A Progressive Christian Blog

Ghandi, MLK, and Clint Eastwood: Thoughts on Gran Torino.

Ghandi :: MLK :: Eastwood?

Ghandi :: MLK :: Eastwood?

Lately I’ve been wondering (and by lately, I mean the past 2 years) what it means to be a Pacifist. Or, rather, to go back farther, I’ve been wondering what it means to follow Christ in such a violent, war-torn world. And the more I read, study, and walk with Jesus, the more I believe he would find more in common with Pacifists than with War-mongers.  Obvious statement, that… I know… but my point is that I really think Jesus was and is against violence, especially as means to a solution for “dealing” with, or responding to, violence. His ultimate destination, the way his revolution ended, as you know, was by being nailed to a cross. Both his death and his way of life (peace, forgiveness, mercy, justice, love) flew in the face of those who would use violence to fight oppression (the Zealots), and also stood in opposition to those who just threw their hands up, ignored the problem,  and fled to the dessert (the Essenes).

But the working out of his kind of response is so much easier said than done. What do you do in the face of monsters like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and others… how can Pacifism, or at the least, “Jesus-ism,” be an appropriate response? I don’t have great answers… there are others out there much more suited to answer those questions than me. What I can do is look at the lives of men like Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr., and see in their lives that a non-violent response is not only feasible, but also much more effective and good. Maybe Jesus was right, maybe fighting violence with more violence isn’t the best way.

Nonetheless, I say again that there are certainly no easy or simple answers.

I start with all this, because this is what I was thinking about when the credits rolled to the latest “great” film I watched: Gran Torino, by Clint Eastwood.

Clint Eastwood (Walt) in Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood (Walt) in Gran Torino

(Caution: Spoiler ahead.)

Among many reasons, what I loved most about this film was how it ended. If you haven’t seen it yet, Clint’s character (Walt) is a war-veteran who fits the mold for the old, cranky, racist white guy who resents any non-white folk living anywhere near him. As the story progresses, his heart begins to soften by the Korean family that lives next door. The young gal, Sue, refuses to let Walt’s prejudice define him, and pesters him with attention and a smile. While the young boy, Thao, who starts off trying to steal Walt’s car (his “Gran Torino”) eventually becomes Walt’s project, as he tries to “man” him up, essentially becoming a father-esque figure. Thao’s cousins, who tried to get him to steal the Gran Torino, are part of a gang that eventually resents Thao’s refusal to join them and hates the fact that white-Walt is a part of their lives (believe me, I’m simplifying a very well crafted story). As the film progresses, the gang does a drive-by of Thao’s house, and also gang-rapes Sue. Walt, with a new found love for his neighbors, feels both enraged and guilted by what’s happened (he sorta provoked the gang when he proceeded to kick the crap out of one of the gang members for messing up Thao). The whole thrust of the story and characters is leading towards this climax where the audience is expecting Walt to go Rambo on this gang in retaliation. They show you his collection of medals and guns all film long. They build tension between Walt and the gang. They’ve built the whole story line to train your mind to think you know how it will end. And I found myself thinking, “seriously? if THIS is how the movie ends, I’m gonna be disappointed… but I can’t see how else it COULD end..” Essentially, my mind has been trained and framed by our culture to assume that the natural way to respond to this sort of thing is to “get-them-back.” However, I’m thrilled to say, that is precisely NOT how the film ended…

And this is what I loved. The film gave an amazing picture of what it looks like (in a sense) to live-out the peace mission of Christ. If you’ve seen the film, you know that at the end he goes, by himself (actually locking Thao in his basement, so as to protect him) to the gang’s house, and stands in their front lawn, inviting them to come out and face him. However, rather than reaching in his coat to grab his gun (which by now, you’re completely expecting… maybe even “hoping” he’ll do) he pulls out his cigarette lighter, and in doing so draws fire from the weapon of every single gang member. They pump him full of lead as he stands there, innocently, with no gun and no intent. One man, choosing to NOT respond with violence, but rather to give up his life in an effort to end the injustice. Beautiful. The police proceed to show up, and arrest each of the gang members on the obvious charge of murder, as the sacrifice that is Walt’s body is taken away.

There’s a lot to love about this film (the acting, the photography, the characters), and if you haven’t seen it yet, I hope you will… if for no other reason than to experience the end of the film. It may not have the same impact if you know what’s coming, but I have to believe it’ll still be a powerful moment. Clint Eastwood truly makes his character believable, and the film WILL cause you to think, to pause, to reflect… as all good art should.

How can we live out a Jesus-Pacifism? I don’t know, exactly. It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. But through thoughtful and creative ways, and by learning from men and women who’ve done it in the past, I believe we can begin to show the world that there is a better way… a way of love, mercy, forgiveness and peace. That’s what Jesus was. That was his mission. That is our mission.

For a modern day story of the beautiful picture of living out the peaceful mission of Christ, I have to suggest Gran Torino.

Gran Torino: 4 1/2 stars

3 Responses to “Ghandi, MLK, and Clint Eastwood: Thoughts on Gran Torino.”

  1. Sharon Benson

    Well put Colby! The first thought that went through my mind at the end of this film was this: No greater love hath any man than to lay down his life for a friend!
    Amazing how God will speak his truth even in R rated films!

  2. KZ

    Loved the review and the film. I watched it last night and had a similar reaction, asking myself if I would, no, COULD do the same. I want to believe that I could have the same heart after experiencing what Walt experienced but it’s hard to imagine that my mind would go anywhere other than to vengeance. I loved how they portrayed Walt having this similar inner-struggle before ultimately accepting his fate. I know I found myself mixed on what I wanted him to do. My foremost thought being that I wanted him to protect Thao from whatever retaliation he would settle on. What a well-told story of sacrifice and redemption. Walt shows us that it’s never too late to turn to a new path. Progress can begin at anytime.

    *onecorrection – the family is Hmong, not Korean. If you’ve never heard or read about the Hmong, you should. Their story is similar to that of the Jews. Worth checking out. Thanks Colby. Enjoying the blog!

  3. colbymartin


    thanks for the post.

    i, too, would like to believe that i could have the same heart, and come to the same (or similar) conclusion… but man, who knows…

    i felt they portrayed walt’s “change of heart” well… it was believable, to me, that he acted the way he did at the end, even with the way he was in the beginning of the film. too many films skimp on developing and portraying a characters change, so that come “redemption” time, it’s not believable.

    thanks for the correction, by the way. definitely important to get the right people group identified.


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