Last Friday, 29th April, Rome’s white marble Trevi Fountain was bathed in vivid red to honor the blood recently shed by Christian martyrs, and raise awareness of what organizers say are an estimated 200 million Christians currently suffering violent persecution around the world. We in the west (where recent anti-Christian sentiment has arisen by way of gradual erosion and public ridicule, rather than violent revolution and public beheadings) occasionally hear tell of such suffering, but for the most part remain comfortably insulated from the grizzly details and existential threat of suffering which, for hundreds and thousands of our fellow human beings (and brothers and sisters in Christ), is a daily reality. Urging caution against our remaining silent or indifferent at their plight, Nina Shea helpfully (if painfully) details just a few of the most recent and horrific highlights:
“In Kenya, Christians have been hunted out and killed for their religion in their university dorm rooms, at shopping malls, and on public buses. In Libya, it was the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Christian migrants who were singled out and beheaded. In Pakistan, Christian families were blown up while celebrating Easter in a park. In Yemen last month, the nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity were tied up, shot to death and mutilated; their staff was murdered and their priest, the last surviving Christian in the port city of Aden, was kidnapped.”
I sometimes wonder how I would cope if caught in a situation where professing my faith meant submitting to a cruel and bloody death. I like to imagine that (let’s assume, caught out in one of my better moods) I might face martyrdom bravely, even serenely, perhaps with a paradoxical smile or lingering supplication to haunt the eyes and ears of my executioners. But seeing past my vanity, I know in reality I would be hard pressed to evince such sober piety. As it is I struggle to muster the spiritual bravado even to entertain the thought of it for very long. More realistically, I suppose, in the end, I could do little more than close my eyes, so as to shut out all remaining thought of this world, and throw myself (blindly, despairingly) upon the mercy of God, recalling (Lord, how I pray I would have the sense to remember in that moment) that the crucified and tortured Christ had gone this way before me, through the shadow of the valley of death, and beyond…
Fortunately (and God willing), most of us will never personally encounter such persecution. But with that luxury comes, let me venture, a serious and sacred duty: a call to fervent prayer and renewed communion as members of Christ’s body – the church. As Shea goes on to suggest, by refusing to remain silent, we can “help the persecuted—both to stay safely and thrive in their home countries and, if impossible, to give them refuge…” Further, she reminds us, “Their powerful witness can revitalize our own faith. America’s churches should turn on red spotlights too—if only to remind themselves to pause and reflect on this terrible era of Christian martyrdom.”
To someone like me, who finds it hard to bear witness even in polite society, the testimony of today’s martyrs presents a powerful challenge: both a spur to holiness and a timely reminder that we are all members of the one body, and that when one member suffers, we all suffer. Some select few may journey with our persecuted brothers and sisters in person, at home or abroad, either suffering physically as they do or by publically drawing attention to their plight. We all can and should bear with them in prayer, and by making the most of the freedom and prosperity that allow us to live out our faith without fear of violent reprisal. That said, while refusing to remain silent (as in not turning a blind eye or remaining indifferent) is important, there is yet a kind of silence we might consider worthwhile.
We will often observe a moment’s silence on solemn occasions – and that’s something like what I mean. Silence as in deliberately blocking out the million and one diverting voices and concerns that vie to distract us from what matters most. I mean keeping silence for the purpose of contemplation, to give thought (as hard as it might be) to what it must be like for those who suffer on account of their faith. For while the horror stories we hear often seem distant and unreal, I believe we can greatly benefit from entering imaginatively into their plight, thereby journeying with our fellow Christians, in some small way suffering with them, and so perhaps be moved to prayer and other forms of solidarity. We also stand to benefit by becoming better prepared for ‘come what may’ in our own lifetime. For the time may yet come when we (or our children) face similar trials – it isn’t that hard to imagine; the history of the church is sprinkled with the blood of the faithful.
In thinking about silence as a way of responding to the persecution of today’s Christians, I am reminded of Shusaku Endo’s brilliant and haunting historical novel, appropriately titled, Silence. Described by Graeme Green as one of the finest living novelists, Endo is renowned for his beautifully sparse and searingly honest prose. Being both Japanese and Catholic automatically makes Endo something of a novelty, and partly explains why his stories often touch on themes of personal and social displacement, of the tension between faith and culture (from a Christian standpoint), and specifically of moral tensions surfacing from the turbulent history of western religion’s various forays into eastern territory.
Such is the case with Endo’s 1966 masterpiece, Silence, which details the trials and tribulations of a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionary, sent to Japan at the height of widespread and violent suppression of the Church during the Tokugawa shogunate. Justin McCurry provides a good summary of the history and its impact here. Along the way, he draws attention to an upcoming film adaptation of the book, directed by Martin Scorsese. Set for release in November this year, Scorsese’s film features a star-studded cast (Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver) and, given the director’s reputation, seems bound to be as visually and morally arresting as the novel. I hope the film, like the illumination of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, will serve to alert us the west to the unjust religious persecution taking place today, at home and abroad, and help spark some kind of response, however modest. To wit, here’s one idea I’ve been mulling over:
In light of the contemporary martyrdom I’ve been discussing, and in anticipation of Scorsese’s film, I’d like to encourage people to read Endo’s novel (if they haven’t already, and if so to read it again). Specifically, I suggest this as a way of entering into solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering terribly in many parts of the world today. That is, to enter imaginatively into their experience, and so to contemplate anew the meaning of suffering and sacrifice in light of the central Christian mystery – that God, made flesh, suffered and died for the atonement of sin. Not sure you’re up to it? Give it a go – you might be surprised. And here are some suggestions to help you along:
Take it slow – there’s nothing fast paced about the book to begin with. Bear with it – although it may be hard to follow, or harrowing here and there, approach it as an exercise of sustained attention, in not turning away just because you can. Maybe read the book with a friend, a spouse, or as part of a bible study group. Finally, pray as you read, and let Endo’s vision lead you deeper into prayer, into contemplation and self-examination, and (by Grace) a reinvigorated sense of communion with the church – the living Body of Christ – in our world today. As Scorsese writes in his recent Introduction to the novel:
“[Shusaku Endo] understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture . . . That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.”
James Cooper, May 2016.