I was thrilled when Ben Smitthimedhin closed his recent article on Underoath and Emery with a meditation on Shusaku Endō. “I think Endō is on to something about the God who seems, at times, to abandon us,” he writes. “Rather than letting us be, our Lord is a God who haunts us into submission, a God who won’t leave us alone, a God whose words will never be erased.” Smitthimedhin’s point is ultimately about letting God be God, whatever our expectations of what that ought or ought not to look like, and he enlists Endō as a thoughtful literary communicator of that truth.
Because God is a person, God also meets us and speaks to us in our uniqueness . . .But the task of letting God be God can raise our hackles in other ways than those Smitthimedhin describes. The bands he discusses—and Endō besides—struggle with a God who often seems absent, but when He is present demands strange things of us and our behavior. I am not talking only about demands for piety and obedience here; I am also referring to times when those demands seem to take us outside the bounds of what we instinctively consider to be “pious” or “obedient.” I will not over-spoil Endō’s Silence for my readers here, but it is not for nothing that First Things writer Patricia Snow takes great issue with the fact that in Silence, Endō’s Jesuit protagonist ends up looking a fair bit more like Judas than like Jesus by the end of the novel—and that Endō frames this as a good thing. Two years ago, Peter Epps wrote a similarly cautionary assessment for Christ and Pop Culture, suggesting that the novel “lends the life-and-death force of a terrible situation, the sobriety and gravity of history, to contemporary voices that seek to absolutize the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ by making effective public adherence to the Christian tradition seem ‘selfish’ and finally futile.”
I am ultimately on Endō’s side. I believe the “sobriety and gravity of history” impart more theological possibilities than the absolutization of relativism, and ultimately Epps does as well: “A faithful and charitable reading [of Silence],” he suggests, “requires an anchor in something real, like the fact of martyrdom and the hope of eternal union with Christ that animates martyrs, that reaches beyond the mere back-and-forth of human feelings in difficult circumstances.” For these very reasons, I elsewhere assess the novel’s controversies a little differently than he does. But even so, mine is not an easy allegiance with Endō. Numerous conversations about this novel and within my own family have caused me to struggle through my thoughts about what the God of the universe might ask us to do—and where the limits of that imagination might lie. By asking us to imagine that even apostasy might be a form of Christlike obedience, Endō is also asking us to consider the very terrifying particularity of God’s interactions with human beings.
Even asking such a question lands us in deep water: how particular are we talking here? The gospel is a universal proclamation, is it not? And if we believe the theologies we’ve inherited from the likes of Thomas Aquinas, then we believe God to be immutable and perfect, further deducing that God relates to all human beings in more-or-less the same ways from individual to individual.
And yet, the great Thomistic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that subjectivity is an essential part of how one experiences the God of the gospel:
Everywhere there should be a correspondence between object and subject; the external harmony must correspond to a subjective need and both give rise to a new harmony of a higher order; subjectivity, with its feeling and imagination, must free itself in an objective work, in which it rediscovers itself, in the course of which . . . there may be as much self-discovery as experience of another. (“Revelation and the Beautiful,” 105)
For Balthasar, God is an objective reality that we relate to in the uniqueness of our own needs and personalities. Because God is a person, God also meets us and speaks to us in our uniqueness; furthermore, because God is infinite, he is more than capable of resonating with our subjective lives to create a “new harmony” from every individual act of faith. A writer like Shusaku Endō can help us see this, but his deep investigations into death, evil, and Christian kenosis can be daunting for those of us considering God in these ways perhaps for the first time. Thankfully, I think there are other recent pieces of art that better ease us into these places of spiritual reflection. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), for instance, can help prepare us to read an author like Endō.
Desmond Doss’s Peculiar Calling
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), a United States corporal who served as a medic during World War II, saving dozens of lives while never bearing so much as a pistol into battle. Though the film condenses many events in Doss’s life down to his involvement in the Battle of Okinawa, the backbone of his story remains the same: enlisting as a conscientious objector, Doss paradoxically asks to join the fight even as he refuses to carry a weapon.
Doss’s presence affirms the fragility of their righteousness and exposes them—and us—to the fact that righteousness is frequently approached as a project of justification rather than the outworking of Grace.Doss’s extreme stance on nonviolence is established early on. His mother, a Seventh-Day Adventist, teaches him that murder is a grave sin—that God means it when he commands, “Thou shalt not kill.” This abstract lesson blooms to brilliant, crimson clarity when Doss nearly kills his brother Hal with a brick to the head during one of their boyhood scuffles. Though Hal pulls through, young Doss is engraved with the trauma of that violence. Later in life, his will is tested all over again as his badly beaten mother begs him to spare the life of his drunken father. Together, these experiences shape Doss into a man who cannot abide killing as a proper response to any situation—a revelation he believes comes directly from God.
Despite his vow of non-violence, Doss enlists in the army following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He is not drafted but volunteers as a combat medic. Though Doss objects to taking human life, he is equally burdened by the conviction that he cannot sit back while other young men—his brother included—march off to fight against the Axis powers. Doss’s curious attitude earns him little more than side-eyes from his fellow soldiers, up until rifle training rolls around and Doss makes the extent of his convictions clear: he not only intends never to fire a rifle, he also refuses to carry one into battle with him.
So it is that Doss sets off a vicious ideological battle within the barracks before anyone has even shipped off. The sergeant and captain of his unit find they cannot have him discharged for “mental illness” on account of his religious beliefs, and so they enlist Doss’s fellow soldiers in what can only be described as a campaign of terror against him. Doss is beaten and insulted, even arrested for insubordination before his father—himself a former soldier who objects to his son’s kenotic attitude—comes to his aid and demonstrates that his pacifism is protected by law. Through all this, Doss never names his attackers, bearing their violence patiently so that he can go on to save them in the field.
Overcoming Evil with Good
The more they learn of Doss’s convictions, the more his fellow soldiers become antagonistic toward him, and it is difficult to fault them. From their perspective, Doss’s non-violence doubles as an indictment of the soldier’s life in its entirety. Because he connects his behavior to his religious convictions, his fellows tend to believe that he is judging himself as better than they are—as holier, because of his moral stance. Indeed, many of his fellow soldiers consider themselves Christians and wonder at Doss’s arrogance in suggesting that God might love him more because of his aversion to killing. After all, didn’t God command the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites? How much more righteous is their own cause, defending the world from tyranny? Surely, the casualties of war cannot be counted under the Sixth Commandment.
To the eyes of an Old Testament scholar, the soldiers have a point; the injunction against retzach—murder—is never used in the context of war. Doss himself vehemently denies that he is a righteous exception to his fellow soldiers, but this does not smooth over the thorny theological issues at work in his story. He affirms that everyone in his unit is called by God to fight against the evil they see around them. He sees himself called to defend life while those around him take it. But if God is with them all, then how can he explain this radical split in their vocations? How can he affirm the law—“Thou shalt not kill”—if it does not apply in the same way to all of them? His fellow soldiers intuit this paradox as well and deal out their confusion on him as violence.
In fact, Doss’s fellow soldiers are precisely afraid that the law might apply equally to everyone. By saving American and Japanese alike on the battlefield, Doss throws a wrench into the machinery of justification that silently operates within his unit. The film makes it very clear that Doss’s fellow soldiers struggle with their own relationships to war and violence. To enter conflict, they must believe that they are overwhelmingly on the right side. More so, by being on the “right side,” their violence against their enemies is justified. No matter that Christ intensifies the Law to make hatred comparable to murder (Matthew 5:21–22, Matthew 26:52); for these soldiers, war will always justify exceptions to the rule. Doss’s convictions disturb this logic, leading his fellow soldiers to feel condemned. Doss’s presence affirms the fragility of their righteousness and exposes them—and us—to the fact that righteousness is frequently approached as a project of justification rather than the outworking of Grace. Righteousness becomes a matter of economy, as opposed to a mystery of “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
But even as his presence convicts those around him, Doss refuses to condemn them. His attitude and behavior reveal the divine character and its dealings with human frailty: grace and mercy meet us even in our self-righteousness, but grace does not allow self-righteousness to flourish. To this end, Doss’s behavior slowly changes the attitudes of the soldiers. After experiencing the horrors of the Maeda Escarpment—a fogged-over cliff where the Japanese have an overwhelming advantage—the soldiers’ narrative of waging a righteous campaign with God on their side starts to fall apart. Indeed, the only one who appears to have God on his side is Doss, who remains alone at the top of the cliff and survives through the night to rescue wounded soldiers and pull them out of harm’s way—enemies included. Seeing this evidence of God’s favor, the unit asks Doss to pray for them—but they can no longer pray for victory, only protection. They are left to do what they came to do, at the mercy of mercy.
The Terrible Particulars of God’s Work in the World
In many ways, Hacksaw Ridge can be viewed as a reminder of Paul’s statement in the Epistle to the Romans that “the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20–21). Doss’s presence on the battlefield and his commitment to the Commandment become a testament to the universal dignity of life, and in his steps, war starkly emerges as the evil, the “trespass,” that it is. No one can finally use the name of God to justify their hatred of an enemy. No one can make something good or meaningful out of war; in a space of such violence beyond right or wrong, they can only do their duty and pray for mercy. Doss’s love for his fellows invades and deactivates the self-righteousness that keeps them from seeing their own need for grace; unable to justify the inherent justice of war and their roles in it, their soldierly vocations must take on new meaning.
But for Endō and Balthasar both, Love more than freedom is the guiding factor by which God engages the world in all its difference and division.I do not finally say all this in order to use Doss as an example and advocate for an easy pacifism. In the Bible, no soldier is ever condemned for remaining a soldier—but as Paul also reminds us, every Christian must find their vocation transformed by grace, and “those who deal with the world [should be in the world] as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). What I take aim at, then—and I believe the film does so as well—is a certain habit of justifying violence and attaching it to righteousness which is the vocation of the soldier according to the “present form of this world.” In Christ, the soldier finds their life inflected with new meanings: the dignity of life and the grief over its destruction, even while defending the innocent from the wicked; the common frailty of all people, all of whom have sinned and fallen out of rhythm with the peace of divine vitality (Romans 3:23); the universal need to be saved from the present form of this world, and the consequent capacity to pray for one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44). These values and the soldierly life are not morally irreconcilable; the greater lie is that, for the sake of their duty, a soldier cannot hold these values at all. It takes the extremity of Doss being a “bad” soldier to show his fellow soldiers what this means.
Hacksaw Ridge teaches us about the forms of life that are possible when we allow these disparities in our vocations to coexist, imagining them to all be equally available to the pedagogical and ultimately salvific mission of God. In the midst of these paradoxes, the power of Christ reaffirms the limits of the law and the breadth of God’s saving grace—the “rescue mission” of Easter that, as David Bentley Hart puts it in his book The Doors of the Sea (2005), “should make rebels of us all.” To see and appreciate this fully, we must be prepared to recognize the degree to which God meets us in our subjectivity and particularity, and that his approach to us as individuals may conflict with the ways he approaches others. God’s love can condemn violence even in the midst of violence, even while inspiring others to fight and without necessarily sweeping that violence aside in a miracle. Following a way paved for him by Christ, Desmond Doss lives inside this tension and becomes the miracle himself: a testimony to a love that finally defies and overcomes the death and the violence that we suffer, even when we would prefer to just make sense of it through justification.
From this vantage, we can perhaps better prepare ourselves for, as Epps says, “finding the best possibilities” in an author like Shusaku Endō, for whom the stakes are even higher. In his novel Silence, a profoundly peculiar relationship between Christ and a Jesuit priest allows meekness to overcome a violent power that can only imagine God as an equally violent and rival counter-power. In that novel God’s perceived weakness and seeming defeat becomes an occasion for salvation, declaring his victory to the faithful who survive. But Endō has a perplexing way of showing this, and he demands that we consider the God who condescends to the particularities of time, place, and subjectivity in order to fathom it. This can be terrifying, and if we are not mature in our thinking it can make God seem lax or unpredictable; as Balthasar says, such an image of God risks “degenerat[ing] into an image of fear . . . since this God of pure freedom might always posit and demand what is contrary.” But for Endō and Balthasar both, Love more than freedom is the guiding factor by which God engages the world in all its difference and division. Love is the reliable character by which we can recognize God’s movements in history. My wager is that, when feelings of conflict and condemnation arise from these movements, these should be our signals to become self-critical and consider how God may be bringing us face-to-face with our own self-righteousness and desires for justification. As one man’s story, and as a work of art, Hacksaw Ridge can serve as a primer to this way of thinking.