing indigenous converts quickly to establishment of their own churches and ordain their own ministers. In the late 1970s, Vincent J. Donovan, a Catholic missionary to the Masai in Kenya, effectively carried out Allen’s method and documented his work in the book Christianity Rediscovered.

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