By Jim Tune
In the movie Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a racist, embittered, retired factory worker and Korean War veteran living in a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood dominated by gang violence and Asian immigrants. Walt has little relationship with his grown sons and their self-absorbed suburban families. His two loves are his dog, Daisy, and his cherished 1972 Ford Gran Torino.
A family of Hmong immigrants has moved in next door, and as part of a gang initiation, the teenage boy Thao is pressured into trying to steal Walt’s Gran Torino. Walt interrupts the attempted theft, and over time an unlikely friendship develops between Walt and Thao.
The Hmong gang continues to harass Thao, and Walt responds by beating one of the gang members and threatening further violence if they don’t leave the boy alone. But the gang escalates the violence with a drive-by shooting of Thao’s home and the brutal rape of Thao’s sister.
When I watched the movie, I expected it to move in a direction similar to other tough-guy movies Eastwood has directed or starred in. Surely Walt would come out with guns blazing and finally, mercilessly, settle the score. But that is not what happens. In the climactic scene of the film, Walt confronts the gang armed with only a cigarette lighter, as he deliberately draws their fire and dies with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross.
Walt finally understood that violence would perpetrate itself in an endless cycle of revenge until someone absorbed the blow without retaliation. This is what Walt was willing to do. He laid down his life for a friend. This sacrificial act absorbed the hatred of the mob and put an end to the retaliation and escalation.
I am reminded of the popular carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” based upon a poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Written during the Civil War, Longfellow’s anguish is evident in the lyric:
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Hate is strong. But love is stronger yet.
Isaiah 9:6 speaks of a coming Savior. The prophet announces: “He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
This Prince would teach love over hate, forgiveness over vengeance, peace over violence. Not only would he atone for our sins on the cross, Jesus would demonstrate perfect love as he absorbed the ultimate blow without retaliation.
The Prince of Peace instructs us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That is a tough assignment, because hate is strong. But love is stronger!
Merry Christmas, and peace on earth, goodwill to men.