Women from Foreign Countries

Playing Cards – Fuku Zukushi, by Toyohara Chikanobu. Date: 1901.

I recently completed reading Shūsaku Endō‘s novel Silence. I may reread it, but I’m not sure; my feelings about it haven’t yet settled. Silence is a work of historical fiction based upon the real-life apostasy of a 17th-century Portuguese Catholic priest and Jesuit missionary to Japan, Cristóvão Ferreira (c. 1580-1650). Ferreira renounced Christianity in Japan under torture during the intense persecution of Christians in Japan in the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate

In the story, three of Ferreira’s former pupils in Portugal found it difficult to believe that their teacher had apostatized and decided to travel to Japan and find out what happened. One of the three, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, finds out. The novel was published in Japanese in 1966 and English in 1969, translated by William Johnston. In 2016, Martin Scorsese made a movie of the book. I’ve not seen the film, and I’m not sure if I will. There is sufficient philosophical and theological material in Endō’s text with which to deal.

Many of Endō’s motifs are, sad to say, familiar to the “true believers” of any ideology who from time to time may find themselves subjected to persecution: the insistent, persistent call to renounce their beliefs, the use, actual or threatened, of torture when the renunciation is not forthcoming—sometimes even when it is—and, far too often, ending in martyrdom. It is a tragic tale, told over and over again in the history of humanity. For confirmation, pick up this morning’s newspaper or watch the evening news.

One factor often felt by those persecuted for their religious beliefs is the experience of their god’s silence, that is, its failure to intervene on behalf of the persecuted faithful in the face of unspeakable horrors. Endō addresses this divine muteness throughout the book. Here’s one example:

“Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.”

Shūsaku Endō, Silence, Picador Modern Classics, tr. William Johnston, p. 57.

As a twenty-first-century Jew, I am too familiar with all of these themes. Endō, however, did bring something else to my attention that, in my ignorance, I’ve never seriously considered. At least, in what is termed the Abrahamic religions, Judaism among them, believers typically hold that there is only one god, period. And this god is the god of all, of everyone, in every place, always, and forever. 

I am reminded of this at the end of every formal Jewish prayer service. In an English translation from Hebrew, the last prayer recited contains these words referring to divinity: “He is our God; there is none else…there is nothing besides Him…there is nothing else.” It concludes that in time: “The Lord will be King over the entire earth; on that day the Lord will be One and His Name One.” This last phrase is taken from the biblical prophet Zechariah (14.9). Robert Alter translates the verse: “And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.” (Robert Alter, Jewish Publication Society of America. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures). LORD is the stand-in for God’s holy name, the tetragrammaton.

Now, I don’t want to mislead you. It’s not that I’d never heard of this idea before Endō. After all, I recite these words every day. But it took an episode (pp. 129-132) in Endō’s novel to drive their force home to me. The setting is a conversation that Inoue, the Lord of Chikugo, the mastermind in Nagasaki behind the persecution of the Christians, has with the captured priest Sebastian Rodrigues. The conversation begins innocuously. But it’s not long before Inoue’s purpose is made clear. Inoue starts by recommending that Sebastian visit a castle of the Matsuura’s as though it was possible for the prisoner to do so. It is, he says, situated “on a mountain facing a tranquil inlet.” He then tells a story about one of the former masters of the castle who lived with four frequently quarreling concubines. Eventually, growing tired of their bickering, he throws all four of them out.

The priest tells Inoue that the master appeared to be a wise man. Inoue says that he is happy to learn this, that is, that the priest thinks that way. Then, he says: “Father, if you think that Matsuura was wise, you surely realize that Japan’s outlawing of Christianity is not unreasonable and foolish.” The priest picks up Inoue’s metaphor and suggests, “What if Japan were to choose one lawful wife from among these four?” meaning the Church, for Rodrigues, the Roman Catholic Church.

Inoue stands his ground and asks the priest if it is not better for Japan to “stop thinking about women from foreign countries and to be united with a woman born in the same country, a woman who has sympathy for his way of thinking.” From Inoue’s perspective, Japan already has a religion, a “wife,” perfect for its needs. Christianity, born elsewhere to different people, is not a fit mate for the Japanese. For Inoue, missionary work is like the persistent attempts of an ugly woman to force her affection on a man who does not want it. The priest asks, “You look upon missionary work as the forcing of love upon someone?” Inoue replies, “Yes, that’s what it is—from our standpoint.”

Nowadays, attempts by groups to enforce religious hegemony over others still exist. And these efforts happen not only across religions, what we might term inter-religiously, between Jews and Christians, for example, but even within the same religion, intra-religiously. Not long ago, I was overcome with pain looking at a newspaper photograph showing a man ripping up the prayerbook of fellow Jews with whom he disagreed.

Most of my discussion above focuses on religious persecution. But I know that this type of conflict occurs in many other areas. Try not joining a union in a union shop or starting one in a non-union shop, and you’ll understand better the deep-rootedness of the problem. Tell steak lovers that they eat corpses or vegans that meat is good for them.

It seems that we often assume, consciously or unconsciously, that whatever creed, ideology, manifesto, movement, religion, politics, art movement or diet we follow should be followed by everyone. The problem, so it seems to me, is not so much in our assumption but in how we handle our disagreements.

If you’ve read the novel, can you think of a better way Inoue could have handled what he perceived as a severe threat to his country; or, can you suggest a better way for the Jesuit missionaries to have introduced Christianity to the Japanese?

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

2 thoughts

  1. That’s a very thought provoking article and a book I’ve thought about reading too.

    I lived in Malawi for a couple of years and met a few missionaries. Many were doing excellent work in schools and hospitals, getting on with their work and not making a big deal of their religion. Then one day I met a missionary couple and when I asked them what they did, they said ‘Oh we just preach the Lord’s word’. I found it strange that anyone would go to a desperately poor country and do nothing but preach (particularly as Malawi has plenty of church leaders itself).


    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to julietwilson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.