Martyrdom is easy

when it’s your own life on the line.

Don’t get me wrong, of course you first need unshakeable conviction in whatever you believe in, and enough psychological and physical strength to endure hardships like hanging upside down in a pit full of shit.

But once you’ve got those down, then the battle of oppressor vs. personal conviction is fairly simple.

The 1971 Japanese film Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, however, presents a disturbing scenario: what if for every second you failed to waver, someone else would get hurt?

The film is set in 1630s Japan, after a consolidated Shogunate has decided that it’s gonna go down hard on “Kirishitans” (Christians). Christianity wasn’t always hated in Japan; St. Francis Xavier and succeeding Jesuits from the Portuguese outpost of Macau initially claimed great successes (130,000 converts) and elite support (Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of Japan, had a bone to pick against Buddhist warriors monks, and the enemy of his enemy was his friend). They did have some missteps, such as when it took Francis Xavier years to realize that the people he was preaching to thought that Christianity was another sect of Buddhism from India.

Trade was valued a lot more by the various feudal lords who assumed power, however, and after the Portuguese began to get competition – first from other monastic orders coming from Spanish Manila, and then from Protestant Dutch and English traders who didn’t give a rat’s ass about preaching, the powers that be saw that Christianity could safely be disposed of without harming European trade.

Christianity, in the eyes of Japan’s rulers, could be militarily dangerous. The Jesuits had offered Toyotomi Hideyoshi their influence in winning Christian feudal lords over to his side; the Spanish boasted loudly about “the cross coming before the sword”; and in the 1614-5 Siege of Osaka Castle, where the ruling Tokugawa family crushed their last remaining opposition, a lot of the samurai on the defending side happened to be dispossessed Christians.

At first the policy consisted of rounding up Christians, foreign missionaries and locals alike, and crucifying them publicly; this backfired, however, because people who watched martyrs up on the cross chanting hymns while bleeding were inspired to convert themselves. So the policy switched to heavily encouraging Christians to apostatize, to give up their faith. Suspected Christians would be asked to step on a holy image of either the crucified Christ or the Virgin Mary. Step on it and you’re free to go; if you didn’t, they’d imprison and routinely torture you for months until either you or they gave up. In the latter case, you were then finally executed.

The first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, arrived in Japan in 1636 while this second policy was being carried out. He was imprisoned for two years, and then tortured by hanging upside down in the aforementioned shit-filled pit. It is at this point that tradition holds that Lorenzo Ruiz is said to have uttered his most famous quote: “If I had a thousand lives, I would offer them all up to God.” He only had one life, which eventually he did offer up, which is why he’s the Philippines’ proto-Manny Pacquiao.

Back to the film Silence, however. What if instead of the whole thing just being a struggle between torture and belief, your loved ones – or totally unrelated people – were thrown into the mix? Silence depicts a priest whose parishioners are rounded up and sporadically tortured and executed while he languishes in jail – with the promise that the moment he steps on Christ everyone will be set free. In all probability some of the guys being tortured weren’t even his parishioners, as it was much easier for troops to just waltz into some random village and drag everybody away. Encouraging him towards this path is another priest who apostatized five years before the start of the movie, took a Japanese name, and is a historical figure (Cristovao Ferreira). He tells the anguished priest still holding on to his beliefs that “If Christ were here, he would have apostatized… for love!” Of course, in contrast, there’s always the prospect of an afterlife. Except if you were some random schmuck enduring agony because of some tall white dude in robes you’ve never met, the concept of an afterlife might not be so comforting.

What if Lorenzo Ruiz really had a thousand lives in his hands, and they weren’t his lives? Martyrdom is always depicted as the ideal and romantic end to a personal struggle, where the faith wins out in the end. Yet Christ’s essential message was that of love, and it’d certainly be a loving act to apostatize for the sake of innocent people. Then martyrdom doesn’t become so easy.

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