From Cheap Grace to Embodying Forgiveness in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino
Priest: Good afternoon Walt
Walt: I told you I’m not going to confession.
Priest: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about life and death. About what you said. About how you carry around all the horrible things you were forced to do, horrible things that won’t leave you. It seems it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible. Being ordered to kill. Killing to save yourself, killing to save others. You’re right. Those things I know nothing about. But I do know about forgiveness. And I’ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt, and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who were ordered to do appalling things and are now at peace.
Walt: Well I gotta hand it to you, Padre. You came here with your guns loaded this time.
Priest: Thank you.
Walt: And you’re right about one thing. About stronger men than me reaching their salvation. Well, halle-fucking-lujah. But you’re wrong about something else.
Priest: What’s that Mr. Kowalski?
Walt: The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.
It’s a well-worn scene. A patronizing priest, clothed in clericals, approaches a surely man and offers him some unasked for advice: he should make a confession. The prospect of the surely man (Walt) confessing to the priest is made even more absurd by the contrast in the two men’s appearances. The priest, under thirty, is equipped with a baby face that would assign wisdom to a toddler. Walt, face lined with a bitter old age, wears a grittiness only Clint Eastwood’s features can bear.
It takes only a few lines of dialogue before the audience understands the characterizing back stories of each. The priest, whose occasional insights are clouded by his vocational infancy, recently left the seminary. Walt, a veteran in the Korean War, never left the battlefield. The priest, believing he can exercise a kind of forgiveness that can relieve its recipient of the burden of guilt, continually offers the sacrament of confession. Walt, believing such forgiveness is not meaningful in relation to the crimes he has committed, continually rejects it.
The struggle for a meaningful forgiveness is at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film, Gran Torino; a film that raises important questions for Christian practices of forgiveness: Who has the power to forgive? How is forgiveness given? What is the relation between the individual seeking forgiveness and the community? And what does all this have to do with the sacrament of confession?
Using Gran Torino as a kind of phenomenology of forgiveness, I shall argue that a Christian conception of confession must be costly, that is, for forgiveness to be meaningful it must be oriented toward the restoration of communion modeled after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Too often confession in Christian churches, whether private or general, is based upon a therapeutic notion of forgiveness in which grace is offered to relieve an individual from feelings of guilt. However, as Gregory Jones has argued, this reduces confession – sacramental and otherwise – into a privatized ‘cheap grace,’ that is inimical to the true work of the Church. The true work of the Church is oriented towards the restoration of communion and it requires an embodied forgiveness modeled after the death and resurrection of Christ. This is precisely the kind of forgiveness Walt discovers in Gran Torino, and as we shall see, it comes at a cost.
From his very first attempts at getting Walt in the confession booth up until the end of the film, the priest has a difficult time in explaining why confession is a practice Walt should take seriously. For the priest, the need for confession seems obvious. Walt has clearly suffered from his participation in the Korean War leading him to become a bitter person, alienated from his children and the community around him. However, through confession, the priest believes that Walt can find a kind of forgiveness that would put his guilty conscience at ease, brining him peace.
The viewer comes to sense that Walt cannot accept this kind of forgiveness not because of pride, but because its easiness makes it meaningless. Walt could enter the confession booth and tell the priest about the horrors he committed in Korea, the priest could assign a penance of “Our Father’s” and “Hail Mary’s” for the crimes and then absolve him, but that would not make amends for the things he had done. Forgiveness in such a circumstance would not restore the lost victims, nor would it make amends to their families’ or community. At best, it might assuage a guilty conscience by providing a divinely granted respite from remorse. For Walt, this is not an authentic forgiveness because it too easily evades responsibility for one’s evil actions. As he explains to the priest: “We shot men, stabbed them with bayonets, hacked 17-year-olds to death with shovels. Stuff I’ll remember till the day I die. Horrible things, but things I’ll live with.”
In his book Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis, Gregory Jones names the kind of forgiveness the priest attempts to offer Walt “therapeutic forgiveness.” As “Christian piety,” he argues, “turned increasingly inward; God’s forgiveness became principally an individual transaction between God and a particular person, largely devoid of its eschatological context and with virtually no consequences for either Christian community or social and political life.” The result is a hollowing out of Christian practices such as confession, which come to be understood not as an act through which one works at reconciling oneself with God, the church, and the community in which the wrong was committed, but as a kind of privatized therapy through which a guilty conscience is unburdened. Jones concludes that such practices of forgiveness undermine the true work of the church – the reconciliation of the world and the reconciliation of the world to God – through its “preoccupation with individual feelings and thoughts at the expense of analysis of culpability, responsibility, and repentance.” In short, for both Jones and Walt, therapeutic forgiveness offers only a cheap grace, which short circuits real repentance and reconciliation, making confession meaningless.
What kind of forgiveness is meaningful, and how can we establish practices through which it can be embodied? Neither Jones nor Gran Torino reject confession as such, rather, they reimagine it. According to Jones, the true work of the Church is oriented towards the restoration of communion between people and between people and God, and thus our practices of forgiveness must address the multiple ways in which sin distorts those relationships. Indeed, “the call to confession [is] meaningless or distorting unless [it] occasion[s] a turning – and re-turning – to those against whom we have sinned and who have sinned against us.” This requires a practice of confession that address the thoughts, words, and deeds which we have done (or left undone) as individuals, as well as addressing the overarching social structure of sin in which our communities find themselves.
Gran Torino provides a perfect example of such practices. Toward the beginning of the film, Walt’s neighbor, a young Hmong man named Thao, attempts and fails to steal Walt’s Gran Torino as part of a street gang hazing ritual. As the film makes clear, Thao is reluctant to become a gang member, but is being preyed upon due to his racial and economic status, as well as his gentle and malleable character. Under the prodding of his sister and mother, he returns to Walt’s house, confesses his crime, and offers to work for Walt for free to atone for his crime. Walt, racist against Asians ever since Korea and upset about the attempted theft, agrees reluctantly.
At first, Walt forces Thao to complete meaningless tasks: counting the birds on the trees. However, it occurs to Walt that the neighbourhood he lives in, due in large part to urban poverty, has become run down. He then starts using Thao’s free labour to repair his neighbours’ houses: painting walls, fixing gutters, removing wasp nests. Thao, hard working, puts his heart into these projects sincerely remorseful about the crime he committed, and as he does so, Walt begins to respect and like Thao, slowly diminishing Walt’s racism towards the Asian community. Moreover, the community itself begins to look better not only physically, but socially too. Walt and his neighbours arrive at a mutual respect, and even begin to love each other. Walt starts being invited to Hmong community events, and begins to mentor Thao, finding him a construction job and providing him tools with which he can practice his new trade.
This is a perfect example of a practice of forgiveness that addresses equally both the personal and social distortions of sin. Through Thao’s act of confession and his embodied work of repentance, his personal transgression comes to be forgiven, and the social forces that led to his transgression start to be addressed: the poverty of Thao and the poverty of the community. It leads not only to the transformation of specific individuals and their relationships, it builds a neighbourhood. Forgiveness leads to communion; a communion for which therapeutic forgiveness is a poor substitute.
A Costly Confession: From Cross to Resurrection
While forgiveness leads to communion in Gran Torino, by no means does it do so easily or with any preliminary perspicacity. Poverty is a generational problem not solved overnight, and the street gangs continue to hold sway, haunting Thao and his family as if to remind them that they cannot break free from their enslavement to violence.
Yet as Jones argues, the great power in the Christian gospel is the revelation that in the end violence will not determine world history, that death will not have the last word. Likewise, “our confession and our practice of reconciling forgiveness must be eschatologically focused.” That is, our practices of forgiveness must take into account a world that is willing to crucify its own redemption, with the faith that redemption refuses to stay dead. Jones calls this a “cruciform power [that] does not destroy, but seeks to reconcile and make new.”
Walt seems to understand this well, when after Thao’s family is attacked by the street gang, Walt tells the priest “Sue and Thao will never find peace in this world until that gang no longer exists.” The implication: the gang must be destroyed; violence might run deeper then forgivness. The next day Walt shows up at the church, ready to make his confession. The priest, predicting Walt’s next actions will be to kill the gang members (in an earlier scene, we see Walt cleaning out his rifle from the Korean War), takes the confession. Yet he is shocked when Walt confesses only a few trivial things, and nothing connected to the Korean War or the street gang. “That’s it!” the priest remarks, taken aback. “That’s it?” Walt responds, “its bothered me my entire life!” The priest then proscribes a penance of “Our Father’s” and “Hail Mary’s,” clearly disappointed. Ironically, this is precisely the kind of confession the priest had pursued: a therapeutic forgiveness based on the removal of guilt, a forgiveness the priest finally hears as hollow as he pronounces the words of absolution.
Walt returns home where Thao is waiting for him, hoping to serve as Walt’s sidekick when Walt takes on the gang. What happens next is entirely unexpected: a true confession. Walt locks Thao in his basement to prevent Thao from following him to the gang members’ home, and through the mesh screen that obscures their faces from each other (a play on the confessional booth), Walt confesses to Thao the sin he committed in the Korean War: he shot a boy Thao’s age at point blank range who only wanted to surrender, and was awarded the Silver Star for doing it. Walt confesses this to Thao not to be relieved from his guilt – no absolution is provided – rather, Walt’s confession is meant to be pedagogical: by explaining to Thao how deeply killing damages the soul, and by stoping Thao from following him, Walt prevents Thao from falling into the same kind of sin.
Unlike the therapeutic confession of the priest, what follows is a costly penance. Walt goes to the gang members’ home and standing outside it, begins to rebuke them for their use of violence against Thao’s family. Expecting a trap, the gang members pull out handguns and automatics that they aim at Walt as he delivers his speech. The entire neighbourhood anxiously watches as Walt slowly raises a cigarette to his mouth. Then, muttering under his breath, “Hail Mary, full of grace” Walt’s hand quickly moves into his jacket pocket and the gang members open fire. His body is riddled with bullets, and he dies almost instantly, falling arms outstretched in the shape of the cross. As the blood trickles down his wrist to his hand, the viewer sees that the object in his pocket was a lighter: he had come to the house completely unarmed. He met violence with confession and forgiveness, and it killed him.
Yet as with the Christian gospel, the cross is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new one. For killing an unarmed man, witnessed by the entire neighbourhood, the street gang is arrested and removed from the community. Thao and his family are liberated from the gang’s violence forever. In a provisional act of resurrection, Walt leaves his Gran Torino to Thao, and in the final scene, we see Thao – the former car thief and now its rightful owner – cruising down the highway: a symbol of an inheritance that will drive him and his family into a new life. Walt, whose bitter life was bound by the forces of violence of death, by participating in a practice of forgiveness rooted in the cross and resurrection of Christ, becomes the bearer of new life for others. His is a costly confession, but one faithful to the Christian’s call to restore communion.
Jeffrey Metcalfe is a priest in the Diocese of Quebec. While he completes his theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, he serves as the assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
 Gran Torino, DVD, directed by Clint Eastwood (Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008).
 Gregory L. Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 47.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 186.
 Ibid., 189.
 Ibid., 190.
 Gran Torino, DVD, directed by Clint Eastwood.