Doubt, empire, and bold belief in the age of Trump.
Martin Scorsese's Silence is a movie about doubt. That's clear not only from a cursory viewing but also from the trailers and press surrounding the film. And doubt, we all know, is a theme that resonates profoundly in our current cultural, spiritual, and political moment.
The Jesuit missionaries (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) sent by the Church in Portugal to rescue their mentor (Liam Neeson) from impending apostasy under Japanese persecution both descend into doubt over the course of the film. And as viewers, we know they will; it feels as inevitable as the torture and massacre of the Japanese Christian peasants themselves at the hands of this brutal Buddhist regime.
Garfield's Father Rodrigues is center stage as he descends, slowly broken down by the senseless brutality he witnesses and the seemingly simple solution to it all. It was these European Christians, really, who forced their religion into the "soil" of Japan, causing this chaos and unrest and, at last, forceful uprooting. At least, that's what the empire's Inquisitor claims, along with his assistant. Denying the faith is all that's needed for peasant and priest alike to avoid the unfortunate consequence of burning, drowning, beheading - final, extreme measures to prevent the invasive roots of this religion from spreading.
Just step on an icon of Jesus - a simple movement of the leg and foot. After all, "it's only a formality."
If we are at first amazed by the simple faith of the Japanese Christians who continue to hold on in the face of desperate poverty, hidden isolation, and excruciating pain and loss, we are eventually haunted, with Rodrigues, by the thought that Christianity is the cause of all of it.
Scorsese's Silence is a movie about doubt. More particularly, or perhaps politically, it is a movie that devastatingly critiques European Christian colonialism.
But as powerful as that critique may be, it needs some qualification. Because what we never see here - and perhaps what never actually happened - is the kind of militarism or oppression of indigenous people that we usually associate with colonialism. The Church does not displace any government or social structure, at least not yet, and the evil of empire is only made manifest in the samurai's sword. What we see from these Jesuits is instead a rather pure form of pacifistic mission or evangelism - such that the gospel and the rituals of Christian religion actually do take root. When Rodrigues is still resisting apostasy, he counters the Inquisitor's agrarian metaphor: "But the soil has been poisoned!" (by the empire's persecution).
Much has been made about the movie's ending, which is, to my hopeful mind at least, incredibly beautiful. But the more subversive message is hidden away a bit earlier on. It is the moment of Rodrigues's apostasy, his denial of Christ, his stepping on the icon. It is not, of course, only a formality. It is the stuff of death - the death of his own obstinate faith in the face of undeniable reality. The death of his own ability to believe in such lofty spiritual principles in light of the deafening divine silence.
And it is at this moment of death, for the first time in the course of the film, that Christ speaks to Rodrigues.
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.
Then, after Rodrigues steps:
Your life is now with Me.
What are we to make of this death of faith in the fires of doubt and denial, met with the merciful voice of the One being denied? Met with the promise of life?
What relevance does it have to us, really, here and now, in Trump's America?
I saw Silence on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration.
This was strange timing, to be sure, and I didn't think that there would be any correlation between the two events. But I left the theater with a sense that I'd received a "word" from God. One that seemed to speak to my personal moment as well as this political moment. The word was, simply,
There are moments that make us doubt, desperately. Seasons of life, trials and tragedies - or the ascent of authoritarian, oppressive empire.
Doubt may bring us to the brink of the same kind of death Father Rodrigues underwent when he stepped. Do we hear the voice?
Come ahead now. It's alright. Step on me.
The evil of colonialism, that authoritarian spread of religion with the intent of overpowering, coercing, and oppressing peoples and cultures, is alive and well.
The Inquisitor and his assistant are quick to remind us that it's the arrogance of the European Church which insists on Christianizing the world - and dreams of a "Christian Japan." And we may safely surmise that after the Jesuit missionaries planted the seeds, and established a root system for the faith in Japan, the politicians wouldn't be far behind.
In Trump's America we have already come face to face with an authoritarian empire leadership that flies the Christian flag high. The rhetoric against immigrants and people of color and the poor, combined with the red-faced determination to "make America great again" and put "America first," signals a colonialist impulse with all the zeal of the Western Church's historic global exploits. The clear goal is for a particular brand of white Christian culture to take back the country and take over the government, diverse cultures and religions be damned.
And in the face of such leadership, the only appropriate, prophetic response is resistance.
But this film complicates the matter by refusing to demonize the Europeans or lionize the resistant Japanese. Instead, the perceived empire threat from the West is simply met by the most horrific empire violence from the East.
To really resist we must resist the way of empire itself.
I wonder if we see that resistance, that subverting of empire, most clearly on display in the priests and peasants who are martyred, as meaningless as it may seem in the moment.
Is the empire of both West and East mocked and overcome by Christ in the form of a faithful Japanese man hanging on a makeshift cross slowly dehydrating and drowning in the crashing Pacific surf?
The film makes no attempt to clean up Rodrigues's apostasy - he lives as an apostate until the end, in the service of the empire, in the hopes that he will save more Japanese people from death by stopping the spread of these European Christian roots. His mentor in the priesthood, Ferreira, becomes his mentor in apostasy too. Of Ferreira's new central beliefs, the one about the Japanese people not being able to fathom the Christian God in the first place, and syncretizing Catholic religion with their own language and spirituality, is the most convincing to Rodrigues. Maybe the roots were never real anyway. And the blood of the martyrs is certainly not the seed of the Church.
Then again, Rodrigues heard the voice.
He hears it one more time when the serial traitor Kichijiro again seeks a confessor, and Rodrigues, now a traitor too, proceeds, believing, with the blessing.
And then there's that ending: Rodrigues, old, dead, body burning in a Buddhist burial, clutching a peasant crucifix in the flame.
There is a message here, for us, who may have, in diverse ways at diverse times, but perhaps somewhat collectively in this political moment, found ourselves in the throes of a doubting death.
That message is, simply, that this death could very well be the way into something else.
Your life is now with me.
You don't have to believe that, and it may be hard to in this moment. It's not a demand, but an offer, to hope.
Because when all was said and done, Rodrigues could not escape the One who had already claimed his heart, whose pain was the pain of every peasant Christian who died, whose body - broken, given, risen - was the hope of all who suffer and doubt and deny and perish. Their hope, all along. The missionary would resist the empire, in a way, out of his refusal to deny the reality of people's pain, giving up any colonial mission in the hopes of saving lives and stopping the violence. But his doubting death would not be the end of his deep faith.
In this moment, whatever that moment may look like for any one of us, or for us collectively as a culture, however complex and confounding it may all be - we, too, must rid ourselves of any ideology that may keep us isolated and aloof and instead embrace the reality around us. Such may require a doubting death of us, too. But here, right here, there is an offer to move beyond that doubt and simply believe in this gospel of peace, in this Jesus-shaped religion.
And then, in that simple belief, to subversively resist.
The death of denial and doubt need not be an end. There is more life to come, greater justice, equity, and flourishing ahead.
Can you hear the voice?
If we have stepped, we may yet lift up our head and walk. We may yet believe, boldly.
I received free admission to the film for the purposes of this review.