Endo accomplishes this through his depiction of the suffering of Christian villagers, their vicious urban persecutors, and the Portuguese priests sent into the islands to witness these events. Several aspects of Endo’s depiction rings true to missionary life as I experienced it and through shared life with other missionaries in my circle of colleagues. I have stories, and so did they. Endo captures glimpses of each one of our stories, though ours may not have been as dramatic.
Ambiguity of Being Sent
I wonder if missionaries realize the struggle their superiors go through in order to make it possible for them to go. I sometimes think back to our experience leading up to and during our initial arrival in the Cote d’Ivoire. So many things about that situation parallel the novel, including the ambivalence decision-makers, the over-enthusiastic motivations of missionaries upon entry and short-lived return to a volatile situation, and the unpredictability of the destination country.
Unlocking Gates of Cross-cultural Friendship
The second aspect that rings true, to some extent, is the dependence of the missionaries upon a cultural gatekeeper. In the novel, the priests find a Japanese man named Kichijira, drunken and dressed in tattered rags, to lead them to their destination on a Japanese island. The initial impressions of the priest Sebastian, that Kichijiro is “crafty.”, acknowledge that missionaries must sometimes depend on “untrustworthy” companions. The suspicions of the priest are initially validated by the man’s deplorable work ethic and attitude. Later the man does lead them to Christians in Japan, but eventually betrays Sebastian into the hands of Japanese authorities.
The need for a cultural gatekeeper is realistically portrayed in the novel. Missionaries in many cases are utterly dependent upon the gatekeeper. The difference lies in the extremity of the untrustworthy nature of the novel’s gatekeeper. Most local connections are truly sympathetic to missionaries, especially those working directly with them over a period of time. There are cases and particular situations where the gatekeeper betrays the missionary’s trust or intention in the host country. I know of particular situations where I served as well as in other places in the world in which a local leader “turned” against the missionary.
Many times differing personalities, misunderstood priorities, and lack of cross-cultural preparedness are at the root of the conflict between missionary and their destination. In my experience, the cultural gatekeepers were not only trustworthy but close friends, and have remained so long after our departure. There were particular cases in which I needed to entrust my safety to someone, such as a taxi driver or bureaucrat, that I knew was not particularly trustworthy.
Struggle Inside the Missionary
A third aspect of the story that seemed true-to-life was the internal struggle of faith within the missionary. Again, the novel describes the extreme version of this spiritual wrestling match. The first time this becomes apparent is after the missionary's arrival in Macao. The priest observes the crowded Chinese city and is overwhelmed by the inexplicable poverty. The uncertainty toward why things are the way they are continues as the missionaries arrive in the Japanese islands, hide in the mountains, and witness the persecution and martyrdom of Japanese believers. The missionaries continue to question God, even to the point of letting go of their faith by trampling on the face of Christ.
In the case of many missionaries, it is a process of working through the inability to alleviate the suffering of others, overcome the obstacles found in the host culture, and dealing with the adaptation of one’s home culture into that of the host. It may not lead to stomping on a depiction of the Savior's face, but long and deep rifts occur emotionally and intellectually that may take a lifetime or longer to heal.
The internal struggle of Endo’s main character Sebastian ends with the “silence” of God in the face of human suffering. The priest no longer perceives God’s presence or tangible response to the hellish existence suffered by so many. Missionaries need to come to the place where their perceptions are not always the measure of God’s presence. I think that is where faith begins: when God is no longer perceived in the limitations of my own expectations. Sebastian fails the test or simply gives up on the test. His experience becomes a warning to other missionaries.
Martyrdom as a Sign to the Journey's End
One last aspect of the novel is quite intriguing. It is the contrast between the witness of the Japanese martyrs as observed by the Jesuit missionaries. Martyrdom at its root is as a witness, a sign of the end of the missionary's journey. Christ bids his followers to “take up their crosses and follow him” as a mark of discipleship. No missionaries in the novel actually lose their physical lives on the island; Garrpe drowns in the water, chasing the boat carrying the Japanese martyrs
The only characters in the novel to lose their lives as martyrs, to become witnesses for the gospel, are the Japanese villagers that became believers in Jesus. Their blood nourishes the nascent faith of their land, particularly the beheaded one-eyed prisoner. Japanese believers pay the price for the efficacy of Christian faith in their midst.
Here a subtext is uncovered. Faith in Christ cannot subsist on imported versions offered only by outside missionaries. It can begin this way, but it cannot continue without localized belief leading to lives given to and for Christ, even at the expense of the missionary's own faith. The basis for the authentic Christian ministry is always sacramental sign: broken and poured out. And, another thing. Inoue, the brutal magistrate, is a former student of missionaries. His faith lagged and was lost because there was not a witness of a belief enact, lived out. made tangible as a human sacrament of divine grace.
Just a sobering reminder that the Word verbalized also needs to be visualized before it is received fully.