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Quo Vadis? From Portugal to Japan with Shusaku Endo

The history of Christian faith in times of adversity is a fascinating one. Consider simply the stories contained in the book of Acts as a starting point. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to take in the thoughts of, say, Stephen when confronted by persecuters? What went through Peter’s mind as he found himself first in prison and then freed from that prison on the first Passover after Jesus’ resurrection? One extrabiblical story, from the “Acts of Peter” has Peter fleeing from Rome in a time a particularly fierce persecution.

And the rest of the brethren, together with Marcellus, besought him [Peter] to depart. But Peter said unto them: Shall we be runaways, brethren? and they said to him: Nay, but that thou mayest yet be able to serve the Lord. And he obeyed the brethren’s voice and went forth alone, saying: Let none of you come forth with me, but I will go forth alone, having changed the fashion of mine apparel. And as he went forth of the city, he saw the Lord entering into Rome. And when he saw him, he said: Lord, whither goest thou thus (or here)? And the Lord said unto him: I go into Rome to be crucified. And Peter said unto him: Lord, art thou (being) crucified again? He said unto him: Yea, Peter, I am (being) crucified again. And Peter came to himself: and having beheld the Lord ascending up into heaven, he returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord, for that he said: I am being crucified: the which was about to befall Peter.

In this brief episode, we gain a quick insight into the thought process of the threatened believer. Peter is presented a perfectly good reason to go and a perfectly good reason to stay. Evidently, the way suggested by Christ is preferred, but one can imagine the mental gymnastics that might lie behind the decision.

In Shusaku Endo’s masterwork,
no vision of Jesus appears on the roads around Nagasaki. Instead, a Jesuit missionary, having entered Japan several years after the Shoguns had outlawed Christianity, must weigh the best course for himself without overt divine direction.

The priest, Sebastien Rodrigues, after being captured by Japanese officials, comes under powerful pressure to apostatize. Rodrigues apparently possesses sufficient strength to face truly horrible torture–a theory never actually tested in the novel–but he faces the temptation to recant for the benefit of others. His apostasy will bring about the end of torture for several others. Rodrigues can deny Christ and save those people, yet we–and he–will never know for certain if that decision was truly prompted by altruism or by the threat of upcoming torture.

Similarly, Rodrigues interacts with his former teacher Ferreira, a missionary who has already surrendered to the authorities.  In that exchange, the more experienced Jesuit suggests that all Christian activity in Japan has been a mistake.

This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.

Is the elder priest speaking in wisdom or is this the story that he tells himself to justify his own infidelity? The reader can only puzzle over that.

These questions are just a few of the ones that will fascinate a believer in Endo’s novel. Perhaps the most fascinating character is the weak peasant Kichijiro. An abject failure in the face of persecution, this man suggests, perhaps correctly, that he would have been a successful and happy Christian in the earlier years when the religion was tolerated by the authorities. Kichijiro’s story makes a reader in a Christian-friendly world wonder how he might fare in a time or place of persecution.

Posted in Contemporary, Japanese Literature.

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