Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

Whenever one has a discussion about an issue like pacifism with somebody who doesnt share the same convictions, there usually comes a point when an impossible question is posed. In that case, the question is usually something like: ‘What would you do if your family were being horribly slaughtered, and you could only stop it by shooting the assailant dead?’

The question is intended to demonstrate the futility of the pacifist position, the basic faulty thinking that lies behind a pacifist response.

But of course, just because there is an obvious thing that one probably would do – doesnt mean that it would be morally ‘right’.

In his incredible novel ‘Silence’ the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a Christian missionary in Japan a few hundred years ago. This was a time when the Japanese were extremely antithetical towards this foreign religion, and there was a great deal of persecution of both missionaries and converts.

Part of the plot revolves around the question of whether the main character should deny Christ, in order to save others from torture. The already suffering peasants are put through terrible pain, because the priest won’t ‘step on the fumie’ or apostasise.

So one could ask a committed Christian, who is sure of his or her faith – ‘but what if your family were being tortured and killed, and you could stop them by blaspheming and renouncing Christ? What would you do then.

This impossible question is perhaps a sister to that asked of pacifists – and demonstrates (perhaps) the futility of a faith position.

What they really demonstrate though are the impossibilities of asking such questions. Endo’s ‘Silence’s is a fantastic book for anyone interested in pursuing such thinking, and meditating on the silence of God amidst pain and hardship. But do consider the pointlessness of such questioning if you are ever challenging a pacifist – what might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘the only choice’ is not necessarily the right one.


4 thoughts on “Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

    1. it’s essentially the same question – do we choose to betray our morality to combat a greater evil. Although with Bonhoeffer, I think the question was greatly complicated, which also goes to prove my point – as questions of morality are almost always much more complicated than the simplistic ‘to fight or not to fight’ conundrum.

      1. Actually I don’t think it is the same question. Faced with imminent death, most people would defend their family. Even if you say beforehand that you would not, I think very few people would be able to watch their families get hurt when they could have done something but their beliefs held them back.

        With the Bonhoeffer ethic, I think it is a much more complicated and interesting question. For a start, he had to volunteer to join the assassination plot rather than being in a last ditch stand situation.

        I’m a Gandhian pacifist by nature, which means that I believe violence does not achieve the aims it sets out to achieve. But I’m open to change my mind should it be shown that violence is literally the only way to avert a catastrophe. And so I think that leaves the absolute pacifists in a dubious moral position – either they are totally absolute and prepared to watch Hitler continue to kill the Jews (assuming you knew it was going on and were in a position to do something about it, of course) or they are prepared to take violent action, in which case they’re not absolute pacifists. I cannot see how the latter course can be argued to be morally ‘wrong’.

      2. DB’s involvement in the plot is not well documented, which makes it hard to talk authoritatively about the whole thing – but it is fair to say that he did not consider this a ‘right’ thing to do, rather a ‘necessary’ thing to do. In that of course, he was proved sadly wrong. None of us would judge him for this of course, his was a corageous and incredibly tough decision. He chose to do something he thought wrong, for the sake of others, and threw himself on God’s grace. An incredibly tough situation.

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