It is relatively easy for me to be a Christian in the United States. I take for granted the privileges that I have: to worship, to congregate, to dress as I please with regard only to my own sense of propriety. This novel took everything that I understand about living for Christ and placed it under glass for reexamination.
The novel opens with a Portuguese priest, Christavao Ferreira, apostatizing. What is that? It’s putting your foot on an image of Christ and denying that you believe in Him. Ferreira had been a priest in Japan for thirty three years, with tremendous influence and importance. He had three students: Garrpe, Santa Marta and Rodriguez. It is Rodriguez’ life as a priest in Japan that we most closely follow throughout the novel.
He went willingly into a Japanese civilization where Christians are persecuted by the authorities. They fight poverty and hatred, hunger and rejection, but worst of all to me was the torture that was inflicted on those who believed. Some were hung suspended by crosses placed at the edge of the sea, so that when the tide came in they eventually died from struggling to breath above it. Others were wrapped in straw mats, rowed out into the ocean and thrown overboard to drown. Still others were suspended in pits, with incisions placed above their ears so that the blood could drain out slowly, drop by drop, making death exceedingly drawn out and painful.
Rodriguez bravely faces all of this, convinced that he will endure, certain that he would never apostatize. Until the night that he hears the moaning of three Christians who have apostatized to no avail. They will hang suspended until Rodriguez himself denies his faith.
At one point in the novel, those who believe are told that stepping on the fumie (the picture of Christ) does not signify what goes on in one’s heart:
The officials kept insisting to the Christians that to trample on the fumie was no more than a formality. All you had to do was to put your foot on it. If you did that, nobody cared what you believed. In accordance with orders from the magistrate, you were asked to put your foot lightly on the fumie; and then you would immediately be released. (p. 116)
But, don’t our actions reflect our hearts? How can we say we believe in one instance, and deny it in another? This is the terrible dilemma afflicting Rodriguez; he cannot bring himself to deny Christ, but neither can he bear the suffering of those suspended in the pit because he won’t.
Over all of this, is the concept of God’s silence. Why is He silent when His people suffer? Such a difficult question. Or, does the title also imply that His people should be silent as well? If we’re silent, we’re not voicing our denial, which has such serious implications according to the Bible:
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the Antichrist-he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. 1 John 2:23
Tanabata is holding a read-along for this fascinating book on June 28. Won’t you join us for what’s bound to be a very thought provoking discussion?
“Christovao Ferreira was a Portuguese Jesuit priest who served as a missionary in Japan during the the Tokugawa period. Under torture, he agreed to apostasy, and continued to live in Japan. Later becoming a Zen priest, he published a pamphlet in 1636 which attacked Christianity and endorsed the official Neo-Confucian views of the Japanese elite. His pamphlet criticizes Catholicism from the inside, using as weapons biblical science, Averroist Aristotlism, Erasmianism, and Marranism.” (source)