Silence as ‘Negative Space’


How do we respond when so much suffering surrounds us? This past week alone has seen a continuing potential genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Burma). The United Nations estimates that over 290,000 have fled to the border district of Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh in the past two weeks, to join the 100,000 already there. Perhaps up to 1,000 have been killed so far, and other minorities in the majority Buddhist land are under threat. There have been floods in South Asia that have cost another 1,000 lives. The Syrian civil war continues unabated, primarily out of the eyes of the world’s media and hence attention. The strongest earthquake to hit Mexico in 100 years struck last week, killing over 100 people.

In the Caribbean and United States two major hurricanes have struck in the past two weeks, devastating island populations. Several large forest fires are also burning in the western parts of the country. Many have been affected with the loss of property life and property. Yesterday in the US was 9/11, the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks in which over 3,000 died. There are reports of several hundred more that have died or suffered severe illness due to being near the toxic fumes of that day, particularly first responders such as firemen and police.

So much suffering. What response can we have? Certainly not to compare our suffering to others, and somehow therefore feel that ours is more weighty, more worthy of attention. That is hideous to experience if you have ever seen it or been tempted to engage in it. You are sharing your experience of great pain, whether personally or in your nation. Then a person listening to you (often interrupting) says, “yes, but let me tell you what happened to me!” This starts a gruesome game of “can you top this” with stories of suffering and pain.

There is no “correct” response to pain and suffering, but perhaps one that is most generous and yet most costly is silence. Just to listen to someone in silence, and perhaps offer words either at invitation or with great sensitivity. Many years ago I read a book by a Japanese writer named Shusako Endo with the title Silence. This year a movie based on the book has come out, produced by Martin Scorsese. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. (and preferably read the book first.) It is not an easy movie to watch, in fact it is one of the most difficult and painful I have ever seen. I have blogged three times about it before. (See Silence: The End of Triumphalism and Silence Part 2: The ‘Hidden’ Japanese Christians and Reflections on finally seeing the movie ‘Silence’)

There are many layered meanings of the word ‘silence’, both in the book and the movie. In a profound and beautiful book of meditations published in 2016 titled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering, Japanese-American painter Makoto Fujimura (now at Fuller Seminary) reflects deeply on silence in art, theology, and culture. And if you want something else to read, please do pick up this book. (Fujimora also has a powerful series of short videos on the author of Silence, the book, and the movie as well as other material. (See

In this book, Fujimura develops the idea of silence as negative space. For an artist working with a canvas, ‘negative space’ “surrounds the positive space of the central, highlighted object. A skilled artist knows that negative space, though in the background, makes a subtle but indispensable contribution to the overall effect.” This quote is from Philip Yancey, writing in the foreword to Silence and Beauty. Yancey goes on to write that the Japanese shoguns, “in banning Christianity (in the early 17th century), an unanticipated outcome was that they created an imprint of it, a ‘negative space’ within culture. In a culture that honors the hidden, the weak and the unspoken, Christianity became a hidden reality of a Japanese culture.” In fact, Yancey writes, “Makoto proposes that Japan is a Christ-hidden culture, haunted by a past that has left indelible historical marks like the blackened footprints on the wooden frame of a fumi-e.”

This last line refers to the action that the persecuted Japanese Christians had to take if they wanted to stop the torture and save their lives: they had to stamp on an image of Jesus in a fumi-e ( a small mat or wood surface). The book and resulting movie has one of the most powerful moments when the Jesuit missionary priest is standing before the fumi-e, ordered to stamp on it. In the silence Christ speaks to him. (you have to watch the movie to find out what happens next.)

Fujimura writes that “Japanese faith developed as negative space around the forbidden faith of Christianity”. It was a very different kind of faith, born in great suffering and persecution, and virtually wiped out in subsequent years. The writer of Silence, Shusako Endo, is bringing out, according to Fujimura, “the false dichotomy of seeing faith only in terms of victory or failure, which leads us to dismiss and discard the weak.” This in great contrast to “the imperialistic confidence of the Western God of Christianity, triumphantly set to overcome the ‘pagan’ religions of Japan.” Wow.

Silence as negative space. Yesterday all over the United States, the response to the 9/11 tragedy was to spend a period of time in silence. Silent prayer, thoughts raised in silence. Silence formed in faith, or in the absence of faith. Silence seems to be more comfortable in the presence of the weak, the unsure, the mourning. Somehow silence does not seem to grow in the positive space of triumph, of victory, of directness. It seems to grow in the margins, in the places of wilderness.

What does silence mean to you today?





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