Apostasy, ambiguity and Silence

What is the Christian response to a perfect machine for destroying Christian witness?

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

“Every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32–33)

If we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful —
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:12–13)

These New Testament verses, among others, preserve and enshrine an essential precept of Christian praxis from its earliest days: the obligation to confess or acknowledge Christ, to publicly own one’s faith in him, even in the face of persecution, torture and even martyrdom. So grave is this obligation that we are told Christ will repay denial with denial; those who disown him he will disown.

Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence honors 17th-century Japanese martyrs who sang hymns as they succumbed slowly to grueling deaths. But it also empathizes with, perhaps even exonerates, many who capitulated to official demands for ritual renunciations of Christian faith — typically trampling on images of Jesus or Mary, called fumie, designated for this purpose. (Climactic spoilers follow.)

No response to this climactic crisis can be adequate without engaging this extraordinary dilemma, memorably expressed in a thoughtful essay on Silence by science-fiction writer (and self-proclaimed infidel) Adam Roberts: “If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would, of course, take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength?”

The climax depicts the protagonist, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield in Martin Scorsese’s haunting adaptation, apparently hearing the voice of Christ himself, speaking from the fumie, permitting and even urging him to trample.

The early Christians treasured the stories of martyrs like Polycarp who accepted death rather than participate in a ritual act — burning incense to Caesar the divine — considered tantamount to rejecting Christ. Those who capitulated, who apostatized, were considered beyond the mercy of the Church, at least until after the Decian persecution.

Understandably, Endo’s novel met with fierce controversy among Japanese Christians, and Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation has received a similarly mixed reception among American Christians.