Monday, January 09, 2017

Making a virtue of apostasy: the "Step on me" Jesus of Endo's Silence


Monica Migliorino Miller, "Scorsese's Silence: Many Martyrs -- Little Redemption" (Crisis, January 9, 2017). An insightful review by an astute Catholic professor and critic. Excerpt:
In the film’s climatic scene Japanese Christians are horrifically tortured and Rodrigues is forced to watch. If he would only step on the fumi-e placed on the ground before him the torture would end. Ferreira is there urging him, as Rodrigues himself had urged others, to step on the face of Jesus. And of course the apostasy, as in all other instances, is connected to bringing an end to human suffering. It is this scene that makes the Scorsese film a theological failure. Ferreira is the Judas character—but it is very unclear whether this Judas functions negatively or positively. Is this a Judas who works against Christ—or is this a Judas, ala the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas who actually aids Jesus to accomplish his mission? Ferreira tells Rodrigues: “If Christ were here he would apostatize for their sake” and “To give up your faith is the most painful act of love.” (Spoiler alert.) Then the voice of Jesus himself is heard coming from the fumi-e image lying on the ground. It is a bronze plaque of the crucified Christ who Himself urges Rodriquez: “Step on me. I carried this cross for your pain.” With the permission of Christ, Rodrigues denies his Lord. Apostasy, this time his own, stops the suffering of others, and the Christians are not martyred.

This is the most troubling aspect of Silence. Jesus gives permission to betray him, gives Christians permission to fail in their witness. It makes all the difference whether the film intends this to be the voice of Christ to Rodrigues or whether the voice is just something Rodrigues imagines in his own head. In this reviewer’s opinion, Scorsese intends this to be Christ’s voice that clears the path to failure. First of all, technically speaking, it is sound outside of Rodrigues, emanating from the image to him. The voice is not presented as something coming from the interior of Rodrigues’ consciousness.

Why would Scorsese, based on Endo, give us a Christ who provides his followers permission to fail? What end does the “Step on me” Jesus serve? Since Rodrigues recommends apostasy only to avoid suffering, one could conclude that suffering trumps faith—that for the good of avoiding horrible pain, denial of Christ is justified as it is Jesus alone who “carries this cross for your pain.” Of course this consequentialist ethic is contrary to Christian faith and morals—namely to do evil for the sake of good.

One could also just as well conclude that the “Step on me” Jesus is a theology that only Christ’s suffering has any value. Human beings, due to their inherent sinful nature will inevitably fail, despite all high-minded goals and personal expectations and in the end all that matters is the abiding silent presence of God to those that suffer. However, this is an insufficient Christian message—especially when one considers that in God’s eyes human suffering does have salvific value as Saint Paul himself stated: “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church.”

Or when Rodrigues steps on Jesus this is meant to be indeed the “most painful act of love” as he surrenders his own ideal for the sake of saving others. However, this interpretation is seriously weaken by the fact that he is miserable afterwards and for decades to come will continue to step on the face of Christ in repeated acts of apostasy when no one needs to be delivered from torture.

If however, the voice is just Rodrigues’ own justification to deny Christ—then indeed he is a true apostate and the movie works as a tale of God’s abiding presence to all those who suffer—the suffering of the martyrs as well as the suffering of those like Rodrigues and Kichijiro who are tormented by remorse and guilt for their failure. Jesus is there silently in the suffering of all—as the “voice” from the image says: “I carried this cross for your pain.” And this works well when one considers that Kichijiro commits apostasy over and over again, and is even a Judas who betrays Rodrigues to the authorities. Yet he always seeks out the priest to confess his sins and receive absolution. And indeed mercy is there for those who fail. Silence poignantly illustrates this point. Rodrigues indeed follows Ferreira—who ironically has wound up mentoring him into the life of an apostate priest. But long after Rodrigues quits the priesthood Kichijiro finds him and begs him to hear his confession and Rodrigues again provides him the absolution for which he craves.

Except for Christ telling Rodrigues to “Step on me” this forgiveness scene would be the climax of the film, and thus Silence would be about the silent abiding presence of God to all, even to those who fail. But this possible climax is overwhelmed by the very troubling permission of Christ to fail. The first climactic scene plunges the Scorsese film into a most problematic and erroneous soteriology. The end of the film attempts to show a certain level of redemption for Rodrigues who apparently remained a Christian privately, but is not powerful enough to overcome a depiction of Christ who leads his faithful servant to deny him.

This movie seriously examines Christian themes and ideas. But should a film that, to its credit, does such an examination necessarily be called a Christian film? I think not. A Christian film cannot simply explore—it must conclude and it must conclude in a way that is consistent with the gospel message—however unconventionally, provocatively, or innovatively presented. There must be the Christ of the Gospels who, rather than commanding his faithful followers to step on him, and twists this negativity, this denial of the Light, into “the most painful act of love,” calls them to follow him to the Cross—the Christ who rather ensures his faithful: “From the cup I drink from you shall drink; the bath I am immersed in you shall share.”

Believers hoping for a film that explores Christian ideas from an authentic Christian context—should skip this one. Silence should also not be seen by the young, or those whose faith is not strong as the theology in this movie is complex, clever and seductive. However, if you are a mature Christian looking for a finely crafted, well-acted, disturbing film that provokes thinking and debates—then Silence is for you. Let the debates begin.


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