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Empathy is not Charity

Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence, like the historical novel by Shūsaku Endō on which it is based, turns on an act of emotional blackmail. Inoue, a seventeenth-century Japanese magistrate intent on eradicating Christianity from his country, pressures a Jesuit priest named Rodrigues to apostatize not by torturing him personally, but by torturing his flock. If Rodrigues tramples on Christ’s image, the savage torture of a group of Japanese Christians will end. In his successful efforts to overcome Rodrigues’s resistance, Inoue has the support of another Jesuit priest named Ferreira, who previously apostatized under the same conditions.

If it is always and everywhere difficult for human beings to hold in their minds seemingly contradictory tenets of Christianity, Silence makes the task feel impossible. Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God. Following the release of the film, the debate stirred up by the book was reignited, fueled by competing clues: For example, in both the book and the film, Ferreira’s appeals to Rodrigues to apostatize are rhetorically persuasive, but when Rodrigues actually steps on Christ’s face, a cock crows. The Jesuit Fr. James Martin, a consultant on the film, argued in America that in circumstances like these, well-formed, prayerful Jesuits might legitimately deny Christ. Other Catholic critics lamented Silence’s implications, appealing to centuries of church teaching and the eternal validity of Christianity’s truth claims.

On one point, at least, critics would probably have agreed. In a time and place unsurpassed in the history of the Church for the ingenious ferocity of the tortures that were visited upon Christians, Inoue’s psychological stratagem deserves an eminence of its own. How diabolically perverse must the mind of that Japanese magistrate have been to have dreamt up such a devastating turn of the screw, one that carves up the good and pits love against love—!

Read more at First Things. 

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