Subversive Messiah

If you believe in Jesus, and you haven’t seen Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood, you should. It has gang violence, racial slurs, sexual references, and foul language.

It also has a messiah.

The American penchant for individualism sometimes works against two pillars of the Christian faith — the fellowship of believers, and weakness dependent on God’s grace. But in this movie, rugged American individualism becomes a backdrop for messianic allegory.

Earlier this week, I took a walk through my neighborhood and noticed that one of our stop signs has been tagged with gang-style graffiti. I found myself cursing the vandals, angry that they would bring their petty, contrived gang wars into our neighborhood, thinking they can somehow claim our quiet streets as their own, like dogs running around pissing on trees. But I can think of no earthly solution that won’t somehow escalate the situation. Even simply cleaning the sign off feels like an invitation for them to reassert counterfeit ownership and establish a stronger presence.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood’s neighbors are enmeshed in the gang problem partly because of their race, and partly because of the neighborhood they live in. The gangs target his neighbor boy for recruitment. Eastwood stands alone as this stalwart who refuses to move, to give up ground. There’s a lot of Jesus in this image — the messiah figure, identifying with the people in his humanity, but separate in culture and history.

In the end, Eastwood does what none of the rest of them could do. Through personal sacrifice, he exposes evil for what it really is. In the Korean war, he’d fought fire with fire. This time around, he recognized that something had to be different, just like Jesus:

“I will deliver this people from the power of the grave;
    I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
    Where, O grave, is your destruction?” (Hosea 13:14)

This is the world we are mired in, like Eastwood’s neighbors in Gran Torino. The Bible calls satan the devourer, and indeed, it truly feels evil is pressing in, with a gang-like “join us or die” threat. This is the world Jesus interrupted. And this is the world He left us in, with purpose:

I’m not asking that you take them out of the world
But that you guard them from the Evil One.
They are no more defined by the world
Than I am defined by the world.
Make them holy—consecrated—with the truth;
Your word is consecrating truth.
In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world,
I give them a mission in the world.
I’m consecrating myself for their sakes
So they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission. (John 17:15-19)

Jesus didn’t show up on the world’s doorstep like Bruce Willis, guns blazing, lighting stuff on fire, yelling, “yippee ki yay!!” That’s what the Jewish people wanted Him to do, but quite honestly, all that had been done before, and history is still proving it doesn’t work. No, Jesus is much more subversive and cunning than that. He went straight for satan’s doorstep:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: … 11 about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16)

What all this means is that when I’m trying to figure out how I can show these stop sign vandals who’s the boss, I’m still a part of the problem from which Jesus desires to rescue me. Every time I participate in the problem, even if only in my mind, I’m giving birth to more evil, instead of being consecrated — set apart for something else. I don’t have to be recruited to the “gang” of evil because the Spirit, the Advocate, will lead me in a different direction I wouldn’t otherwise know.