Called by name

Via RogerEbert.com.

Via RogerEbert.com.

I keep up with pop culture in the same way that my parents keep up with communications technology. (That is to say, they own two rotary phones.) So last week was the first time I watched Gran Torino, a 2008 film starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a grumpy, foul-mouthed, bigoted widower in his seventies. He is a Korean War veteran. He loves his guns, his ability to fix anything, and his 1972 Gran Torino. He built it himself at the Detroit Ford factory where he worked for decades. Kowalski is one of the last holdouts in an old Polish-American neighborhood now settled by Asian immigrants, particularly Hmong.

Thao, a young man from the Hmong family next door, is shy, bookish, and passive. He is easy prey for relatives trying to conscript him into a local gang. Thao’s initiation is to steal Kowalski’s Gran Torino. He fails miserably and is almost shot dead by Kowalski. 

But against all odds, Kowalski and Thao’s family befriend each other. Kowalski, crusty and old-school as ever, teaches Thao the essentials he believes a man should know: how to repair a roof, how to ask a woman out, how to look for a job, how to talk in a streetwise way, how to stand up for himself.

Yet it soon becomes clear that the gang has Thao, and his whole family, under their thumb. Kowalski decides he must do what it takes to break the gang’s power. His salvific act requires what a theologian might call “redemptive violence,” not to mention “substitutionary atonement.”

I’ve watched nearly nothing of Eastwood, beyond clips of Dirty Harry demanding that someone on the business end of his gun “make my day.” So I was surprised by the theological depth of Gran Torino.

There are identifiable sacraments if you’re looking for them: baptisms, communions, anointings, and confessions, taking place inside and outside of church buildings. When Kowalski saves Thao’s family, you see a clear Easter Triduum, bringing you from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. There are at least two candidates for the Holy Spirit. There is an internal debate between violence and nonviolence. It does not resolve itself simply.

Some of the most interesting spiritual dynamics in Gran Torino revolve around “naming.” Early in the film, the family’s parish priest cannot address Kowalski as “Walt.” “It’s Mr. Kowalski to you,” he retorts.

Kowalski himself calls the priest “Padre.” This is surely an intentional, ironic swipe at the cleric whom he sums up thus: “I think you’re an overeducated 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them everlasting life.”

For most of the movie, Kowalski can barely bring himself to address his Hmong neighbors by their right names. Thao is “Toad,” Youa is “Yum Yum,” and Sue is “the Dragon Lady.” Kowalski then gets a dose of his own medicine (literally) while going to his doctor for a checkup. The clinic had a change of management after his last appointment. The new nurse summons him by calling: “Koski? Koski?”

By the end of Gran Torino, though, Walt interrupts the priest’s “Mr. Kowalski.” He orders him: “Call me Walt.” And at the climax, he tells the gang that “Thao has not one second for you.” (He does not say that “Toad has not one second for you.”)

“Naming” is important in the Christian tradition. It is how God demonstrates personal love and knowledge. (“But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, Jacob, and formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine,” Isaiah 43:1.) God calls our names to summon us to special missions. (“When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and stood there, calling out as before: Samuel, Samuel! Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening,'” 1 Samuel 3:9-10.) If our mission is unique enough, God might intervene to choose our name, as with Jesus or John the Baptist (Luke 1), or change our name, as with Sarah and Abraham (Genesis 17).

Calling God by God’s right name shows the fullness of respect and honor. (“‘But,’ said Moses to God, ‘if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is God’s name?” what do I tell them?'” Exodus 3:13.) Yet calling someone by their name in the ancient Near East was also a way to exert power over the one being named. So God is evasive, emphasizing to Moses that nobody controls God. (“God replied to Moses: I am who I am. Then God added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you,” Exodus 3:14.)

The same processes, from love to initiation to “putting people in their place,” are at work when we call each other by our right, and wrong, names. You see it in Gran Torino. You see it when lovers, families, and groups of friends come up with insider nicknames. You see it in playground scuffles, when kids fling cruel epithets, causing the defeated to slink away into a corner.

You see it when members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy deliberately avoid accepted language like “gay,” or “lesbian,” or “LGBTQ,” and insist on speaking instead of “homosexuals,” or “homosexual inclinations,” or “same-sex attraction.” As for myself, I saw it (and winced) a couple weeks ago, when I heard about a man who attended a nearby church and introduced himself to one of the staff. “I’m Francisco,” he said. (I’ve changed the name.) The church worker’s response was devastating: “Oh, you mean Francis.”

In the church justice movement, we address many issues, ranging from women’s ordination to LGBTQ equality to systemic racism. But all of them come down to human dignity. Perhaps nothing so symbolizes human dignity as claiming, and being called by, one’s own right name. There is a true sea change when Thao is recognized as Thao, and when Mr. Kowalski decides he is able, at long last, to be Walt.

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