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Silence, blasphemy, and moral blindness

February 27, 2017

At the climax of Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence, as of the novel by Shusaku Endo upon which it is based, a Jesuit missionary in Japan faces an apparent choice between an act of blasphemy and the death of his followers. I say apparent, because I do not think that there can ever arise a situation in which such a choice presents itself; and I think that this impossibility tells us something important about how persecution works. (In case it needs to be said: spoilers follow.)


Why can it not occur? Setting aside for a moment the book and film, let us imagine what such a situation might look like.

Suppose Bob’s friend Alice is trapped behind a door that has been accidentally sealed shut, and he will suffocate before help will arrive. The door has painted on it a sacred Christian image, to destroy which would, in Bob’s eyes (for Bob is Christian) be an act of blasphemy, at least under ordinary circumstances. But again, Alice will die if Bob does not break through the door. What should he do? “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) Jesus is not saying that one may break the sabbath in order to save a life; rather, he is saying that saving a life is not breaking the sabbath at all. The analogy between sabbath-breaking and image-breaking is not exact, but the same logic would apply here. Breaking down the door would not be a justified act of blasphemy, it would be no blasphemy at all.

What if Bob learns that the door sealing shut was no accident—someone wanted Alice to get trapped, so that he would be forced to destroy the sacred image? “They watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2). The malevolence of a third party does not change anything: Bob breaks through, saddened that he was forced to do so, but without regret.

Let’s change up the situation. Bob and Alice have gotten lost in the desert, and she will soon die of thirst. He has no way to signal for help other than by burning the sacred image he has been transporting. This scenario differs from the first in that destroying the image no longer contributes directly to saving Alice’s life; rather, it shows her location to another person, who then must decide to take action. It is an act of communication. An important difference—but not, yet, a relevant one. Any means of signalling would have worked, and it was pure bad luck that destroying the image was the only way to create such a signal. Bob may do so entirely free of blasphemous intention.

And what if he learns that getting lost in the desert was no accident—someone means to force him to burn the sacred image? The same applies as in the earlier scenario—the malevolence of a third party does not change the nature of the act. Bob lights the fire and wait for help to arrive.


But what if the only help that could arrive would come from whoever has trapped Bob into burning the image? Well, this might make no difference—if they would save her no matter how he signalled them, then the sacredness of the image does not contribute to the act of communication achieved by destroying it. In this case, Bob’s situation would no longer be pure bad luck, but still, all could be set right through the small miracle of finding something else to fuel the fire. He doesn’t need a ram caught in the thicket, he just needs a thicket. Others might disagree, but I don’t think this would be blasphemy.

Such indifference on the part of Bob’s tormentors does not, however, sound very likely. They have put him and Alice in the desert to force him to destroy the sacred image. Surely they already know where they are, and need no signal to know that Alice needs rescuing—they hold back solely because Bob has not yet destroyed the image. If by some miracle he manages to signal for rescue without doing so, will they accept this lying down? Or, as soon as they realize that he has not destroyed it (and assuming the miracle does not so impress them that they let them go) will they not leave them again in the desert, or try some other tactic to elicit blasphemy?

In such circumstances the sacredness of the image destroyed is not accidental to the act’s efficacy, but rather essential. Alice is not rescued due to Bob lighting a fire with what happens to be a sacred image; rather, she is rescued because Bob destroys a sacred image. Such an act must count as blasphemy if anything is to do so.

But still Bob does not face a choice between blaspheming and saving Alice’s life. He cannot save her life at all. The “because” in the previous paragraph is misleading. As mentioned earlier, Bob’s destruction of the image will not lead directly to Alice’s rescue, but rather indirectly, by means of communicating something to a third party—although what is communicated, now, is not her location (so that she can be saved) but rather his blasphemy (so that he can be damned). Bob has no power at all over Alice’s life—if he did, then a miracle could help him save it without blaspheming. But in the scenario we have sketched, no miracle could help him save her (though of course a miracle could save them both by removing them from the situation entirely).

This is because Bob is not at all faced with a choice between blaspheming and letting Alice die; rather, he is faced with his tormentors, who threaten his friend in order to persuade him to blaspheme. The tormentors hope, of course, that Bob do not notice this. The illusion of a choice between blaspheming and causing suffering is achieved by effacing those who create the necessity for such a choice.


In Silence, whose final scenario is identical in structure, though not in details, to that we have been considering, the various agents of persecution quite deftly avoid any suggestion that they have anything to do with it. “The price for your glory,” they tell Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues, “is their suffering”; “Do you have the right to make them suffer?” As if Fr. Rodrigues, rather than their tormentors, were the cause of their torment. At the same time, the persecutors insist to Fr. Rodrigues that trampling on the “fumi-e”—a small metal image of Jesus—is “only a formality.” Meaning, not that it will have no real effect (for Fr. Rodrigues, it will determine everything), but rather that the effect, not the intention, is what matters. They do not care if Fr. Rodrigues blasphemes in his heart, but only that he apostatize—visibly renounce his faith—by way of an act of blasphemy.

In other words, the persecutors will treat blasphemy like pushing a lever on a bureaucratic machine (no accident, perhaps, that trampling on the fumi-e looks something like pressing a car’s brake pedal). We are all used to the idea that, when we check the box saying we have read the agreement, we needn’t have actually read it in order for the law to treat us as if we did so. Trampling on the fumi-e, according to the persecutors, will not say anything about Fr. Rodrigues’ soul, but it will have the effect of him living under Japanese law as if he has abandoned his faith. Is there any difference between the two? “Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?” (Mark 4:22) Scorsese’s film seems to think so; Endo’s novel is, I think, less sanguine about the possibility of invisible Christianity. To live a life of pure formality, just “going through the motions,” is incompatible with an evangelical faith unless one denies the humanity of those with whom one lives.

I have been referring to Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors with the collective “they,” but both novel and film do much to differentiate their characters, particularly the Translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and Fr. Ferreira. In trampling on the image, Fr. Rodrigues tells these three men that he does not believe, and so abandons any hope of their hearing the Gospel and converting. He does not think that he is doing so, of course. He is not thinking about his persecutors at all; he thinks that he is risking his own soul in exchange for the lives of his followers. He sees it this way, however, only because they have convinced him to do so. They have become invisible. In one of the films’ darkly comic scenes, Fr. Rodrigues demands to be taken to Inquisitor Inoue, not realizing that his demand is addressed to—Inquisitor Inoue.

Inoue makes himself invisible through words, but also through actions. Most importantly, he tortures Fr. Rodrigues’ friends in order to make him—not them—convert. This horrifying indifference to human life—torture without even a pretense of justice—is meant to show Fr. Rodrigues that Inoue cannot be swayed, and cannot be saved. Formalities, after all, can be dispensed with, if the other party is willing. If the other party refuses despite the inhumanity of the form, that inhumanity begins to color the other party as well.


Ought Fr. Rodrigues to trample on the image? If so (and setting aside the possibility of special and incomprehensible revelation), it is because the souls of Fr. Rodrigues’ persecutors do not outweigh the lives of his Japanese followers. I do not see how this could be the case unless, by torturing the innocent, they have placed themselves beyond the pale of forgiveness—but Christ, at least, did not think that an impassible barrier. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Instead of trampling the image of Jesus—or, at the very least, in addition to it—Fr. Rodrigues ought to pray for Inoue’s soul. We see no indication that he does so; he cannot even recognize Inoue when he sees him.

This last observation may strike the reader as obvious, but in all the discussion of the film that I have read, I have not seen it. It is easy to focus on Fr. Rodrigues’ internal dilemma, caught between blaspheming and watching his followers die. Doing so can, as many have observed, prevent us from seeing the heroism of other characters—the Japanese martyrs, Fr. Garupe—who undergo a more conventional martyrdom. It can also, however, prevent us from seeing the humanity of other characters, like the Japanese persecutors. Unless we see the humanity of Inoue, and refuse (contra Inoue himself) to believe that it is unsalvageable, it is difficult to understand how refusing to trample on the fumi-e could be an act of charity. It comes to look like a prideful preservation of one’s own sanctity at the expense of others’ lives. In the face of human suffering, such pride is difficult to maintain. If, on the other hand, we see Inoue as a possible (if unlikely) recipient of the Christian Gospel, the importance of resisting him becomes easier to see. One should resist blasphemous demands because the blasphemy demanded would harm even the one demanding it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Szymon permalink
    March 19, 2017 8:52 pm

    As usual, well worth the time spent reading.

  2. September 20, 2017 10:32 am

    “You are an evil man who tortures and murders people. That is true no matter what I do. Their lives are in your hands, not mine. If I step on this cross, I’m just helping you lie to yourself about who is responsible for your crimes. How will you ever repent of your sins if I help you deceive yourself? I beg you, for the sake of your soul, do not hurt these people. This cross means that if you turn away from your crimes, God will forgive you.”


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