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Martin Scorsese's Silence: A Meditation on Christian Imperialism

Beginning in the 14th century during what is now known as the Age of Discovery, overseas exploration became an integral part of European culture and marked the emergence of colonialism as the policy of various European nation-states. It is also during this period that, first, the Catholic church and, then later on, the Protestant churches began a major effort to spread Christianity to what was then known as the New World and to convert the indigenous peoples of those previously unknown lands.

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The missionary efforts were a significant part of the colonial efforts of major European powers as well as being, along with mercantilism, a major justification. Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the de facto moral underwriters of what, essentially, were military invasions of foreign peoples and countries for the purposes of material resource/wealth acquisition meant for the augmentation of state powers. The spread of Christianity and European imperialism are inextricably bound to each other.

Silence is a 2016 Martin Scorsese film based on a novel of the same name by Shūsaku Enō. It follows the journey of two 17th century Jesuit priests from Portugal to Japan in a mission to locate their mentor, who has gone missing, and spread Christianity during a time when Christians were being persecuted by the ruling power and it was common for Japanese Christians to conceal their faith so as to avoid suppression. The methods of persecution were brutal, ranging from imprisonment to torture to being sentenced to death. In order to avoid persecution, the powers that be demanded public apostasy — meaning "renunciation of faith" — from known Christians, be they indigenous or foreign.
Upon their arrival in Japan, our protagonists Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are dismayed to find the local Christian populations have been forced underground and that a samurai, to whom the villagers refer as "The Inquisitor", straps Christians who've failed to apostatise to wooden crucifixes near the ocean shore where they are drowned by the tide and then burns their corpses on funeral pyres so as to deny them Christian burials. Confronted with this cruel reality, the priests are forced to ponder whether or not it is worthwhile to encourage locals to not renounce their faith in the face of the immense of suffering they risk bringing upon themselves by not doing so.
Having initially settled, in hiding, in a village that was subsequently terrorised by a samurai who suspected their presence, Rodrigues and Garupe decide to split up and go to separate villages for the purposes of clandestinely assisting the Christian populations there with prayer, confession, baptism and other rites, as well as trying hopefully to acquire information about the whereabouts of their lost mentor. From this point onward, the story follows Rodrigues exclusively and all events unfold through the prism of his experiences. It is not long thereafter that he is betrayed by a (begrudgingly) trusted associate to the samurai in return for 300 pieces of silver and is imprisoned with several Japanese converts. He is informed that his fellow prisoners will be made to suffer for so long as he refuses to renounce.
Later, Rodrigues is taken, under guard, to the shore to meet someone his jailers claim he knows and is important to him. He initially assumes that they are referring to his mentor, Father Ferreira, but soon sees an emaciated Garupe in the distance with three prisoners under separate guard walking towards the shore. The prisoners are taken to a small boat offshore and the guards threaten to drown them unless Garupe agrees to renounce his faith. Rodrigues witnesses Garupe refuse to do so then swim to the boat to try and stop the prisoners from being drowned but is instead drowned alongside them. Traumatised, Rodrigues is then returned to his prison.
After some time, The Inquisitor brings Father Ferreira to meet Father Rodrigues. Ferreira informs Rodrigues that he renounced his faith whilst being tortured and that he believes that Christianity is futile in Japan. He says this is so because the naturalism of the dominant Japanese traditional religions and Buddhism does not allow Christian doctrine to properly take root and flourish in Japan, but instead morphs it into a version that fits their already existing interpretation of the universe. Rodrigues is incredulous at this suggestion but Ferreira stands his ground. In a later conversation, The Inquisitor reiterates Ferreira's reasoning and further adds that the suppression of Christianity is necessary in order to ward off the imperialist forces (namely Spain, Portugal, England and the Netherlands) battling for influence in their country. As a result of which, this film, in a way, functions partly as a kind of meditation on Christian imperialism from the sides of both the missionary and the native.

As the religious arm of colonialist expansion, missionaries often functioned as visible saints whose piety was to be admired and aspired to by the savages their nations sought to conquer, who ought to have desired to vanquish the savagery of the societies they lived in. They even went so far as to teach European languages and encourage Westernisation of their civil societies. These are things alluded to in the movie in how the villagers respond to the Rodrigues' and Garupe's presence, and in their ability, as peasants, to speak a foreign language with relative fluency as a result of the influence of priests who'd come before them.
All this information considered, we can safely consider the Catholic and Protestant churches as the primary force of Western cultural imperialism that had been nurtured through centuries of ethnocentrism — that held the view of indigenous peoples as uncivilised, inhuman savages — and Christian monotheism — which espoused a singular universal truth and a singular universal reality which was not accepting of any cultural relativism in the realm of spirituality and held the view of indigenous spiritual practices as little more than idolatry. We are shown this through Father Rodrigues, who, while not necessarily advocating for the forced conversion or genocide of non-Christians, is unwilling to accept that a different, but altogether valid, truth is being lived by those of different faiths.
The Inquisitor, who is a leader of the indigenous people, sees Christianity, and therefore Father Rodrigues by extension, as a foreign invasive force intent on taking Japan and stripping it of its identity which must be crushed as ruthlessly and absolutely as possible. He seeks to accomplish this, however, not simply by crushing it through sheer force out of the population, but by forcing the missionaries — these priests who function as visible saints — to renounce their faith repeatedly and publicly in an effort to conclusively prove that despite being strengthened by Christ, some weapons formed against the faithful may yet prosper. Those Japanese who would convert were insurgents against the regime.

I think that this movie invites us to consider the place of violence in efforts to bring salvation and preserve the souls of a people. We are asked to inquire after its virtues; if it can be legitimate, reasonable or justified to teach, save and/or protect through a mechanism that essentially dehumanises through a theft of dignity.
It asks but offers no answers.
It gives a rich body of information through which we might consider the answers we can come up with and the reasons for them. We are shown violence toward Christians as perpetrated by the regime, with juxtapositions of the nobility of Rodrigues & the lowliness of some of the Japanese converts, as wells as the harshness of the regime's suppressive efforts & the beauty of their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve their culture. As with all conflicts where giants do battle, to paraphrase the old adage, it is the grass that suffers.

In forcing us to ponder our relationship to power and the relationship the powerful have with the people, how those endowed with power engage with the disenfranchised, I hope you find this movie to be as beautiful and challenging a tapestry of the human experience as I did, and that it makes you think about things you may not have considered before.
 

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