Generally I give Bishop Barron’s commentaries on movies the benefit of the doubt, and after watching the movie “Silence” I found myself entirely agreeing with his assessment of the movie itself. I would like to offer an additional reflection on a theme in the movie which I found troublesome. Bishop Barron focused on the particular aspect of the film where there was a great amount of ambiguity between the tensions of the secular and the “missionary.” In other words, this movie portrays a value that belongs to the secular-humanism of our day, whereby survival and human flourishing under the utilitarian model of morality thrives and triumphs in the face of a seemingly stuck-up insistence on Orthodoxy and avoiding heresy. This of course is represented by the façade of practicality, where the mere adherence to lofty doctrines becomes a divisive and meaningless hill to die upon. If we are to pick our battles, will we really die on a hill in regard to who God is – is that what God would want us to do, or would God prefer us to get along, and put His identity in the unimportant reality of indifference or anonymity? One can see how the secular becomes the over-arching and authoritative principle here, whereby religion no longer transcends the goals of man, but the goals of man transcend the mission given by God to the world. The two are in direct competition, and as a way of reconciling one to the other, religion or the state must place itself above the other. God however doesn’t want the two to be in competition, he wants them to be in harmony with one another – seeing the natural law and the divine law as fitting together, enabling the world to flourish as it was designed to. God’s will, will always be supreme, but it is not in competition with what man truly needs to flourish and survive, eternally. Without faith, however, the secular mindset will always seek to dominate the religious, and so in this movie what we see is a priest who denies the faith, living in “peace” in a country that continues to persecute and murder his own brothers and sisters. Of course after he abandons the faith, it does not show the continued persecution of those he was charged to encourage and feed, all it shows is his own inner-struggle to maintain the faith, and yet survive in his temporal life. What we have here is a “domesticated Christian.” If the world has domesticated Christ’s message, it is likely because they hope that such a vision will be imitated by this version of “Christ,” and thus weed out the seemingly dumb, unsophisticated followers of Christ who blindly suffer unnecessarily in order to obtain the prize: heaven.
The so-called “swamp” of Japan, explained in the movie forgets that we have a God who changes landscapes, turning deserts into flourishing springs of water, while reducing productive places into wastelands. Christ is not subject to a culture or other religious and secular values, He is rather the very ground of being, with which all things move, breathe and have being – the message of Christ will not only survive the swamp, it will transform it anew, provided the Christians tap into such faith, and move such mountains.
I cannot say the entire movie was bad, because it frankly wasn’t. The people’s love for the priests was touching, and their fellowship and charity towards one another and most importantly Christ was altogether beautiful. But this, while demonstrated wasn’t meditated upon enough. It was not some dialectical version of doctrine that these people died for, nor was it merely to enter into paradise, as if some sort of utilitarian agenda enabled them to endure their suffering. The saints die out of Love for the very Persons of God. Transcending mere affection for God, the soul of a saint is entirely united to the Son where they themselves echo the very death of Christ in the world by their own example, and in fact take part in redeeming the world by forgiving their captors and persecutors, while also demonstrating by their behaviour that they must obey God and not men. This motion is anything but dying for a philosophy “about God” but rather dying “in God” and for Love of Him. To miss this, is to miss all of Christianity. To realize in the depths of our heart that martyrdom is actually a gift that can give joy to the soul, the soul that suffers torments but by them are liberated from an addiction to honour, pleasure, wealth, and power. The spiritual freedom that comes from such torment, the cross which transforms our nature so as to become fully human: that is what this priest deprived his people of – and had He remembered that he did not feed them bread-alone, but on the very bread of life, the very love of the Father – He would have seen his own actions as depriving His children of that faith by his own witness.
Does any of this mean that a pastor should not fight to protect his own children from martyrdom? The question must be brought to serious prayer. We know that when St. Peter demanded that Jesus not die at the hands of the Roman Soldiers, he was reproved by Christ in a most stern manner. That is all to say, that if it is God’s will that the Son of man, and His followers are to lay down their life for love of God, that a Pastor should not step in their way. However, we also know that sometimes this death-to-self takes place in other ways, other than martyrdom, and thus we must be discerning of where and when God wants his people to die. But the matter is already resolved – all of us are called to pick up our cross and follow Christ. Christ therefore is the antithesis of this pastor – because not only did Christ realize His own suffering, but he also knew of the suffering of those He selected and called to follow Him. He knew that they, but one, would die a horrible and terrible death – and commanded them to nonetheless follow Him. Christ did not make peace with the state, and did not use His power to overcome the Roman Empire, though He could have. Rather he sought to take the fight to a deeper and more secret place: the soul. The soul is where the battle is really fought, and without suffering man remains forever in His chains.
The last thing I would like to reflect upon is simple, but challenging to understand. I call it the “blame-game.” One of the things that irritated me to no-end in the movie was the smiling faces of some of the Japanese leaders who acted so caviller about their own behaviour. It was as if, in their own mind they had shifted the entire tragedy and the killing of so many Christians on the very backs of the Christians themselves. That is to say, it wasn’t the state’s fault that these Christians suffered, it was their own fault, and ultimately the priest’s fault. Where do we see this “shifting” of the blame in scripture? Right after the first sin – Adam and Eve cannot take responsibility for their own actions, and somehow find a way to shift the blame. Adam shifts the blame to Eve, who then in turn shifts the blame to the devil. But no one takes responsibility – and as a result: no one changes. In this movie, as we see in the history of mankind, those who actively use power create the illusion that they are merely acting in a determined fashion, and place the shame and guilt on their victims in order to manipulate them into believing that they actually have control over the situation. This priest was manipulated in such a way – he was not to blame for the suffering of these Christians. Those who were to blame were those crucifying and drowning and torturing them to death.
As Christians we have to hold up a mirror to others, and to reflect back to them their own behaviour. Like water that is still, we reflect in peace and mercy the cruelty of others by turning the cheek. Here we must see clearly that His responsibility was to not play the game at all – but rather to preach to the guards, to forgive them for their sins against the Christians, and to preach to them about how God could forgive even these Japanese persecutors for their crimes – but in no way to take responsibility or even begin to take responsibility for their suffering and death. The moment the priest allowed himself to be convinced of this lie, his conscience was then malformed to cooperate with them and deny Christ.
One final word, it must be said in all humility that while I have a clear mind on this matter, even St. Peter believed himself to be able to stay true to God in the face of persecution. Yet he nonetheless failed – because it requires supernatural grace – and not man’s mere will-power. The strength of a dying Christian in the face of persecution is the strength of God himself – and to the world this seems like a weakness, but that is because one cannot conceive of how tolerating such pain and suffering for love of God is an actual strength, especially when God is only understood as a thought, an idea, as a fantasy or a fairy tale. But for those who have been given faith, whereby it has weight, and is more real than our own very existence, to suffer is to be freed and liberated from the crippling effects of original-sin – and to be liberated in this world to express true love and devotion to our God. So to quote St. Lawrence, the martyred deacon of our faith to the secular world and all those who would persecute Christians inside and outside of the Catholic faith: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”