By / Jan 24

Based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, Silence is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in the 1600’s to find their mentor and spread Christianity. In remaining faithful to its source material, director Martin Scorsese’s film offers no easy answers but begs many great questions.

The plot

The young priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) have heard a rumor that their beloved Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has undergone torture and as a result, has committed apostasy. It’s also believed that he may still be living in Nagasaki. Unwilling to accept the report as fact, the priests make it their mission to travel to Japan in search of Ferreira.

Upon arrival to China, a man named Kichijiro helps ferry them to Japan and to a village where a small group of underground Japanese believers are hiding. Because of the immense persecution and rampant torture, the fearful villagers must worship in secret, but they are overcome with joy upon meeting the two priests. Having become believers because of the work of Jesuit priests in the past, they have longed for the return of one who can listen to their confessions and administer the sacraments.

The priests are most impressed with the quiet, beautiful faith of the villagers, but all that is interrupted when the authorities get wind of the hidden Christians. Rodrigues and Garrpe are given the chance to flee, yet they remain close enough to witness the interrogations. Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), a feeble yet cruel man, oversees these interactions with the Christian peasants, and his rules are simple. If a person steps on the fumie (a small, carved image of Christ) they are assumed non-Christians and can therefore go free. If they don’t trample the image of Christ, they’re subjected to torture until they either recant their faith or die. The priests weep as they witness the cruelty from afar, yet their own personal safety is short-lived.

Soon after this event, Rodrigues, as well as several other believers, are betrayed by a Judas-like character and handed over to the authorities. Rodrigues is brought before the Inquisitor. Instead of torturing Rodrigues, the Christian villagers are made to suffer unless the priest is willing to recant his faith by trampling the fumie. Denying his faith and his God would be the only way to end the suffering of the faithful few he has dedicated his life to serve.

The imprisoned Rodrigues is, for the most part, treated quite well. There is a certain civility among his captors. On several occasions, he is brought before the Inquisitor and fascinating conversations ensue between the two men. How can he possibly recant when he has lived his whole life to serve the God he loves? But at the same time, with suffering and death all around, why won’t God speak? Why won’t he intervene? The Inquisitor is adamant that Christianity is not able to take root in a place like Japan. Rodrigues argues that gospel truth can flourish in Japan just like it does in Portugal and elsewhere. What the priest sees as a loving gift to impart on the country, the Inquisitor sees as an arrogant, imperialist attempt to exert power and destroy Japanese culture and customs.

The personal challenge

I won’t spoil any of what happens next, but I will say that this is a meaningful film for thoughtful believers. Some have criticized the slow pace of the film, and indeed it is slow. There are also scenes that are difficult to watch. But for the patient viewer who doesn’t mind being challenged to wrestle with long-held beliefs, the rewards are great.

I was a high school senior when the Columbine massacre happened. I remember hearing stories of students who, when asked by the gunmen if they were Christians, boldly proclaimed their faith. I hoped I would have done the same thing. But the truth is, unless I’m faced with the prospect of death or intense suffering, I have no idea how I would react. Does faith always have to be public to be true faith? What if someone in that situation denied Christ to spare his life, or perhaps the life of another? Would his soul be lost forever? These are just a few of the questions with which we must wrestle as we watch the story unfold.

I’ve also pondered this idea: When I share the gospel with another person, how much of it is truly centered solely on Christ, and how much of it is me bringing in my ideas of Western Evangelical Christianity? This thought has troubled me recently because I don’t want to bring an ounce of myself into the situation. I want to go into all the world and make disciples, not of myself, but of Christ.

Silence is an incredibly well made film, from the directing and acting down to the set design and costumes. It’s a bold film that dares us to put voice to what we may have wondered and possibly doubted about the goodness of God. The characters cry out much like the biblical Job did in the midst of suffering. And yet, we’re reminded from scripture that when we are faithless, he is faithful.

We know that Christ understands our human suffering because he suffered as well. He also felt the sting of God’s “silence” on the cross. And yet, ”for the joy that lay before him, he endured a cross, despising its shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Heb. 12:2). So in the midst of trials, we need not lose heart when we don’t suffer well, because the victory is not won through us; it was won long ago by a silent sufferer who stands victorious and intercedes on our behalf.

By / Jan 9

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Selma (**** out of 4) is ultimately about the hard sacrifices made by ordinary Americans “in order to form [this] more perfect union” mentioned in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. This sometimes means breaking unjust laws to establish justice or insuring domestic tranquility by disturbing the peace. Our nation’s history and the history of humanity in general is filled with such paradoxes in order to ensure the general welfare of our nation and other civilizations do not leave behind oppressed minorities who have historically been discriminated against and denied equal dignity. The blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity have not always been extended to everyone.

When I taught U.S. History and U.S. Government in a diverse high school, my favorite topics to teach were the causes of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. These topics allowed me to build from foundational knowledge and push my students’ thinking to new levels. One of my favorite activities was dissecting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and discussing non-violent protest with my students, pointing out how restrained and strategic agitation could successfully bring white moderates into the fold, forcing politicians to take action. But my favorite question to pose to my students was this: Would you be willing to be spit on, beat up, called numerous vulgar names, and not respond with any violence or hatred in return? If you knew your name wouldn’t be in the history books, would you still be willing to sacrifice your dignity temporarily so that dignity could be recognized by law and fact for yourself and your posterity?

Throughout my history classes, I tried to demythologize the legends from our own history. I tried to teach Lincoln, MLK, and others as the flawed humans they were so that my students could truly appreciate the obstacles they faced, sacrifices they made, brilliance they displayed, and history God gave them the opportunity to shape. I wanted them to know that these men and women were no different from them and that these eras in history required men, women, and children whose names we’ll never know.

Selma does all of this perfectly, arguably too perfectly as controversy has arisen surrounding the depiction of LBJ as a President trying to make everyone politically happy as Vietnam begins to get out of hand and the nation realizes the 1964 Civil Rights Act didn’t magically solve all racial discrimination. But LBJ is instead depicted as someone sympathetic to Civil Rights, but not omniscient in realizing how history would judge him. This depiction is human and real, therefore resulting in a more authentic tale, meaning LBJ’s ultimate support and work toward passing the Voting Rights Act into law has more power at the conclusion of the film, knowing where he has come from previously. It’s important for Americans of all ages to know that LBJ’s hesitation to push the Voting Rights Act forward in 1964 doesn’t mean he was a racist bigot just as his signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not make him an angel. All humans are complicated. None are perfect.

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Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is revealed as a Nobel Prize winner in the opening scene of the film who feels detached from the people he is trying to help and navigates the rest of the film (and his life) as someone not dissimilar from Abraham Lincoln – trying to do the impossible by bringing together disparate and warring factions in the name of achieving equality and making that more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, and blessings of liberty a reality for all Americans of every race and creed.

David Oyelowo provides a performance that rivals Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, leaving me so transfixed that I often assumed I was watching footage of Dr. King himself. The Dr. King of Selma, just like the historic man himself, is not a perfect man. The film, after dancing around MLK’s infidelity in the first half, addresses Dr. King’s struggles and sins head on. This is not a man with all the answers, but a leader who must overcome his doubts in order to lead in spite of his detractors, his violent critics, and dissenters within his own movement. He often feels alone and like a failure, with everyone seemingly disagreeing and disliking his decisions. This MLK is not a mythological hero, but an imperfect man like us whom God used to bend the arc of history toward justice.

This is one aspect of Selma I appreciated – the film did not shy away from the role of faith and Christianity in Dr. King’s work. Whether it’s the images of rabbis and nuns joining the march or white clergy traveling to Alabama to join the movement, faith is prominent. Dr. King’s sermons are focal points in the film. As Dr. Russell Moore wrote about Ferguson, “The reason African-Americans tend to speak out against racial profiling and disparate sentencing is because often they can imagine their own sons or brothers or nephews in that place. As those in Christ, we have the same family dynamic at work, regardless of whether we are black or white, Jew or Gentile. In the church, a black Christian and a white Christian are brothers and sisters. We care what happens to the other, because when one part of the Body hurts, the whole Body hurts.”

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While the political jockeying and Dr. King’s leadership under fire were enthralling, Selma‘s true power was found in its depiction of ordinary people sacrificing security, comfort, and sometimes even their lives. We’ll never know their names. But they were there on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that Sunday, beat by state troopers. They sat in the pews at the funerals of those who sacrificed everything. They laid the groundwork before MLK came to Selma and continued working to make the dream a reality long after he left.

They showed up at the courthouse to be embarrassed when asked to pay a poll tax they couldn’t afford, pass a literacy test they couldn’t read, and answer questions no white person had to endure in order to register to vote.

They debated around their dinner tables just like Dr. King did with his team, wondering which obstacles to voting and equality should be dismantled first.

They were spit on, beat down, imprisoned, and killed so that the words and principles of our Founding Fathers could become a reality. But what Selma reveals moves beyond America to more fundamental truths about human dignity and equality. It shows what happens when regular people respond with the radical truths of The Bible. Comfort and security is lost but, as Dr. King says late in the film, God sometimes calls us to something greater, fighting peacefully yet forcefully for the imago dei in every human life.

This article was originally pubished at The Wise Guise.

Image Credit: Wayne Taylor