Insights from “Silence”—The Embrace of Despisement

Martin Scorsese’s re-telling of Silence by Shusaku Endo feels like an ambitious exploration of many biblical themes—grace, forgiveness, mission, faithfulness, the silence of God. But it is the theme of the “despised” that I find myself pondering in the days after experiencing “Silence.”

Kichijiro: Miserable and Despised

Kichijiro. He is a miserable character. We meet him and his reliability is immediately questioned—he is drunk. Throughout the movie, he consistently shows a readiness to betray. He is a despised and confusing character—annoying, even to the priests—and yet, I felt that there was something more.

Kichijiro provides more than a foil to show the saintliness of the others.

Yes, he sins and comes back. He is weak-willed, traitorous, and shunned even by his own people. And he doesn’t really have any redeemable qualities. The country peasants have a canvas that a foreigner can paint their romantic notions upon (regardless of how misplaced). This makes the acts of compassion beautiful. But to bestow compassion, reluctantly, on those who are undeserving and duplicitous is messy and unsatisfying.

There is no delusion of romance in loving those who are truly despised. But yet it is the forced wrestling with Kichijiro’s character that greatly expands our understanding of God’s capacity to embrace the despised. “It is hard to die for the miserable and the corrupt,” one of the characters in Silence reflects.

Why it’s Hard for American Christians to Understand the Despised

This conversation prompt came from a Japanese Catholic writer named Shusaku Endo. In some ways, it needed to come from someone who lives out their faith in an antagonistic country. In America and in western contexts, Christians have been too much at the center of society to truly understand what it means to be despised. Western Christians have been too much at the center to understand being despised. Click To Tweet

In some parts of the US, identifying as a Christian is a pre-requisite for participating in the social life of the community. In other parts of the US, being a Christian can come with negative reactions in secular society—but I think that it would be overreach to say Christianity is despised. Rarely would one be disqualified from active participation in the life of a community.

There are some professional fields in which declaring your faith is a liability. In these cases, being a Christian would bring negative associations or question one’s credibility. But on the whole, our society is formed with Judeo-Christian values at its core. We won’t be passed over for a job for having a name with Christian roots.

The books of our faith can be purchased at grocery stores, airport bookstores, and mega stores. Sundays are days off, major Christian holidays are usually accommodated within work and school calendars.

The crosses we can carry can be bought in any mall jewelry store, and not have to be hidden and sewn into a hem. Except in immigrant communities, we do not have to learn another language in order to pray or participate in our services. Our everyday spoken language is acceptable in expressing personal faith.

The Consequences of Being Despised

Yes, being a Christian in the American context might be unpopular or have some professional consequences. But the type of despisement explored in Silence differs in that it continues beyond one person, or one person’s choice—to generational and institutional consequences.

Being de-centered is more than just not having your values reflected in the media, the curriculum, the politics of the day. But it’s the active campaign that to hold such views is to be a traitorous threat to society, punishable by death, or the death of those near you—without trial—simply for the suspected association of someone with Christian beliefs.

I have seen this in the Coptic Christian communities in Cairo, Egypt. Where generations of cultural and economic forces have created a garbage village populated predominantly by Coptic Orthodox Christians. Their names, where they come from, and their jobs options are heavily influenced by Islamic limitations placed on Christians. Laws severely restrict the building of Christian churches, while mosques can be built freely. Buildings and homes have been destroyed, simply for being suspected of being churches.

Jesus Was Despised

After having watched Silence, I read passages like Isaiah 53 differently. The passage uses words like “despised” and “rejected” to talk about Jesus. And yet, as I read the passage, I realize how much I’ve romanticized and re-purposed those words. Yes, he was despised (amen!) and rejected (amen!). We held him in low esteem (amen! Hallelujah!). But Silence gives us a four senses story that shows us what that might have meant for Jesus to have been despised—for a Jewish Jesus, to be saying the things he did, to have died the humiliating way that he did. Jesus was rejected, despised. I've romanticized and re-purposed those words. Click To Tweet

In Silence, the eradication of Christianity from Japan is seen as the purging of a dangerous influence. To be Christian is to be seen as denying and taking oneself out of a cultural and historical line of people, centuries old. I’ve seen this similar dynamic in the US, is the experience of Jewish Christians, and the reaction that comes from the Jewish community when they declare an interest in identifying as a Christian. Many people of color have some experience with this as well, particularly First Nations communities.

I was in a discussion about the future of missions, when Chris Heuertz, who at that time was the Executive Director of Word Made Flesh (now of the Gravity Center) made a comment about churches and Christian organizations benefiting from the US tax code. What an amazing gift to the movement of God is the tax deduction for donations to non-profits, including faith based ones. I imagine for small, community based churches, this might have a small effect. But what does it mean, for our larger churches, denominations and organizations, to no longer have the government incentivizing investment into our religious institutions? Are our churches nimble enough to be able to operate from a place decentered in society.

I think of Kichijiro—and how throughout the movie he is truly despised. Barely redeemable qualities. And yet I find myself hovering around him–finding in him the repulsive redemption that messes with my neat world.

For me, one the great gifts of Silence has been this character of Kichijiro that points me in the direction to understand the Jesus who embraced the despised and was himself despised. It is a picture that can only be birthed in a culture where Christianity is deeply despised and rejected. And yet in presenting that gift, it redeems that rejection into an extraordinary vehicle of divine revelation.