The car in front of me swerved, and a bundle of long limbs flew up over its hood, tumbled across the roof, and slid down onto the hot August pavement. The car slowed briefly then sped away, leaving behind it a dying animal kicking and groaning in the dark.
I parked my truck on the shoulder and got out. It was a seldom-trafficked road. No cars. It would have been quiet except for the drama in the southbound lane. The fawn’s legs wouldn’t work. It flopped and rolled, mewling eerily as it tried to right itself like a broken wind-up toy.
When I knelt down beside it, its eye rolled toward me and stared. It stopped kicking and lay still, panting, blowing breath out of its mouth in sharp, hoarse heaves. I picked it up by the ankles, two in each hand, and carried it into the grass beside the road. What now? I thought.
It stared back at me. Its eye was shot wide open, bulging, and rolling awkwardly back to keep me in its view. There was bloody spittle at its mouth and nose. Surely it would die. I ran my hand across its withers. Hot. I couldn’t believe how hot it was. Burning from the inside out–and wet, lathered with sweat and blood. I patted it gently and spoke to it. Easy. Easy. Sshhh. The panting slowed. The neck relaxed. The eye rolled forward and closed. Stillness.
I knelt there a moment more, thankful the fawn was dead, then stood up and turned to leave. But as soon as I turned, the fawn began writhing again. It coughed and spit and panted and that frightened eye circled around to find me. I knelt back down and once more stroked its hot, blood-lathered coat. Under my hand, its panic passed and there it lay, silent and afraid. The eye kept me fast and I stayed a while. Easy. Easy.
It occurred to me that the kindest thing might be to finish what the car began, but I hadn’t any means to do it. The best I could muster was a tire iron and I couldn’t see any kindness in a bludgeoning. I even considered using my hands but feared that snapping its thickly corded neck would prove more difficult than expected, and the last thing I wanted was to botch the job and leave it worse off than it would have been without me. So I tried to leave again. And once more, as soon as I stood up, the deer flopped and twisted and groaned. So back down I went. Easy. Easy. And there I was, knelt in the dark, lending a hand of comfort to a broken creature suffering nigh its end. How long? I prayed. How long, O Lord, will you let this go on?
— — —
In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries tended a thriving Christianity in Japan. It’s estimated that there were between 200,000 and 400,000 converts. Churches grew, seminaries were established, and Portuguese priests were revered. But by the early 17th century, Christianity had been all but eradicated. The Japanese leadership feared the westernization of their country and saw Christianity and its missionaries as a prime threat. Persecution was institutionalized. Thousands were tortured and killed and the Church in Portugal effectively gave up. They would send no more missionaries to die. Shusaku Endo’s Silence is the story of two young missionaries who went anyway.
The story is Shakespearian in its relentless tragedy and its effectiveness in asking questions that, if we are honest, have no easily manageable answers. Why do the innocent die? Why does God not break his silence and end suffering? When persecution ceases to be hypothetical and becomes torturous reality, have we any right to pass judgement on the man or woman who succumbs in the torturer’s keep? Can apostasy possibly be an act of love?
When a naïve Father Rodriques sails from Portugal, intent upon a mission to Japan and his ideal of a glorious martyrdom there, he has no idea what is waiting for him. Those questions loom like muttering storms, half-seen on the horizon. The world he leaves behind is one of clear choices: pagan or Christian, apostate or apostle, fidelity or betrayal, black or white. But the Japan he discovers is a grey waste of unthinkable choices and faith-shattering cruelty. From the moment he sets foot in Japan, his ideals are slowly peeled back, layer by layer, winnowing his presuppositions away and laying bare the chilling truth that even the deepest certainty can be shaken when the only answer to the tortured groan of the Christian in the next cell is the harrowing silence of God.
As a writer, Endo is deft enough to know that the answers aren’t necessarily any more comforting than the questions, and in fact I’d venture to suggest that some of the questions he wrestles with are essentially unanswerable. To attempt answers is to reduce the questions themselves to insignificance and reduce the people faced with them to something less than human. Like the author, the best we can do is to wrestle. Confronted with the reality of torture, doubt, weakness, and the suffering of others, the best we can hope for is a pugilism of conscience in which no one can contend unchanged.
It’s a book that every Christian ought to get in the ring with. It’s a book that every missionary needs to confront. One of the many perspectives Endo presents is that which says Christianity has no place in Japan, that it’s fundamentally incapable of taking root there and rightly ought to be stamped out. That’s obviously the antagonistic view in the book, but it’s one with which anyone serious about missions work needs to grapple and overcome.
— — —
The fawn wouldn’t die, at least not according to my schedule. I gave up on it. What was I to do? Wait beside the road all night? Throw it in my truck and wait until morning to drive it to a vet? I didn’t have time for that. I left. I stood up and left it writhing in the grass coughing and sputtering and burning hot as a coal. I got in my truck and drove away—and about half a mile down the road I broke into tears because even though I’d done everything I knew to do, more than was required, I couldn’t escape the fact that leaving it there felt like a betrayal. I knew in my heart that I’d done the wrong thing. All it needed was my hand to comfort it, my voice to soothe it, my presence for assurance. And I denied it. The fawn died alone, writhing and screaming in the darkness.
— — —
The final beauty and complexity of Endo’s masterwork is in its denouement. Those fallen under the arm of the torturer cry out for God to speak and end it all. Their prayers and cries are met with silence. Will God not utter a word to break it? Often, no. And yet, amid the silence they are answered. The Word came among us, suffered among us, suffers among us still. God’s silence is not broken. Rather, it’s fulfilled. The Word that fulfills it was spoken to soothe, to comfort, to give assurance, to fill forever the silent reaches. Even though we betray it in our fear, even though we fail to hear it beside us, even though we trample it underfoot in our weakness, grief, and suffering, the Word cries out: I more than anyone know of your pain. It was to be trampled on by men than I came into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.
Christ does not leave us abandoned to die alone like animals along the road. He abides with us. He stays no matter how long, feels each pang no matter how deep, and understands our betrayal even before we’ve given it a name. What thou dost, do quickly. What we do in the wake of his understanding is a choice of vital significance, because even in moments when, like Endo’s Father Rodrigues, we pride ourselves on being Christ-like, when we resolve ourselves to glorious martyrdoms of spirit if not of flesh, we’re often surprised to find ourselves driving away from the horror beside the road, having been no better than Judas after all.
In the aftermath, do we tie ourselves a rope and go in search of a tree? Do we, like Peter thrice apostate, run headlong to the tomb and lay the foundations of something new? Or do we, humans that we are, go forth upon the middle ground veering wildly and desperate for guidance?
Shall we do as Judas? Or shall we do as Peter? For we are none of us so strong as we think. We all shut out the Word, and none of us bear the silence well.
By A. S. Peterson
To quiet the groan
Trample the wretch
In ragged repose
Lying crushed underfoot
While the morning cock crows
From whom each hides his face
In whose grime-crusted form
The imprint of suffering
Is e’er deeper worn
Whose beauty has gone
By each treacher defaced
As each foot surrenders
Its weight in disgrace
“Your dirt for my beauty,
My pain for relief!”
The weeping king cries
The unthinkable plea
For this was I born.
For this crows the cock
Each terrible morn
Do quick what thou dost
And trample again
I’m crowned to lie down
And be trampled by men.”
Fumie – n. A device used to expose Christians after Christianity became prohibited in Japan (starting to an extent in 1587). Normally an image of Jesus, the Fumie was dropped on the ground and individuals made to step upon it in the belief that a true Christian would not commit such a sacrilege.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.