This post contains spoilers. Read the book or see the film, and then return.
Are you willing to die for your Christian faith? If subjected to torture would you apostatize out of weakness or doubt? Most Christians would like to think that they would not apostatize and would faithfully walk the path of the martyrs. But the very fact that the Church honors and venerates the martyrs, exalting them highly, tells you that martyrdom is a special calling and a glorious achievement, one that not all of us could accomplish (though we pray to be granted their strength.)
But what if your faith did have that rare strength of the martyrs, and was willing to suffer torture and death for Christ's sake -- but your tormentors were especially cunning. Having realized that the glory of the martyrs does in fact fuel the growth and strength of the Church, your tormentors, instead of subjecting you to cruel physical torments, subjected your fellow Christians to torture, forcing you to observe, unless you apostatized. Because they know that creating apostates is a much more effective tactic at hurting the Church than creating martyrs.
This thought experiment is posited in Silence--both the brilliant book by Shusako Endo and the new film by Martin Scorsese, the latter being a very faithful adaptation of the former (though the book is rich and has more dimensions than just this animating question.)
The Christian faith had begun to expand and get a foothold in Japan during the decades before the events depicted in Silence (set in the 1630s), having converted even a number of feudal lords and their subjects, but the shogun began to harshly crackdown on the faith, abruptly coming to see its expansion as a threat to the Japanese way of life.
In this context, two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Garrpe and Rodriguez, head to Japan, both to serve its persecuted Catholic minority--facing a harsh crackdown which had deprived it of spiritual leadership and forced Christians into hiding their religion--and to see about the fate of their teacher in the faith, Fr. Ferreira, who is rumored to have apostatized.
Rodriguez, after spending time serving Christian villages in secret, having observed Christians subject themselves to brutal torture and martyrdom to protect his secrecy, and struggling mightily with his faith as a consequence, is eventually captured. The diabolical inquisitor, Inoue, allows him to serve his fellow captured Christians for weeks, to the point where Rodriguez almost enjoys his captivity, serving Christians he came to help and growing closer to them.
What Rodriguez doesn't realize is that the inquisitor is fanning his love for these Christians to use it as the ultimate weapon against him. The climax of the story comes as Rodriguez is forced to watch a number of the Japanese Christians he had been serving hung upside down in the pit, and told they would remain there--the torture often lasting days before they died--unless he apostatized by trampling on the fumie, an icon of Christ. And he is being prodded to do so by his old teacher, Fr. Ferreira, who himself had apostatized after being hung in the pit, and who has become convinced that Christianity can't flourish in Japan.
When standing before the icon, with the Christians hanging in the pit, Rodriguez hears the voice of Christ telling him to trample on the image, because Christ came to suffer for men's sake. But is this the voice of Christ? Or is Rodriguez attempting to soothe his own conscience? Did Christ come to suffer with men, and thereby imbue faithful suffering, even unto death, with his own Life? Or did he come to eradicate suffering by his own suffering?
These are the weighty questions raised by this powerful book and film. While I don't see the book as an apologia for apostasy, as some have accused it of being, I'm also wary of the opposite read that sees Rodriguez' end as straightforward 'liberation.' Scorsese's take on the ending--hopeful, but ultimately leaving judgment of Rodriguez's actions to God--faithfully captures and embodies the tension of the book's resolution.
That being said, I do sympathize with the more 'cynical' reading of the ending somewhat. Not because Silence openly valorizes Rodriguez's apostasy--I don't think it does that--but because it embraces ambiguity where the reality is somewhat more clear than is suggested. Christ has come to suffer with men, and open up suffering, if embraced faithfully, as a path to salvation; alleviating the suffering of others is part of the Christian call, but must always be subservient to the higher call of faithfulness.
Apostasy, even if 'only' outward, can never be justified for "whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).
Sounding as if he were commenting on Silence himself (though he definitely wasn't, as he was writing long before the book was written), Ivan Ilyin puts it this way:
Only love can save a person and set him free. Its first and most basic form is sympathy for the suffering one. A person feels for someone in his torment, sympathizes with him, and begins to demonstrate a living and constructive participation. He forgets about himself, living for the sake of the other person's suffering, and by doing so he frees himself from dwelling on his own pain and individual grief. His own personhood no longer binds or blinds him; in its place someone else's personhood begins to overcome him, filling his life and soul. If he doesn't notice this in time to defeat this new prison, then he will soon become prisoner of another creature's torment. As long as sympathy has the final say and remains the highest expression of his love, the suffering of any living being will seem to him a tragedy or misfortune, and he will see the existing 'evil' in every creature's torment. He begins to believe that the higher purpose of life lies in mankind's deliverance from suffering. He can no longer bear to see a suffering being, and the battle against suffering becomes his primary concern. A life without illness becomes the highest earthly concern.Is this not precisely what has happened to Rodriguez? An overly sanguine reading of the story's resolution, or even a somewhat ambiguous one, can obscure the fact that apostasy can not be justified or made into a faithful act.
None of this should be taken as criticism of either the book or the film, which I do believe are brilliant works. The ability to sustain variant readings, while wrestling with some of the most intractable enigmas of Christian faith, is a feature rather than a bug. But we should nevertheless be wary of one of modernity's more subtle tricks: treating a settled truth as if it were an open question.