Many of my students understand the motivations of the early Jesuits better than Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks do, or at least as expressed by their film Silence. While there are some moments where we glimpse the rich wisdom that animates the Society of Jesus, my biggest problem with Silence is that it conveys torture much more effectively than it conveys Christian faith. Christianity makes a radical, startling truth-claim: God, the source of all reality, is a personal being who is in love with the human community. That love is discernible in our amazing inner lives and in the way love defeats hatred over and over in human history. Further, such love is so fecund that God personally united with us even more deeply in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
In this opening salvo, I am guilty of the same mistake that Silence makes: I started with ideas instead of a description of the work: the consequences of Christianity’s radical idea. Christianity should always be about the work. The work that flows from recognizing that every person participates in the same unity between the human and the divine that Jesus disclosed. The work that is required so that people are treated as they are: not simply animals with very sophisticated brains. We are animals but animals that possess the capacity for reflecting, loving, and creating beauty. Ideas, the conceptual description of our human experience, are necessary but must be secondary to the work. That is what Silence gets wrong about the experience of the Jesuits and their tiny communities in Japan.
If the goal of a narrative is to communicate human experience, this visual narrative communicates relentless suffering with the artful use of the peasants’ bodies against themselves. The juxtaposing of the excessively well-tended bodies of the aristocrats with the neglected and starved bodies of the peasants is the most effective feature of the film. The inner life of the Jesuits was not nearly so well expressed. What does this cinematic Silence teach us? The powerful use other human persons as stoop laborers; the efficiency with which they manage peasants as resources is staggeringly effective. It teaches us what institutionalized terrorism looks like. More horrific than a Western dungeon precisely because the various implements are so elegant to the eye. Beautiful grass mats that bind the peasants for execution by drowning; soft, carefully wrapped cloths that cover people who are hanging upside down while they slowly bleed from a neck wound. The deep ugliness of dehumanization is cloaked in delicate and graceful objects. The film is blazingly clear in communicating that aspect of the experience of missionary Christianity; it is quite dim when it comes to expressing the message of love and hope and the acts of care that marked the work of those early Jesuits.
Lest I presume too much knowledge about “the Jesuits,” let me provide some context. Jesuits are members of a Catholic community that was founded by Ignatius of Loyola, to a Basque family in Spain in 1491. The community he founded was highly effective in responding to the corruption in the institutional Catholic Church in the 14th and 15th centuries. Though his cultural milieu was Catholic, he came to his own personal faith as an adult. That move is an enduring one; many people grow up in a religious practice and embrace or reject it as adults.
When Ignatius discovered Christianity’s truth-claims from the inside-out, he experienced a deep desire to serve the mission of Jesus Christ. That desire was ignited in an adult personality that was predisposed for vigorous striving. As one with such inclinations would, he wanted to understand the Christian story the better to serve it. So he went on a rigorous journey of action and study so that he could stabilize the insight that changed his life. He made it his business to understand Jesus as an intimate companion; he made it his business to create a way of life that served Jesus. Another Jesuit with a Japanese connection, Pedro Arrupe, (he had some medical training and used it in the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing), described this Ignatian work as “forming men and women for others.”
Such is Catholic Christianity in a Jesuit key: service to Jesus begins in listening to his story so that story is told again and again by and in our own individual lives. The most effective way to shape your own Christian life is to connect Jesus’ life with your own. In so doing, Jesus becomes your companion and thus guides and directs and animates both your thoughts and your behaviors. This is what so many of my students display so well.
I did not learn this Jesuit key until I was in graduate studies in Catholic Theology. My learning curve has been steepest since I have been teaching Catholicism using Ignatius’ method. My best mentors have been students, usually those who attended Jesuit high schools where Arrupe’s charge to form “men and women for others” is the stated educational philosophy. Two such young men recently gave me a formative jolt. Eric and Josef were seniors at Santa Clara when I came to know them. As we moved through class together, they displayed their Jesuit training over and over. Since I now know that lens so well, when it is present, I recognize that particular gleam. Just last spring when it seemed impossible that we would send a sexual predator to the White House, I was visiting with them before class one day. We were conversing about television and since The Game of Thrones is quite popular I asked if they had been watching the current season. Eric said, “I don’t watch it.” Josef: “Yeah, I used to but it promotes rape culture so I stopped.” Both were so matter-of-fact with such a critically acute stance, that I felt a little rocky on my feet for a moment.
Young men in their early 20s identifying and rejecting “rape culture.” Such a judgment displays a robust understanding of an essential Ignatian insight that flows from the deep attention to the imagination: “finding God in all things.” Women’s bodies are not “things”; they are intense locations of personhood and must be treated as such. More than once, when watching The Game of Thrones, I had asked myself what the difference is between this image of a woman’s naked body and pornography. I found myself asking the same thing throughout Silence. What is the difference between these images of torture and the glorification of torture?
Josef and Eric displayed the Ignatian move between experience and critical thinking with the precision of ballet dancers. They were particularly impressive because they are so young and the culture of their youth is saturated with images of human bodies, especially women’s bodies as objects. Every generation has to navigate the perilous territory where our bodies draw us deeper into intimate relationships. In our time many think “humiliating women is acceptable” and that women “deserve” to be treated as collections of alluring body parts. I nod to Michelle Obama for that language from her stirring response to the now, and hopefully always, infamous film of Donald Trump describing his well-honed techniques for groping women.
Eric and Josef were doing Christian work by refusing to use the power of their own imaginations to embrace tableaus that denigrate human bodies. Why? Behavior functions. Watching women’s bodies being treated like things fabricates the idea that women’s bodies are just that: things.
Jesuits are famous for their muscular attention to the human imagination. Ignatius recognized that in order to navigate the room between our inner lives and our actual human experiences in the world, we needed more than ideas and concepts. We are people of the story, the narrative. Yes, the story better have a theme otherwise it is not a story but just a disjointed collection of events. But if the theme becomes disconnected from the experience one of two things happen. It becomes an ideology that no longer reflects real, actual experiences of human persons and communities. Or staleness sets in and the story becomes obsolete.
The Judeo-Christian Story is the story of God’s presence to human persons. That experience, like everything human, privileges our bodies, our complexly simple bodies. Our inner life is rooted in our actual, physical, historical life in the world. That challenging pivot, between the inner and the outer is the center of gravity for our humanity. We are people of the story. We reflect on our experience of ourselves to ourselves. Things happen to us and we automatically ask ourselves what they mean. Even the most un-self-reflective person does so to some degree; it is the constitutive feature of our personhood. If we are people of the story we are therefore people of the question. What does the story mean? What does our embodiment mean and how is it related to our spiritual features that resides in our minds, our imaginations, our motivations?
This radically embodied situation is where Silence was so dissatisfying. It certainly displays embodiment acutely. The inner life of the Jesuits was not nearly so well expressed. We are given images of the cross and a couple vague references to how the hope for “paradise” gives the peasants a way to manage their relentless deprivation and the menacing character of their existence. Rodrigues’ determined explanation of how the “truth” belongs to Christianity is overly conceptualized and deeply unsatisfying especially in the face of such well-executed violence upon the bodies of the very people Rodrigues claims to value. One of the most profoundly moving moments is the exquisitely subtle acting of Tadanobu Asano, the Interpreter, as he conveys contempt for the Jesuits as well as the tiniest signal of his carefully veiled compassion for the peasants. Immersed in the experience he does not for one minute buy Rodrigues’ claims about the “truth.”
I do not dispute that there is a relationship between the truth and Christianity. But it is not primarily located in the conceptual, the intellectual. Its foundation, its center of gravity is the essential human question about whether or not human existence has any ultimate meaning. Are we like the Japanese peasants? The Inquisitor sees them as commodities, animals that perform the labor required for the delicately opulent lives of the powerful. In Silence, except for the well disguised compassion of the Interpreter, the powerful display no love. In contrast, when the peasant Christians embrace the two Jesuits, their love and care shines through the drab conditions of their lives. The imagery of the peasants in hiding provide some rich moments where even in the deprivation, the intimate care in that small community fairly seeps from the screen.
Love is located in our bodies; our bodies carry and serve all our intimacies. Expressions of family, friendship, community, and sexual love all share the same abiding conundrum of our lives as embodied spirits. What is the relationship between our bodies and our spirits? Are our desires for knowledge, love, beauty just complicated chemical reactions set in motion by some crazy combination of our own genes and the events of our lives? Jesus’ story proclaims a resounding “no” to that question. Sadly, Silence tries to tell a Jesuit story with the barest reference to Jesus’ story and so misses both.