Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fourth Sunday before Lent 2017
Start Date 5th Feb 2017 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

During my sermons at Matins this month I shall be talking about some recently released films. I have to say, the research for this series of sermons has been particularly demanding and challenging!

For most people, films are highly engaging, and a bit of an escape from the world around us. A good film has a magical quality; it engages our senses, stimulates our emotions and entertains us.

I suspect that most of you will probably have a particular film you fondly remember, perhaps even from your first outing to the cinema. Indeed from its early days in the late Victorian era, cinema has held a pre-eminent place in our national culture.

I begin today with the eagerly awaited film by Martin Scorsese, released last month and entitled ‘Silence’. It’s about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan.

Films about religion tend to offend some of the people all of the time. Believers certainly don’t like films that mock faith. Unbelievers don’t like films that assume God is in their hearts; and absolutely no one likes boring marathon films.

But this film ‘Silence’, based on Shusaku Endō’s novel of the same name, tells the story of two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in Japan in search of the truth about what happened to their much-admired teacher, who is rumoured to have abandoned his faith.

As they come face to face with the reality of Japanese Christianity, not only are their own vocations challenged, but they’re also forced to question and re-assess their own understanding of discipleship.

Shusaku Endō, was himself a Japanese convert, well versed in the history of Japanese Christianity, and widely known as ‘the Japanese Graham Greene’.

Of course, it was the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier who first brought Christianity to Japan in 1549.Yet during following years, the Christian faith came under extreme opposition with missionaries and their followers forced to apostatise by stepping on what’s called the fumie, a piece of copper impressed with an image of Christ.

In both book and film, we’re invited to see things from the missionaries’ point of view, in the form of letters from the priests, reporting back events to their superiors. In many senses it’s a harsh and rather brutal film, graphically depicting how some do step on the fumie, how others are tortured and indeed how some are crucified, or burned alive or drowned.

At one grizzly point, a magistrate fluent in Christianity makes a grim proposal: the missionaries may save their lives, and those of their converts under torture, if only they will step on the fumie and apostatise.

I found this film particularly helpful in understanding why the Japanese government was so opposed to Christianity.

Firstly, the complicated set of political factors that forced so many Christians to both worship and practice their faith underground. Secondly, why the government saw the influx of Europeans as such a security threat, and thirdly, the link between the Shimabara rebellion (a revolt of starving peasants against their lords), and the persecution of Christians, as a way of quashing that uprising.

In terms of discipleship, this film very powerfully portrays both a real struggle for faith, in a severely suffering world, and the extremely powerful presence of God given silence.

Although it’s harrowing to watch the torture and death of innocent people, the film does manages to tread a path around the tension between the missionary and the colonial, between East and West, and between Christianity and Buddhism.

Ultimately it doesn’t really give us any definitive answers, but the real power of this film doesn’t lie so much in its dialogue, its words, but rather in the spaces between them. In the end, it’s all about persecution in a country seeking to expel foreigners.

So how can such a film influence our own Christian lives? This piece of uncomfortable missionary history helps us to reflect upon the current state of God’s persecuted Church.

It reminds us that last year was the first time that African countries outnumbered Middle East countries on the persecuted world watch list, affecting far more Christians numerically, though not as severely.

Known figures tell us that more than 7,000 Christians were killed for their faith, up drastically from 4,344 in 2014 and 2,123 in 2013. And those numbers don’t include North Korea or parts of Iraq and Syria, where it’s incredibly difficult to obtain accurate numbers.

As Scorsese’s film clearly portrays, Christian persecution is more than just physical violence. It’s complex, and comes in many forms such as marginalisation, governmental discrimination, limited participation in public affairs and restrictions on church life. And yet in every age the Christian response must be that of mercy.

At one point in this film, the Japanese officials explicitly use the concept of mercy to torment and manipulate the Jesuit missionaries. But the thing is, the idea of mercy is the implicit backbone of the story.

The Jesuit’s anguish comes from their struggle to discern how to act mercifully, and they question how our merciful God can be so silent in the face of the horrors that they witness. We’re reminded of the fact that Elijah found God in the sound of sheer silence, and yet for those Jesuit missionaries, God’s unrelenting silence induces terror within them.

Silence is a story about Japan, about persecution, about the challenges of evangelism, about Christian witness, and about so much more. It’s almost impossible to capture the nuances of a novel like Endō’s for the screen.

But Scorsese comes about as close as one can imagine, and the results are challenging for both faithful and sceptical. He described the making of this film in terms of a personal pilgrimage, which denotes both a journey and a struggle, and to my mind this clearly shows.

Silence is beautifully shot and spiritually moving, but it’s not what you’d call uplifting. It’s a film that demands reflection, and a film that demands being watched more than once. The film brings home to us all, the cost of discipleship and the strength of faith needed to uphold Christ in face of great adversity.

Tomorrow (6th February) the Church throughout the world remembers The Holy Martyrs of Japan, 1597.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure