Rereading Silence, Part 3– On Mercy

Rereading Silence, Part 3– On Mercy

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” Ephesians 2:4-6

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. “ 1 Peter 1:3-5

God’s Rich Mercy and the Imperishable Inheritance

While it should go without saying that Christians are called to relieve suffering whenever possible—the corporal and spiritual works of mercy delineate many ways in which we are called to minister to those who are suffering both physically and spiritually— still, Christ did not become man and die on the cross so that there will be no more suffering in this life. Never does he promise us that we will not suffer if we follow him. On the contrary, he tells us to take us our crosses to follow him. Christ’s redemptive work on the cross is ultimately ordered toward the forgiveness of sins, and saving us from the eternal pains of hell and separation from God, not toward the alleviation of temporal suffering. Christ’s passion points us to the deeper truth that mercy’s final aim is our complete union with God in heaven. And Christ’s commandment to pick up our cross to follow him tells us that our path to heaven is not avoidance of suffering, but rather the opposite. If we want to follow him, we must embrace our cross, not run away from it.

And understanding this point is vital to understanding the climactic scene where Rodrigues apostatizes. Over and over again as we approach that moment we see Rodrigues tormented by the spectacle of the physical suffering of the Japanese Christians that does not at all match with his romanticized notion of the martyr as tragic hero. Over and over again in his prayer and meditation Rodrigues turns away from the spectacle of the Crucified Christ. When he mentally urges the Christians to apostatize it is because he wants there to be an end not as much to their suffering as to having to witness their suffering. He doesn’t want to actually see Christ crucified in the flesh. He can’t look at Christ crucified in his imagination; he most certainly can’t look at Christ in the peasants being tormented. He refuses to suffer with them, refuses them true compassion, and instead offers them a counterfeit mercy, one which is only concerned with the pain of the body and which does not at all comprehend the spiritual agony of separation from God.

Mercy is the application of the merits of Christ’s sacrifice to our brokenness, to our sins, to restore relationship with God so that justice might be fulfilled and restored. Our sins cry out to God for justice and Christ takes the punishment for sin on himself. So if Rodrigues wants to be like Christ, rather than trying to remove the suffering of the Japanese Christians, he would take on their suffering himself and make it redemptive by joining it to Christ’s suffering. Perhaps he could be like Garrpe, jumping into the water to be with those who are drowning. But it seems he’s more like Jonah, the prophet, unwilling to face his mission. Jonah doesn’t think that the Ninevites deserve to be saved from destruction. Rodrigues also seems to find the Japanese unlovable. Not because of a failing in them but because of his own reluctance to look on the face of the suffering Christ, because of his own fear of suffering.

What is Mercy? The Interpreter’s Question and Lie

The interpreter asks Rodrigues to define mercy:

“Tell me. This mercy that the Christians talk about— what is it?” 

But Rodrigues avoids the question:

“‘You’re like a cat that teases a little animal,’ murmured the priest, looking at the other with his sunken eyes.

And again the interpreter tries to press him, only to be interrupted: “I have been told that in Christianity the first thing is mercy and that God is Mercy itself. . . ”

The interruption is a flurry of activity in the boat where three of the Japanese Christians are being tortured. And Rodrigues’ response to the sight of their suffering and the prospect of their martyrdom is to shout in his heart: “Apostatize! Apostatize!”

It is telling that Rodrigues never does answer the question or give us his definition of mercy. The reader is left with a hanging question and the only answer must be gleaned by observing the action of the novel. What does Rodrigues imagine mercy to be? What does Endo want the reader to understand about mercy? Does Rodrigues confuse wanting to see an end to the Japanese Christians’ suffering with divine mercy? Or does his revulsion at the suffering merely leave him vulnerable to Ferreira’s words when during the novel’s climax he suggests that Christ would have apostatized, that divine mercy would be more concerned with putting an end to the agony of the martyrs at any cost.

The interpreter, however, does at length attempt to answer his own question, conflating Christian mercy with a Buddhist understanding:

the path of mercy means simply that you abandon self. Nobody should worry about getting others into his religious sect. To help others is the way of the Buddha and the teaching of Christianity— in this point the two religions are the same.

He flattens out all theological differences, telling a plausible lie, that the point of Christianity is merely to selflessly help other people. But this is syncretism. And it is a lie. It denies the Incarnation, it denies the Passion, it denies Heaven and Hell. It is Christianity reduced to being nice and helpful to other people. The interpreter’s mercy is a poor mercy, a thin mercy; a merely human mercy, not a divine mercy.

Ferreira’s Lie: For Love Christ Would Have Apostatized

”Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them,” Ferreira repeats three times to Rodrigues at the novel’s climax. “Christ would certainly have apostatized to help men.” And again, “For love Christ would have apostatized. Even if it meant giving up everything he had.”

Ferreira’s great lie is to say that Christ himself would have apostatized, which is utter nonsense. Apostasy is complete rejection, denial, abandonment of faith. How can Christ deny himself? As the second letter of Timothy says:

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.

Certainly in his suffering Jesus feels abandoned, and cries out to that effect: “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” But that feeling of abandonment is not real. It is emotion, not an observation of reality. Moreover, Christ’s words are , in fact, a quotation from Psalm 22. This Psalm begins in lamentation, but, with a sudden, surprising shift in tone, ends not in despair but in praise and trust in God to deliver the speaker from the dire straits he is in:

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!

Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:

You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

The Psalm goes so far as to not only ask for deliverance, but to state that God already has delivered the speaker from the horns of the wild oxen. The speaker is already giving God thanks for an accomplished fact. In quoting this Psalm Jesus is pointing to the fact that his own death is in fact accomplishing the deliverance promised by the Psalm. 

So far from denying God, Jesus is affirming God, affirming his mission, affirming his divinity.

My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?

And yet when Rodrigues ponders this same passage as he’s thinking about the Japanese martyrs whose deaths he has witnessed, when he begins to think of Christ on the cross calling out the words of the Psalm, Christ feeling abandoned by God, he shies away from contemplating the cross and instead of allowing himself to enter into Christ’s prayer, he reads it as a moment of terror at the silence of God. As in so many of his prayers, he redirects to himself and his own fear and stops there, mired in doubt and denial.

“On that night had that man, too, felt the silence of God? Had he, too, shuddered with fear? The priest did not want to think so. Yet this thought suddenly arose within his breast, and he tried not to hear the voice that told him so, and he wildly shook his head two or three times. The rainy sea into which Mokichi and Ichizo had sunk, fastened to stakes! The sea on which the black head of Garrpe, chasing after the little boat, had struggled wildly and then floated like a piece of drifting wood! The sea into which those bodies wrapped in straw matting had dropped straight down! This sea stretched out endlessly, sadly, and all this time, over the sea, God simply maintained his unrelenting silence. ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!’ With the memory of the leaden sea, these words suddenly burst into his consciousness. Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!’ It is three o’clock on that Friday; and from the cross this voice rings out to a sky covered with darkness. The priest had always thought that these words were that man’s prayer, not that they issues from terror at the silence of God.

Did God really exist? If not, how ludicrous was half of his life spent traversing the limitless sea to come and plant the tiny seed in this barren island! How ludicrous the life of the one-eyed man executed while the cicadas sang in the full light of day! How ludicrous was the life of Garrpe, swimming in pursuit of the Christians in that little boat! Facing the wall, the priest laughed aloud.”

The root of Rodrigues’ apostasy is not only in Ferreira’s words, but in his own fear, his own inability to gaze upon the cross, and his own doubt in the existence of God.

The Seductive Serpent

Ferreira’s lie is so blatant one wonders how anyone, much less a Jesuit priest, could swallow it. But Ferreira is like the subtle serpent of Genesis he subtly wraps his lies in up with many distorted truths, especially with true observations about Rodrigues’s faults. It can be hard even for a careful reader to untangle the lies from the distortions from the keen observations.

Ferreira begins by observing a truth— like the serpent in the garden who observes the truth that God has established a prohibition— telling Rodrigues that the sounds he hears are the Christians in the courtyard suffering in the pit. He then tells a story, beguiling Rodrigues into further identification with Ferreira, as he recounts for Rodriques his own experience of torture and apostasy. Ferreira emphasizes the parallels between Rodrigues and himself, playing upon Rodrigues’ own identification with Ferreira. Ferreria recounts that he was told the Christians who were suffering had already apostatized but would continue to suffer until he, Ferreira, apostatized. And he continues with a truth that is also a distortion, a half-truth: “Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering,” It is true that God does not always answer our prayer by removing our suffering. It does not follow that God is silent or that God does not care, or that God has abandoned those who suffer. For the great mystery of redemptive suffering is that if we allow it, our suffering can draw us into union with Christ.

When Rodrigues protests, truly, that “In return for these earthly sufferings, those people will receive a reward of eternal joy,” Ferreira scoffs and deflects, distracting Rodrigues from meditating on the great mystery that faithfulness and perseverance in the face of temporal suffering will win the martyr’s crown and eternal joy in heaven. And Ferreira’s criticism of Rodrigues is effective because it is a true observation about Rodrigues and it cuts to the quick, exposing his own unwillingness to embrace suffering.

“Don’t disguise your own weakness with those beautiful words. . . . You make yourself more important than them. You are preoccupied with your own salvation.” It is true that Rodrigues has been focusing on himself and has been preoccupied with his own salvation, either with a strangely painless fantasy of a glorious tragic martyrdom or with his desperate animal desire to avoid physical suffering.

“If you say that you will apostatize,” Ferreira promises,” “those people will be taken out of the pit. They will be save from suffering. And you refuse to do so. It’s because you dread to betray the Church. You dread to be the dregs of the Church, like me.” This is also true. Ferreira refocus Rodrigues again on physical suffering, not allowing him to think about heaven and the purpose of suffering. He refocused Rodrigues on his own shameful fear, his fear of apostasy, his fear of following his idolized mentor and teacher into shame. Paradoxically, perhaps Rodrigues seems to fear apostasy even more than physical suffering. By forcing him to face his fear of the shame of apostasy, Ferreira subtly distracts him from facing his fear of physical suffering.

And then finally, Ferreira challenges Rodrigues where he is most vulnerable, pointing to his failure to imitate Christ: “On that cold black night, I, too, was as you are now. And yet is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here. . . “ Ferreira is correct that Rodrigues has consistently failed to love the Japanese peasants, that he has failed to imitate Christ. And then, finally, after he has opened all of Rodrigues’ wounds, exposed all his sins and vulnerabilities, then he proposes a false Christ for Rodrigues to imitate: ”Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them.”

Further, he convinces Rodrigues that the faith that the Japanese are dying for, that he would be dying for, is a false faith. He convinces him that he is not in fact apostatizing because Jesus is not in fact present:

The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will.


The Japanese imagine a beautiful, exalted man— and this they call God. They call by the name of God something which has the same kind of existence as man. But that is not the Church’s God.

And Rodrigues is despondent seeing that this Ferreira is not the man he knew. Further, he despairs, completely accepting what that Ferreira says is true.

Rodrigues did not have enough missionary experience to refute Ferreira; but to accept the other’s word was to lose everything for which he had come to this country.

Almost, he succeeds in rejecting Ferreira’s blandishments, thinking about the Japanese martyrs, “How could anyone sacrifice himself for a false faith.” But even while he thinks on the deaths of the martyrs, he focuses on the wrong things: he focuses on their strength, “on any account they were strong Christians” and on their heroism. More, he focuses on his own strength, “comparing his own loneliness and sadness with that of Ferreira, he felt for the first time some self respect and satisfaction— and he was able quietly to laugh.”

And this, I think, is ultimately Rodrigues’ downfall, his proud reliance on his own strength instead of on God. Rodrigues is so afraid of weakness, that he is unable to admit that he cannot do it on his own. He does not acknowledge that he, too, is in need of mercy.

+ + +

Part 1: In which I address some critical concerns, including the problem of the unreliable narrator

Part 2: Apostasy and Despair

Part 4: Concerning Shepherds

Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God

Part 6: A Tale of Two Jesuits

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