Thoughts on Justice
May 2, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Note: Spoilers ahoy!
With the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, cyberspace exploded with tweets, Facebook statuses and blog posts. Suddenly, Osama became relevant again, and for Americans, his death became a symbol of justice being served, the triumph of the Red, White and Blue over evil and terror. I question this definition of justice. When justice becomes about repaying evil with death in a vengeful manner, does it cease to become justice? When justice becomes about beating chests in a nationalistic fury, is it still justice? Is any violent form of justice dispensed by fallen mankind true and meaningful?
Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008) is a film deeply concerned with justice in many ways. Eastwood’s film builds upon his previous work in Unforgiven where we first begin to see him questioning the vigilante justice portrayed in his earlier films. In Gran Torino, Eastwood seems to be making a definitive statement about the both the danger and the true nature of justice. Playing a grizzled factory worker Walt, Eastwood begrudgingly befriends a young Hmong boy Thao (Bee Vang) and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and helps steer him down the right path. As the movie draws to its conclusion, a Hmong gang led by Thao’s cousin takes exception to Thao’s rejection of their life, shoots up his house and rapes Sue. From this point on, I believe the film shows us how to approach justice in this world.
Understandably, Thao wishes to go after the gang and revenge his sister, bringing justice to her for the act of violence they committed against her. Killing them will bring justice to Thao’s world at this instant, as he is consumed by vengeful passion and anger. Given Eastwood’s track record, we expect him to take Thao under his wing and storm the gang, finishing the film in a bloody gunfight. Even after Walt locks Thao in his basement to prevent him from joining him in the eventual confrontation, we still think Walt is going to go out in a blaze of violent glory. So what does Walt, and by extension Eastwood, do? He completely subverts our expectations of him and of justice.
Eastwood is smart, he knows what the audience expects from him given his previous work and when he approaches the house where the Hmong gang is staying with his hand in his coat pocket, we are waiting for his to pull out his trusty pistol and start blasting away. We never see it coming when he instead pulls out his lighter, and the gang rips him apart with bullets, leaving him to die on the ground. In this act, Walt has saved Thao from his own angry passions and has brought the gang to justice, as the police show up to find an unarmed man murdered.
Is this true justice? Instead of a violent outburst that leaves the perpetrators dead, Walt has given his life in a non-violent rejection of the prevailing view of justice. Violence would not have brought the gang to justice or helped Sue and Thao, it simply would have created more violence. Walt decided to not take justice into his own hands, but to let God sort it out and in this way arrived at real justice. Perhaps we arrive at justice through the much harder route of self-sacrifice, not the knee-jerk reaction of violence.
Note: If you want a hearty theological and philosophical take on violence, justice and the Other read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. It’s an incredible book.