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How to Read Shusaku Endo’s Novel Silence

by Robert Kolb posted April 3, 2017

At the end of Shisaku Endo's novel Silence (the silence of God is meant), the Japanese convert Kichjiro comes to a fallen Portuguese missionary priest, seeking absolution for trampling on the image of Christ. The priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, has earned the epithet "the Apostate Paul" by succumbing to torture and trampling on the image of the Christ child and his mother.

Rodrigues is about to be forced to take a Japanese name and to marry, thus losing the last traces of his identity as a Portuguese and a priest. He has already lost his claim to be Christian, he is sure. He confesses, "I, too, stood on the sacred image … on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, … on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love."

But in that moment of confrontation with his own shame and guilt, the apostate hears the voice of his Lord, the Lord who remains Lord, in spite of, and in the midst of, the shame-filled weakness and utter stupidity of his apostasy. "'I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.' 'Lord, I resented your silence.' 'I was not silent. I suffered beside you.'"

Instantly the fallen priest realizes what it means that the Lord's strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). "His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment." For the Lord returned. Christ had again renewed his claim on this priest who no longer deserved to be called "Father."

Rodrigues decided then that, defrocked or not, he would absolve Kichjiro. If such an act betrayed his fellow priests and the system in which he had served Christ before his apostasy, it would not be a betrayal of the Lord himself, (1) whose own strength and wisdom are revealed in what seems weak and foolish to this world (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16).

The Lord had been speaking through and in the midst of the fog of silence which the fallen priest was enduring. Suddenly, the truth of that often empty-sounding cliché, "God is never nearer than when he seems furthest away" came home to him. This God had claimed his own triumph over the worst of evils, even the apostasy of his own children, through the weakness and foolishness of his own cross. For his threat to deny us when we deny him turns into his promise, "if we are faithless, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:12-13).

Father Rodrigues had ventured into a foreign land confident that his own exploits for the faith would make God's glory manifest. But in the wilderness of his sojourn, this pilgrim found the God who reveals himself on his own cross and in the crosses of our own fragility and flaws, fears and failures.

Endo's novel about the failure of the Jesuit mission in seventeenth century Japan has often been interpreted out of the mouth of his enemy, the lord of Chikugo, who had wrung the apostasy from the priest's soul: "'This country of Japan is not suited to the teaching of Christianity. Christianity simply cannot put down roots here …. Father, you were not defeated by me …. You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.'" (2) Such an interpretation misses the point of the story's conclusion. The novel presents a theology of the cross. Even in the weakness and failure of such a life as that of Father Rodrigues, the cross of Christ generates its word of forgiveness and life.

The theology of the cross points us to the center of our humanity, our trust in Jesus Christ. From the foot of the cross, we see how wrong we were – no matter how well we behaved – because we did not love and trust in Yahweh above all things. We witness to the God who calls us to trust him and who bestows our new identity in this trust.

Adapted from Adapted from Robert Kolb, “Is Anybody Home: What To Do When It Seems Like God Isn't There,” Modern Reformation, July/August 1997. Used by permission.


1 Shisaku Endo, Silence (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1965), 297-8

2 Ibid., 292. This is the interpretation of William Johnston, Sophia University, Tokyo; cf. his preface, ibid., 1-18, esp. 12-16.

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Robert Kolb

Robert Kolb is a professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

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