WIT welcomes Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.

I’ve recently been thinking about the connections between Gustavo Gutiérrez, the incomparable theologian who was integral to the development of liberation theology, and the novelist Shusako Endo. More particularly, I’m interested in the implications found in the connection between liberation theology and the theology of Endo’s novel, Silence.1 At the end of September, I had the opportunity to listen to Gutiérrez followed by a visit to my alma mater to hear my friend, Makoto Fujimura speak about his latest book, Silence and Beauty, in anticipation of Martin Scorcese’s film adaption of Endo’s novel.2 These encounters spurred my thinking on Silence liberative message, a message that resonates deeply with liberation theology.

In the introduction to Gutiérrez book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, he sets forth his theological method.3 In order to speak meaningfully about God, one must first begin in contemplation and silence. This time of silence is meant to be a time of loving encounter with God that cannot be encapsulated into words: “when words do not suffice, when they are incapable of communicating what is experienced at the affective level, then we are fully engaged in loving.”[^4] Theology is the “second act” that only comes after silence. I think it no mere coincidence that Gutiérrez’s theological method begins in silence and Endo’s novel is titled the same. These two figures’ work shows that silence is an integral part of not only the human life, but of the very life of God. But more on that later.

I’m interested in this two-fold theological method, coupling silence and speech, contemplation and action, and how it gives us a rubric for engaging these two questions: how do we speak meaningfully about God when God is silent? How are we to enact faithfulness in the midst of incomparable suffering? What I’d like to suggest here is that Endo’s Silence offers us a kind of liberation theology—it invites us to consider a way of being in the world that advocates for the relief of suffering in the present, not simply an enduring of suffering until our promised eternal reward.

As you read, I invite you to put Gutiérrez’s method into action; take time after reading the first section describing Silence to actually sit in contemplative silence. Better yet, if you have the book, read the relevant sections and meditate on it for a moment before moving onto the rest of the article. Theology, after all, is a spiritual practice. If you haven’t read the work yet, be forewarned; this post will spoil things for you.

First Act: Silence

Silence is a masterpiece, and by no means can I fully encapsulate its beauty, complexity, and power here, but I first want to take a moment to walk through the basic plotline of the novel. Doing so will open the way for connections to be made with Gutierrez and liberation theology.

Silence tells the story of the most successful persecution of Christians in history, enacted by the Japanese government in the 17th century. The story begins in crisis; the Church of Rome has just discovered that Father Ferreira, one of the finest Portuguese missionaries sent to bring the Gospel to the people of Japan, had apostatized.4 In disbelief, two of Ferreira’s students, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe set out on a perilous journey to secretly enter the Christian-hostile nation of Japan to find Ferreira and to continue to share the good news with the Japanese. Inevitably, Japanese officials capture Rodrigues and Garrpe. But instead of being subjected to torture themselves, which the priests willingly awaited during their time in hiding and then in captivity, they discover something far more painful and sinister to be taking place. Father Rodrigues is kept in a small prison cell while the Japanese Christians are asked to step on a fumie. This small wooden or bronze “stepping stone” had an image of Christ or Mary engraved on it. In order to apostatize and be saved from torture and execution by the Japanese government, Christians were to trample upon the fumie. When they refused, they were subjected to a horrendous ordeal, suspended upside down over pits filled with human excrement. The priests were told that if they would apostatize and trample upon the fumie, the tortured Christians would be released immediately.

Father Rodrigues adamantly refuses to apostatize, until he spends one night unable to sleep because of what he thought was the noise of some guard snoring. In the morning, Rodrigues discovered that the sound that kept him awake all night was not in fact a listless guard happily sleeping, but rather the sound of Christians hanging in the pits.5 By this time, Rodrigues has been reunited with Father Ferreira, now living with a Japanese governor and sent to Rodrigues to encourage him to apostatize. In a deeply pain-filled conversation, Ferreira implores Rodrigues to trample the fumie, telling him “Certainly Christ would have apostatized for them,” and, as they walk to do the fateful deed, “You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.”6 As Rodrigues stares into the disfigured face of Christ, the One to whom he dedicated his entire life, the face speaks to him from the fumie: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”7


Second Act: Liberation Theology and Silence

Reading Silence is hard for Christians and non-Christians alike, because it cuts into some of our most basic convictions about perseverance in the midst of suffering and the hope of promised reward for that perseverance. It is all too easy to dismiss Endo as writing a novel that condemns the Church and faith writ large as Rodrigues is encouraged by Christ to trample upon the fumie. We may be tempted to trample out the Christian tradition from existence and strike out on our own path toward justice. But liberation theology, particularly as it is developed by Gutiérrez, helps to expand our categories as we seek to understand the theological message of Silence.

Central to liberation theology is the belief in the preferential option for the poor. This preference does not exclude those who are not poor, but rather places the priority of God’s action among the cause of the poor and the oppressed. And this priority is rooted in the very being of God, who is a loving God, stopping at nothing to save and be with God’s creation. The work of liberation theology is to move away from a narrowly constructed view of righteousness and justice centered on moral action by moving toward an expansive view of God’s radical love which demands solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed.8 This is not to dismiss right moral action, but rather to emphasize to what end those moral actions must be directed. For Gutiérrez, based on his reading of Scripture, all our action must be directed toward the alleviation of suffering. This is the central theme of liberation theology, and the story of Job will help illuminate its features in more depth.

Job, according to Gutiérrez, undergoes his own kind of conversion in the midst of his suffering. Job was a righteous and upright man; why, then, was he suffering? Throughout his conversations with his friends and his own monologue, Job slowly begins to widen his vision to see the suffering of others, not simply his own.9 Job’s suffering brings him into solidarity with the poor, and through the help of his friend Elihu, is reminded of God’s continual commitment to the poor.10 God’s justice, then, is only justice for Job if it is also justice for the poor. Job must have his vision widened from a rigid, moral understanding of God’s character to see the gratuitous, expansive love of God who seeks justice for the poor and the oppressed.

Job must be coaxed out of his individualized, penal view of God’s justice to understand the vastness of God’s love that seeks out justice for all who are suffering: “In the first major step that Job had taken, he was not required to deny his personal suffering but to open himself to the suffering of others as well and to commit himself to its elimination.”11 It is only after Job’s vision is expanded that he can then sing again of God’s righteousness, because righteousness is only just if it is for all who are oppressed. All of this occurs in between the interplay of silence and action, contemplation and practice. For Gutierrez, these two must go hand in hand in the work of liberation theology. The suffering of the world often forces us to moments of profound, dumbfounded silence; the gratuitous love of God propels us to act on behalf of that suffering. Silence and action, contemplation and practice are wedded.

This is the message of liberation theology and the message of Endo’s Silence. Silence and suffering does not mean that God has abandoned God’s people. Rather, that silence paves the way for God’s people to act toward the alleviation of suffering. Father Rodrigues, similarly with Job, needed his vision expanded to understand what faith could look like in the midst of suffering. He thought God’s silence meant that the people of Japan had been abandoned, and his understanding of faith meant that he was unwilling to trample upon the face of Christ and so defile the teaching of his faith. And yet, Christ encourages him, “Trample! Trample!” Endo’s Christ, and I believe the Christ of Scripture, did indeed come to be trampled upon. God’s supposed silence is not silence at all; God simply spoke a word Rodrigues did not expect to hear. The word of God affirms that Christ came down from heaven for us and for our salvation to be with those who have been trodden upon by the powerful, the wealthy, and the wicked. Silence is a kind of liberation theology because Father Rodrigues was required to not only look to his own perseverance in the midst of suffering, but to understand that the suffering of others conditioned his action on their behalf. Rodrigues’ apostasy is the true faith found in liberation theology’s call for God’s people to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

Mako Fujimura will be the first to tell you that the most important part of Silence is the appendix. In the appendix, you find that though the Japanese successfully eliminated Christianity from the surface of its soil, it continued to exist in hidden, silent ways. In the solemnity of the tea ceremony, in tiny images of St. Peter and St. Paul, in scraps of paper with scribbled Christian titles.12 Endo’s creative brilliance and Gutiérrez’s theological acuity show us that silence is not equal abandonment, that the promise of eternal reward does not justify passivity to suffering, that faith in action may sometimes mean faith in apostasy.

What makes Endo and Gutiérrez so powerful and yet so challenging is that they pull back the curtain on the Christian tradition and show us that perhaps something as scandalous as apostasy may be closer to a true conception of Christianity than participating in a liturgical service. That advocating for the equal treatment of all human beings, but especially the poor, is not simply a good cause taken up by society, but is intrinsic to the very being of the triune God. Seen this way, working tirelessly against unjust systems that disenfranchise and abuse the oppressed is the most Christian way we can work out our faith. Seen this way, standing up for justice and refusing to allow the oppressed to continue in suffering is the most Christ-like we will be. There is no justice without Christ. There is no Christ without justice.

We must but open our Bibles and read. We must but sit in silence and hear the voice of Christ, trampled down by the dirty feet of millions who ache for justice, for redemption, for mercy. We must but walk out in faith, treading on the Way who laid down his life so that there might be life abundant.

[^4] Ibid., xiv.

  1. Shūsaku Endō, Silence, trans. William Johnston (New York: Tapglinger, 1969). The image used on this post, Mark-Water Flames, is used with permission of the artist, Makoto Fujimura. 
  2. Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2016). As a brief side note, I would recommend taking the time to read Endo’s novel and then plan to see Scorcese’s film, which has a release date for December 2016. The novel is devastating and beautiful, and will be well worth your time. 
  3. Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987). 
  4. Endō, Silence, 3. 
  5. Ibid., 165. 
  6. Ibid., 169-170. Through personal correspondence, Mako Fujimura notes that the English translation of “trample” is an inaccurate reflection of the Japanese meaning. In Japanese language, the word is permissive feminine, not a command. A better word choice would be “you may step” or “go ahead and step.” 
  7. Ibid., 171. 
  8. Gutiérrez, On Job, 88. 
  9. Ibid., 48. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Endo, Silence, 196-98 and Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty

One thought

  1. Excellent blogpost! I work in Catholic education, trying to find ways (language, models, methods) to embrace diversity, including religious diversity, as part of Catholic identity. The idea that apostasy – what we think is betrayal of tradition – might actually be what helps end suffering of the poor, thus might actually be what it means to be true to Christian faith, is something I’ll surely take with me in my work. Not to mention your reminder that theology should always be spiritual…

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