Tragedy, Christianity, and Holy Saturday: Looking toward Easter

The term ‘Christian tragedy’ has often been described as a paradox, in part because the Christian system of belief insists on the persistence of hope. A Christian framework ascribes meaning to suffering: in his epistle, James writes:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [1]

Suffering begins to inhere in a broader purpose rather than in the interminable knot of stasis or in the perpetuity of physical anguish. If the promise of a living hope, one that is revitalised each day, invigorates the narrative sensibility of the believer, and the figure of Jesus Christ symbolises a conquering of the forces of death, it is difficult to hold to the apathetic determinism that has coloured many tragic narratives.

One way to carve out dimensions of the tragic within the Christian worldview may be expressed in the perceived absence, or silence, of God. If Good Friday represents the death of Christ for the salvation of all mankind, and Easter Sunday represents the resurrection that seals the new life that believers have in Christ, it is in the agonising experience of the Saturday between where the locus of tragedy remains. One must cling to the assurance that ‘all things work together for good’, [2] that Christ will return, and that justice will be restored, despite the immediacy of suffering or persecution. It is in the faltering of this promise where tragedy emerges, particularly for the believing subject who must suffer emotional, psychological, and physical violence.

Shūsaku Endō and Danai Gurira explore the psychological and physical anguish of religious persecution in their respective works Silence (1966) and The Convert (2012). The site of interior contest is found in 17th-century Japan and 19th-century Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), in wars raging between Christian piety and indigenous belief, foreign influence and tribal obligation. Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues rails against a God who does not intervene in the slaughter of Japanese Christians; Catholic priest Chilford must witness his protégé Jekesai succumb to violence as she witnesses the Christian British kill her fellow Shona.

Endō’s novel and Gurira’s play variously question the indigenisation of Christianity, of the possibility of integrating local belief systems and languages under a Christian framework, but also the notion that a benevolent God demands the martyrdom of His followers. There can be no glory in the sacrifices that Endō and Gurira depict, not least when God seems distant, absent, and insistently apophatic – the assurance of a benevolent divinity evaporates in the midst of unceasing anguish.

Central to the tragedy of Silence is the campaign of extermination waged by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon Japan’s Christian population. Noting the unquestioning obedience of his subjects to foreign priests, Emperor Hideyoshi issued an edict of expulsion in 1587. In it, he declares that Christianity is ‘longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land’. [3] Recognising that the killing of Christians was not serving its purpose, the Shogunate developed modes of torture to force martyrs to apostatise. This reckoning with Japan’s persecution of Christians was central to Endō’s ambivalence toward his Catholicism. He writes:

There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. […] Still, there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the ‘mud swamp’ Japanese in me. [4]

This lack of a coterminous Japanese Christian identity beleaguered Endō, traced to the violence wrought upon those who first sought to propagate the faith. After witnessing the martyrdoms of Mokichi and Ichizo, Rodrigues is brought to meet Ferreira, his former mentor and subsequent Christian apostate. Ferreira inveighs against the possibility of Christianity taking root in Japan, declaring,

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. […] In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.’ [5]

There can be no Christian hope if the Japanese can have no conception of the Christian God, twisted beyond recognition, unable to reconcile with the strictures of a fundamentally distinct episteme. The substance of Christian doctrine is hollowed in Ferreira’s conception, God expressed only in the ‘exterior form’ of liturgy, an allegation that the Japanese form of Christian belief abides ritual and nothing else.

This irreconcilability is taken as justification for the violence that Rodrigues must bear witness to.  Japanese converts are beheaded, immolated, and drowned by rising tides in his presence. In his letters, he writes:

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. [6]

The silence of God is what tars the violence against the Japanese Christians with senselessness, one in which there can be no assurance of glorious deliverance. The Christian God is not understood to be retributive, but this intensifies the psychic fissures of Japan’s persecuted church, of the struggle to find meaning amidst the campaign of annihilation they face.

As with Ferreira, the seeming silence of God erodes Rodrigues’ faith. His reverence is put under strain when he is forced to a position of apostasy. Trapped in a cage, Rodrigues is forced to bear witness to Christians whose bodies are subject to the same physical torture that Ferreira experienced:

Behind their ears a small incision has been made; the blood drips slowly through this incision and through the nose and mouth. I know it well, because I have experienced that same suffering in my own body. Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.

So long as Rodrigues does not recant his faith, they will continue to be tortured. The Shogunate’s shrewd assessment of Christian ethics has enabled them to craft a form of torture that problematises its imperatives. The meaning of suffering is displaced onto Rodrigues, who must weigh the costs of his own personal tragedy – apostasy – against the atrocity he faces. The novel reaches its climax as Rodrigues can bear this burden no more:

He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample ! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie
[7]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew. [8]

The connection Endō draws between Rodrigues and Saint Peter is damning. Peter, infamously, disavowed Christ thrice after promising he would not, a prophecy signified by the sound of a rooster crowing. Such a parallel illustrates the pressures that turned Rodrigues into that which he feared most – a traitor, an apostate, a hypocrite.

The tragedy of Rodrigues lies in the irreconcilability of the conflict he faces, a Christian paradox in its own right. Which is to be privileged: the outward declaration of faith in Christ, or the imperative toward laying down one’s life for one’s neighbor? The meaning of suffering is manipulated to enact the greatest amount of pain upon Rodrigues as a priest. The greatest irony, then, is that the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy is when God breaks his silence. Somehow, providential sovereignty reasserts itself at the point where it seems most likely to disappear.

Pappa Essiedu and Letitia Wright as Chilford and Ester, The Convert. All photos © Marc Brenner

Gurira’s dramatisation of the encounter between Christianity and a non-Christian episteme is just as fraught as Endō’s, albeit exacerbated by the violence of British colonialism. The native Rhodesians regard Christianity as a symbol of betrayal, seeing converts as abandoning their heritage and mimicking European habits to acquire their discursive and economic power. This is captured in the epithet ‘Bafu, a lover to the white man.’ [9] The eponymous Convert is Ester, formerly Jekesai, who flees to Catholic priest Chilford’s home under the auspices of her aunt Mai Tamba who works as his housekeeper.

Chilford is presented as the ideal colonised subject when he ostentatiously defends his decision to ‘civilise’ Ester by steeping her in ‘the most potent margination of biblical and academic studies’. [10] The tropes of African barbarism and paganism are fully imbibed by Chilford, for whom Catholicism, the English language, and European thought represent a pathway out. Ester’s adoption of Christianity is swift, as she sees the Christian God as delivering her from a forced marriage to a distant uncle. Yet, her mimicry earns her the scorn of her cousin Tamba, who laments:

You are a muzeuru of the first and the foremost. The daughter of many lines of vazezuru, but you want to sit in this BAFU idiot’s home acting rike you ara a white [11]

The irreconcilability herein is between their Shona lineage and Ester’s adoption of the Christian faith. If Endō was haunted by the impossibility of Christianity thriving in the mud swamp of Japan, Gurira is haunted by the epistemic and cultural violence of exchanging one belief system for another. Tamba persists in his hatred for the British:

Now we do what they say because we need these monies they bring to GIVE BEK TO THEM in the hut tex to live in a smar hut and they ara riving in the BIIIIG houses they mek US build. Then they say – ‘Oh – here is this God who is coming from they sky to mek you crean from a sin – you love on him end be heppy. […] (Picks up Bible and throws it to the ground.) It is the poison of the white man. It kill the spirit of your forefather inside you. [12]

Tamba’s creolised monologue alludes to the fundamental transformation wrought upon Zimbabwe by the imposition of British economic systems, one driven by an obsession with material extraction and accumulation. Tamba notes the injustices of taxation, of which the benefits are not equitably distributed amongst the indigenous. This spirit of capitalism that has infested Rhodesia is what he conflates with Christianity, as he identifies the hypocrisy of the colonialists who claim to abide by its tenets.

Ester, Tamba, and Mai Tamba © Young Vic

This hypocrisy is what breaks Ester’s faith in the God of the British, resulting in an eruption of violence. Like Rodrigues, she cannot help but question the presence of a God who allows for senseless atrocity to take place. She returns to Chilford after attempting to advocate on Tamba’s behalf during a trial for his murder of a British national. Abandoning the name Ester and reclaiming the name Jekesai, she confesses:

The whites don’t do what their book it is saying. I thought they would be like Jesus, show his love, love their enemy, I thought – (Beat.) I wanted to not care and spill their blood like they were not caring and spilling mine. They killed him like a chicken, Master. A chicken. (Beat.)


I knew how to cut quick, how to life the knife just like so and drop it heavy. I just lift the knife like I do with the chicken and drop it through Mrs. Coltern she her neck. [13]


(Dawn begins to break.) Master, can you be absolving me?’ [14]

Jekesai’s monologue comes at the play’s conclusion, at the height of her disillusionment toward the benevolence of British rule and its supposed Christian scaffolding. Her belief in British piety is torn asunder by the merciless murder of Tamba, dehumanised like ‘a chicken’. The words of Ester’s father lead her to succumb to the tribalistic pressures of the blood feud, as she claims the life of a British national in exchange. The visceral violence she enacts on her kindly benefactors is couched in the similar lexis of animal slaughter, as if to enact the same dehumanisation upon ‘the whites’.

Herein the tension is between two compelling systems of belief, of the impossibility of acceding to Christian mercy when it seems absent in those who enact violence. Yet, Jekesai is firmly convinced of her Christianity, declaring:

I am already making my peace on this one. This I was doing for my blood, but I am knowing there is a price I must be paying. […] Don’t be fearing for me Master, the Lord he is with me. [15]

Jekesai is able to reconcile these imperatives in a way that Rodrigues cannot. For her, revenge is a satisfactory resolution to the silence of God amidst atrocity. If we are to take a Hegelian formulation of tragedy, it is out of these two clashing paradigms that something new is born, that the Geist of history proceeds. In Gurira’s formulation, it is the promise of a fully Shona Christianity. The play concludes with a composition by Jekesai:

I am making this song as I was walking just now. It is to the Lord my God in the tongue of my ancestors. You, Father Ndlovu, you can be singing it in you your new church. (Starts to sing.)

Makanaka baba, makanaka,


Ndinotenda, ndinotenda Jesu, ndinotenda.

[God you are good. I thank you Jesus][16]

The tragedy of Christianity is entwined with the physical and epistemic violence wrought upon Rhodesia: the oppositions of native and coloniser, indigenous belief and Christianity, a reified past and an obscured future. The promise of a Zimbabwean Christianity is enmeshed in a struggle for a new self-definition in the aftermath of British colonialism. As Gurira has written elsewhere, ‘The clash of voice, dream, God and song is destined to be mighty, bloody and age-long.’ [17]

If the Christian framework offers a way of ascribing meaning to suffering, a Christian tragedy functions in such a way that it hollows it of the possibility of this meaning. Endō’s God seems cruelly distant from the suffering of His church in Japan. It is in this silence that Endō’s tragedy unfolds as Rodrigues is forced to apostasise. For Gurira, God is Himself the site of contest – He surely cannot be the God that Jekesai worships if the British are willing to commit egregious violence in His name. Yet, the God that she knows is never distant, but with her even in the midst of her retaliatory murders, even in the enactment of tribal custom.

The despair of the Holy Saturday between the death and resurrection of Christ finds itself elongated, just as Christians anticipate the eventual return of Christ, who will bring an end to all pain and suffering. What Endō and Gurira testify to is the possibility of a Christian tragedy that inheres in its framework, destined to play out in this long period of waiting, eager for the release that arrives with the hope of Easter Sunday.


R. S. Thomas

Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.



Primary Works

Endō, Shusaku, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969)

Gurira, Danai, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017)

Thomas, R. S., ‘Pietà’ in Selected Poems (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 59

Secondary Works

Boxer, C. R., The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951)

ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011)

Mathy, Francis, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967


[1] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), James 1:2-8.

[2] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), Romans 8:28.

[3] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951), p. 318.

[4] Francis Mathy, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967.

[5] Shusaku Endō, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 225, 228.

[6] Endō, Silence, pp. 84-85.

[7] Japanese flat image of a Christian symbol, usually the crucifixion, designed to be stepped on. Suspected Christians were required to step on the representation to prove that they were not believers.

[8] Endō, Silence, p. 259.

[9] Danai Gurira, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017), p. 39.

[10] Gurira, The Convert, p. 8.

[11] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[12] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[13] Ester works as the maid of the Colterns in the play.

[14] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 84-85.

[15] Gurira, The Convert, p. 86.

[16] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 86-87.

[17] Gurira, The Convert.

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