Spoiler alert! Do not read this if you want to watch the movie without knowing the ending.

Summary of the Plot

Christianity has been outlawed in Japan. Unless you deny your faith (‘recant’) you will be tortured and killed. But where the authorities formerly targeted priests, they have learned that Japanese Christians only grow stronger when they see the courage and strength of a priests’ faith in the face of persecution. So the Japanese inquisitor has a new strategy: keep the priest alive, and torture other people until he recants to put an end to their suffering.

Rodrigues is proud and determined, willing to face any amount of torture for the gospel message he believes in. He suffers for others’ sake as Christ suffered. But the Portuguese Jesuit is not prepared to find that his great mentor and guide, Ferreira, recanted years ago and now lives with his Japanese wife as a Buddhist. Nor is Rodrigues prepared for the ultimate challenge: will he deny his faith to end the torture of innocent people?

The whole movie leads slowly and inexorably up to the point of this decision, tracing the contours of Rodrigues’ struggle.

Finally Rodrigues reaches the climactic moment of decision. “You must now do the most painful act of love to have ever been performed,” says Ferreira. It is what Ferreira did: trample on the icon of Christ, enacting the abandonment of his Christian faith. “What would Jesus do?” Ferreira adds. “He would have compassion on these people. Christ would apostatize for their sake.” And in the greatest mental confusion and anguish, Rodrigues relents and tramples the icon. The tortured bodies nearby are immediately released. It is over. He has publicly abandoned his faith and his calling as a priest, but in his heart he remains a follower of Jesus until the day he dies.

What Should He Have Done?

I love this movie, as I loved Shusaku Endo’s book when I read it many years ago. I love the questions they raise, deep and difficult questions about faith and doubt, glory and extreme suffering, pride and compassion. They refuse to settle for simple and easy answers, forcing their audiences to follow the implications of what they believe and to ask what Jesus really requires of them.

The main question is: should Rodrigues have recanted?

For many the answer is clear: no Christian should ever deny their faith no matter what the circumstances. It doesn’t matter how much your suffering or others’ is at stake. Apostasy is the ultimate betrayal of Jesus: nothing but weakness, cowardice, and failure to stand firm under pressure.

But to others, a different story could be told – one that takes seriously the muddy, grey, ambiguous world in which we live. The more your heart is shaped like Jesus, the more compassion you have for those around you, and the harder it is to watch others suffer. “Why?” prays Rodrigues, “should the sufferings of these people be so terrible?” Where is God in this awful situation? Why does He not speak? Rodrigues has been sustained by his pride, until he begins to see the cost of continued resistance. The Inquisitor tells him, “You are not a good priest. A good priest should care for his flock,” instead of selfishly refusing to give in so he can be a hero. Stubborn resistance will only cause more and more Japanese Christians to be tortured and killed. “The price of your glory is their suffering,” says the Inquisitor. Eventually the priest begins to imagine another way to embody the gospel message. He finds that Christ has been right beside him all along. Rodrigues is not suffering for Christ: rather, Christ suffers with him. An outward show of faith is less important than a faith that remains in the heart, and love for others is the true characteristic of a Jesus-follower.

Nobody can say what they ‘would do’ if they were given the same choice, unless they have themselves been in such an unbearable situation with such an awful decision to make. We do not know ourselves half as well as we would like to think, nor what may be drawn out of us by external pressure. But it is worth spending time pondering, in the abstract, what we think we ought to do, because such reflection can give shape to how we live our lives even if we are never faced with that precise situation. In what follows, I want to suggest a new angle that differs from both the above perspectives. I want to think about the question through a political lens. I am going to argue that what is really at stake is a power struggle between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, and refusing to recant is a testimony to the greater power of the Kingdom of God.

 The Politics of Faith

“I consider,” says Paul, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”[1] From the very beginning, the gospel message was marked by suffering and persecution, and saw that it was worth it because of future glory. The early Christians faced enormous resistance from the most powerful empire in the world that sought to crush them.

This persecution came in spite of a message of peace, hope, and the love of God for all humanity. The Power that created all that exists, says Christianity, the Power by which all things have their being – this Power is shown most perfectly and truly in a crucified and resurrected Jewish man, who because of his faithfulness unto death is now King of the entire world.

For now we shall put aside the many paradoxes of this message, and focus on a single question: what makes it so alarming and offensive to earthly powers? What is the  motivation these governments have to persecute Christians? Why did the Roman Empire do it in the first centuries A.D.? Why did the Japanese Government do it in the 17th century?

Why, why, why has the decision to follow “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” been punishable by death in so many parts of the world for so much of human history?

The Inquisitor tells Rodrigues, “you are causing the suffering of these innocent Japanese.” But imagine if Rodrigues had turned round and said, “NO! YOU are causing their suffering. You are the one torturing them, creating this situation. Why should you reprimand me for lacking compassion when you yourself have none? Why should you make their suffering depend on my answer? What is so threatening about Christianity, that you will torture and kill so many of your own people to prevent it from spreading?”

We know the answer, of course. Earthly powers are threatened by allegiances higher than themselves. Caesar did not care what religion people privately practised, as long as they paid public homage to him. The Japanese Inquisitor does not care if Rodrigues remains ‘privately’ a Christian, as long as he will publicly denounce his faith. For the Inquisitor, one thing matters more than anything else: who has more power? Is it him or Jesus? Who commands the actions of these people? Who do they ultimately serve? Is it their precious Jesus, or is it Japan? He will do whatever it takes to show his authority, to safeguard it, to make it publicly known, and to squash any sign of allegiance to a higher power.

Jesus is King, not Caesar.

Jesus is King, not the Japanese emperor.

Jesus is King over the whole world, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”[2]

A martyr is a witness to the kingship of Jesus. The martyr proclaims, by their actions, that whatever it may look like, however it may seem, Jesus is the one really in charge here, and no amount of physical force, brutality, and display of earthly strength can change that.

The Problem of God’s Absence

But if Jesus truly is the King, not just in a ‘spiritual’ sense but in a more real sense than anything else, why does he allow his people to be persecuted? Why does he let them endure such awful, unbearable torture and death for his sake? What does it even mean to say he is King if he cannot look after his own, if he has no power over their lives to end their suffering? Why does God himself not sweep in to their rescue?

This question is a specific restatement of the general problem of evil. I plan to write about this problem very soon. For now, all I want to point out is that, curiously, we find very little reflection on this question in the early persecuted church. We can only guess what they thought about it. For them something else was more important: the heavenly reward, paradise. “They have conquered by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”[3] The same theme appears or the Japanese martyrs, who similarly are not thinking about their earthly suffering. Instead, they are thinking about the end of all things, when they shall finally see the face of their Lord, and all pain and sorrow will be no more.

For me, the true heroes of the story are the faithful Japanese, who submit themselves to horrible deaths rather than speaking a word against the Jesus whom they love. They not only love him, but trust him absolutely. They are not torn with anguished questions about God’s silence. Their eyes are focused on the Jesus whom they love and trust unreservedly, and, paradoxically, they show earthly strength and courage as a result.

Rodrigues, however, cannot see past the present moment to the future, nor can he see past physical suffering into the spiritual (i.e. more real) realm. He cannot see the war being waged in the heavenlies over these people, and the victory of their faithfulness for all eternity. He cannot see that the Inquisitor and the apostate Ferreira are telling him how to interpret this situation: painting a picture for him which he cannot resist. He has no counter-narrative, because for him the present physical suffering of Christians is more real than their future glory.

The Problem of Compassion

This may all be very well, Barney. But haven’t you missed the main point of the movie? The priest is willing to face his own suffering; what he can’t bear is the suffering of others for his sake. The Japanese Inquisitor knows the arguments you are presenting – that is why he refuses to torture the priest, and instead plays on the priests’ compassion for his flock. In that case, might it not be a stronger manifestation of God’s Kingdom to recant out of compassion, and end the suffering of innocent people?

This is a non-trivial question, and I want to be very careful in answering it.

It is clear that the more Christlike you are, the harder you will find it to see the suffering of others. Therefore, a person without much compassion might, paradoxically, find it easier to stand firm in the face of this special kind of persecution. Jesus said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”[4] C.S. Lewis points out that for some of us, this command is far too easy to obey:

For most of us the true rivalry lies between the self and the human Other, not yet between the human Other and God.  It is dangerous to press upon a person the duty of getting beyond earthly love when their real difficulty lies in getting so far.  And it is no doubt easy enough to love the fellow-creature less and to imagine that this is happening because we are learning to love God more, when the real reason may be quite different.  We may be only ‘mistaking the decays of nature for the increase of Grace’.  Many people do not find it really difficult to hate their wives or mothers.  M. Mauriac, in a fine scene, pictures the other disciples stunned and bewildered by this strange command, but not Judas.  He laps it up easily.[5]

I am more attracted to the kind of person who thinks Rodrigues did the right thing, than to anyone who quickly invokes Luke 14:26 to justify their actions. 99% of the time in ordinary life, they show the love of Christ more perfectly and make the right decision more naturally.

But there can be many possible reasons for doing something. If you are resisting because you do not have compassion for others, that is a bad reason. If Rodrigues’ pride was his reason for holding out, then that was a bad reason. The movie sets him up to fall, by emphasising his pride as the reason for his resistance. But might there be other reasons to refuse to give in? Could someone keep their eyes fixed on the eternal reward, not for themselves but for others? It depends on how strongly they believe such an eternal reward to be real, and to be worth the cost. The New Testament is unambiguous about such matters: from the eternal perspective, it is abundantly and unimaginably worth it.

The Problem of Why-It-Matters

But why is it “worth it”? But what is so important about not recanting that would make it worth such agony? To tell a white lie, say a few words you don’t really mean, and then to move on – why should this be considered the “ultimate sin,” worse than enduring the most awful tortures? Would Jesus really mind if you slipped up in this way, especially considering what it means if you don’t?

First, let’s be clear: apostasy is not the “ultimate sin.” You are not damning yourself if you do it. This question was settled long ago, when the early Church had to deal with Christians (including priests) who recanted in the face of torture. The Donatists insisted that apostates should not be allowed back in the Church, and that apostate priests were no longer valid priests. But the Church condemned Donatism as a heresy. Apostasy is a sin, but not an unforgivable one. Compassion is the Church’s fundamental principle, following the example of Jesus.

But it still matters. It is still important not to recant. Why?

We can get a hint of why apostasy matters so much by turning the question around: why is Rodrigues being faced with such an unbearable choice in the first place? At the climactic moment of decision, the Inquisitor tells Rodrigues that to recant is a “mere formality” and doesn’t really mean anything. But for the Inquisitor, this “mere formality” apparently matters a great deal – so much that he is willing to torture and kill many people to acquire it. In short, he was lying in order to persuade Rodrigues.

Another hint shows itself if we look at what the early Church achieved through its persecution. The early Church Father Tertullian, like many others, was won over to the Christian faith because he saw the strength of the Christian martyrs. Their actions proclaimed a belief that was worth dying for. It was the power of Christianity made manifest, that it could command unswerving loyalty in the face of the most brutal torture imaginable. And it was this power that eventually conquered the Roman Empire. Over 300 years the whole of the Western world became Christian, won over by the power of this new belief system. The heavenly-minded martyrs had a greater earthly impact on Western history than any earthly-minded group has ever done.

Christianity is not just a private religion without any relation to the powers of this world. On the contrary, it is unashamedly public, and it proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth. Its message is that God wants to restore the earthly order and bring his Kingdom of love to every corner of the world, with Christ as the King. And whoever is faithful to the end contributes to the advancement of that Kingdom, step by inexorable step. Would I have the strength to be faithful to the end? I don’t know. I may never know. But I hope (or perhaps only wish) to become the kind of person who would. Not by pride or lack of compassion, but by a vision of the heavenly reality that is far more real than any earthly suffering; as Paul said, “not worth comparing.”

[1] Rom 8:18

[2] Eph 1: 21

[3] Rev 12:11

[4] Luke 14:26

[5] Clive Staples Lewis, The Four Loves (HarperCollins UK, 2002).

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Barney is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary's Seminary and University. He hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers which confronts challenges to the Christian faith with hope. He also has a column on Seen and Unseen, a magazine that offers Christian perspectives on life and society for a non-Christian audience.