Silence and Suffering

suffering picture

Last Friday I sat in a theater with my father-in-law to watch the movie Silence based on the book of that same title written by Shusaku Endo. I had read enough about the movie to be anxious. I knew that it dealt with a bloody era of Christian history in 17th century Japan. (Endo’s book Silence is semi-fictional but historically accurate.) I knew that it came out of Hollywood and dealt with questions of God and faith. I was at once intrigued by an explicitly Christian story told by Hollywood and nervous that Christianity would be shown as the weak, intolerant, foolish faith that it seems is often portrayed by those who critique it.

Good art interrupts monotony with beauty or tension. Or both. It forces reflection and wrestling instead of offering plain meaning. Good art leaves an impression that the mind can’t quickly dismiss or define. The story of Silence is good art (reading it now).  Scorsese’s film version was beautiful. It was hard to watch at times. It was comforting. It was uncomfortable. It didn’t answer questions so much as it presented them. I walked out of the theater reflective, convicted, emboldened, repentant, prayerful, moved, and questioning.

Silence deals with Christian suffering in a raw way. Much of the story is a look at what 17th century Christians in Japan went through when Japan decided to rid itself Christianity. They were imprisoned, tortured for long periods of time, crucified, drowned, burned alive, and beheaded. Believers could have escaped it all by apostatizing. Simply denounce Christ and be set free. And yet many chose suffering and martyrdom. In this way it felt very biblical. The forbearers of our faith, the apostolic generation and patristic fathers of the first two centuries of our faith understood suffering as the natural byproduct of following Jesus. They expected it.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” -Jesus Christ, John 15:18-25

“We are fools for Christ’s sake… To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” -The Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 4:10-13

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings… Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” -The Apostle Peter, 1 Peter 4:12-19

The rejection of Christ and his church by the world while we bear witness to Him is a basic premise of the Christian faith. What bothered me so much after watching Silence was how little I identify with suffering in my own faith. The church in American culture does not have a theology of suffering. Christians in our society whine when we feel our “rights” are being threatened by Washington or our faith is being attacked by Hollywood. When Evangelical Christians in America sense they are being disenfranchised they appeal to what the constitution promises to protect rather what the Bible tells them to expect. They demand rights promised by a secular rule of law rather than resigning that that they deserve no more rights than a crucified Christ whom they supposedly follow.

A church that understands power more than it does persecution and security more than it does suffering has missed the mark. There is an evangelical perversion of Christianity in American culture being passed off as authentic by those who claim to have a high view of scripture. And this perversion is no less an affront to the gospel than the poisonous aberration of the Christian faith perpetuated by protestant liberalism.

What the American church lacks on both sides of the aisle is a theology of suffering. The church in America operates from the faulty foundation of possessing rights which the gospel doesn’t promise and a concept of security in life which the gospel only assures believers in death.

What Silence left me with was the conviction that I stand guilty of this very accusation. I do not know what it means to suffer for the sake of Christ. Which I am convinced means I do not fully know what it means to follow him. I am too content with a version of Christianity that gives everything to me and demands little of me.

Domine, miserere.


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