Guest post from my amazing, brilliant David. I love him and his words. He is brave and he inspires me every day.
Also, go watch Silence.
How Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” saved my Easter
Easter has always been painful. For me, it has been a time of maximum cognitive dissonance, a time to reckon with the story of Jesus and the crucifixion that I often wish would disappear, because let’s face it, it is a bloody mess. Like a slow-motion train wreck, the Christian story of Easter is hard to watch and hard to look away from. Despite its bright and hopeful pageantry within my evangelical tradition of origin, Easter Sunday is typically the day when I feel the most disconnected from my church communities past and present, and alienated from the wider world. It emphasizes the most uncomfortable parts of Christian faith and the most esoteric beliefs we are supposed to hold.
This weekend always seems to arrive with an unspoken threat: be sure to believe in the Easter story with certainty, or you’re doomed.
During my growing-up years, pastors would emphasize the importance of the Easter message. They would say that Christianity is meaningless without the hope found in both the death and resurrection of Jesus. Good Friday: death, despair, and agony. Easter Sunday: joyful resurrection and new life. Each year, the flowers would bloom on cue and the risen Jesus would leap out of the tomb like a holy zombie of love.
This Easter drama is a fascinating story of sacrifice, but it had troubling implications when filtered through the interpretation of our evangelical church. The stakes could not have been higher. If you were unable to accept literal resurrection as a matter of fact you risked committing an unforgivable sin. It was hard to define exactly which beliefs were necessary, other than “inviting Jesus into your heart,” but Easter gave us some points of reference.
First, it was essential to dwell on the bloody, scourging death of Jesus and to acknowledge our complicity in that torture because we have sinned as individuals. Next, it was necessary to firmly believe in Jesus’ unexpected new life so that we might be saved from unceasing torment, eternal hell, or damnation – God’s public relations team would call it “separation from God.” (United Airlines might say, “I’m sorry sir, you’ve been reassigned.”)
With God’s judgement looming ahead of me, and my inability to believe creeping up behind me, the drama of Easter rarely felt joyful.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a film with all the drama of Easter and just as much violence. I’m not familiar with many of Scorsese’s movies – though I have seen Goodfellas – but I came across Silence in this Image Journal article. The title of the film jumped out at me. Nine times out of ten, I would prefer contemplation in a nearly silent theatre rather than live vicariously through another Michael Bay-style CGI fantasy. Maybe I am a bit awkward that way. And I felt cautious. A significant and respectful film about Christian faith, produced by Hollywood? It sounded like an effort to transcend the Christian culture wars, which can go terribly wrong.
I read a bit more about Silence and found out that Scorsese has called himself a “lapsed Catholic” who once wanted to become a priest. I would call myself a former evangelical who has stood on plenty of church platforms. I was intrigued.
**Be warned: The next section contains spoilers!**
Silence tells the story of 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in search of a lost priest, their mentor, Father Ferreira. Rumour back in Portugal was that Ferreira had committed apostasy (denied his faith) and had begun to live as a Buddhist after caving to the wishes of the Japanese inquisitors who sought to stamp out Christianity. If true, this denial would be blasphemy. The priests set off on a mission to clear Ferreira’s name and evangelize the people.
The film shows how Japan’s Buddhist inquisitors used brutal torture and executions to threaten Christian minorities – the lower class, disenfranchised Japanese peasants who found hope in the gospel message. However, each execution only increased the fervor and resolve of the remaining believers.
The inquisitors realize that their efforts were counterproductive; so they switch tactics when they capture the two visiting priests. Instead, they try to convince the priests to publicly deny their faith as an example to the peasant prisoners. To do this, the inquisitors use the peasants as bargaining chips. For example, they give one imprisoned priest, Father Rodrigues, the opportunity to save many peasants from death, but only by stepping on an image of Jesus and committing apostasy. This would be more than a symbolic act for Rodrigues. The apostasy would reinforce the absolute control of the Japanese Buddhist authorities and cause the priest to throw away his own devotion – his reason for being there at all.
The critical moment in Silence comes as Rodrigues considers committing the blasphemy he has been afraid of. After much angst, he hears a voice in the silence – perhaps God or Jesus – reassuring him that he can move past the part of his religion that keeps him from acting. One step on the image will mean immediate relief for many prisoners. When faced with the choice between people and dogma, the priest listens to the voice, and the people are rescued, at least temporarily.
The film’s strength lies is in its ambiguity and its layers. Characters betray one another, they betray their beliefs, they break the rules, they ask forgiveness, and they make costly sacrifices and cowardly decisions. Over time, it becomes less and less clear what Ferreira and Rodrigues believe, and even less clear whether any of it is important. In a moment of uncertainty late in the film, the Jesus voice tells Rodrigues, “I have always been with you in suffering.”
Which brings us back to the Easter tragedy. What hope can we possibly gain by commemorating a blood sacrifice? Why are we still talking about it and can we please move forward?
Silence evokes a faithful hope – a hope beyond certainty-based doctrines and beliefs. This hope also allows us the freedom to recognize how our beliefs and practices have shaped our lives so far and that they will evolve. It is a world where self-worth, the worth of others, and what the church might call “righteousness before God” does not rely on a transaction in which Jesus rescues us from hell, but only if we believe in him correctly. And especially it is not a world where we need to imagine nor believe that we might be reassigned to hell, along with the other billions of people who have not confessed to the same creed.
Instead, maybe hope means that we work through our sufferings together, with compassion, and without knowing the end result in advance. Finding hope during this violent week means valuing people more than correct beliefs. Compassion means “to suffer together” with one another, after all.
This Easter, I can’t think of a better Christian message to dwell on than compassion, and I have Scorsese to thank.