Christopher Walken and God.
I’d like to think that when I get older, and dare I say wiser, I’ll have the ability to see God in every aspect of my life. That when I come across a broken stick on the ground I will scratch my bearded chin and in a British accent, which I will have picked up somewhere along the way, remark “We truly are the branches, and this gnarled piece of wood has reminded me of the desolation that results when we tumble from the safe grasp of the Lord.”
Until that happens, I am left to see God in small ways. But even small ways can feel surprisingly big.
The most recent came during the movie “Man on Fire.” I’ve seen it a dozen times and can probably quote most of the important scenes. But sometimes you see a sunset and sometimes you the paintbrush of God in the sky.
In the film, Denzel Washington plays the role of Creasy, a washed up black ops military man in Mexico City. His body is physically scarred, his heart is empty and his head is only happy when clouded with liquor. A friend from the military, Christopher Walken, arranges for him to become the bodyguard to a little girl named Pita. Pita is a blonde sprite of a seven-year-old played by the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning. Throughout the first half of the film we watch as Creasy hits rock bottom, only to find a new reason to live in Pita. He teaches her how to swim, drives her to school and gives her the love and attention her narcissistic parents refuse to. Along the way, we seem him spend increasing amounts of time in the Bible.
But because this is Mexico City, and at the core a revenge film, Pita is soon kidnapped after exiting from a piano lesson. Creasy is shot multiple times and spends days hanging on to thin threads of life. The doctors say that without a month of rest he will die. While trapped in bed, the ransom drop goes horribly wrong and Pita is executed by the kidnappers. When told of her death, Creasy is devastated, his world collapsing in scenes of Pita laughing and playing. He leaves the hospital and decides to track down the killers.
In a hinge scene, on which the entire movie changes, the young mother of Pita asks Creasy what he is going to do. His response is simple, “What I do best, I’m going to kill em. Anyone that was involved, anyone that profited from it, anyone that opens their eyes at me.” This statement serves as the doorway to a veritable house of pain and suffering. The violence is shocking in both its graphicness and its creativity. At one point Creasy duck tapes the fingers of one of the kidnappers onto the steering wheel of a car. He then proceeds to cut them off one by one, cauterizing them with the cigarette lighter, until he gets the information he needs.
At this point, my initial idea that I saw the love of Christ in this movie may seem virtually impossible. We do not serve a God that would torture a man with a cigarette lighter or plant a plastic explosive inside another kidnapper. Our God is not that cruel. I think that’s worthy of argument though, at least from an Old Testament point of view. Would the Egyptian mothers that woke to find their first born children dead in their beds agree that God can not be cruel? Would the residents of Sodom, with flesh ripped apart by sulfur falling from the sky agree that God is not violent? I’m not saying these things were not justified. I just think that maybe we make too light of the fury and might of God.
After cutting a swath of death through Mexico City, Creasy finds the pregnant wife and brother of the main villain, simply referred to as “The Voice.” He forces the family to the roof of their dirty little home and calls the Voice to apprise him of the situation. The Voice asks him, “How much do you want?” Creasy responds by saying “Your brother wants to speak to you, hold on” at which point he shoots off all the fingers of the brother’s hand with a shotgun. “I’m going to take your family apart piece by piece. You understand me? Piece by piece. I don’t want your money. You understand me? I want you!” It’s numbing really, the brother tied up to a pole with a bloody stump of a hand, the pregnant wife wailing. But that’s when grace first makes an appearance. The Voice calls back and says “I will give you a life for a life. I will give you her life for your life.”
The camera spins on a confused Creasy as he struggles with the idea that Pita is still alive. Suddenly the violence, the rage, the wrath of Creasy sinks out of his face. In the final scene, Creasy, Pita’s mother and the kidnapper’s brother drive to an abandoned bridge in the middle of the Mexican countryside. With a bullet ridden body and a weariness that is almost three dimensional, Creasy walks up the bridge. When the kidnappers see him waiting there, they pull a hooded Pita out of the car. They remove her dirty blindfold and with eyes not accustomed to light, she squints toward the bridge. With the sound of a child witnessing an unlocked gate in hell, she screams “Creasy” and runs to the bridge. Creasy, unable to run from all the pain, waits for her. She jumps into his arms, and with hands dotted with blood and scars he cradles her there. This is what follows:
Creasy: “Are you alright? They didn’t hurt you?”
Pita: Shakes her head no.
Creasy: Laughing and smiling in relief, “Hi.” More laughter. “Alright your mother is waiting for you; she’s right down at the end of the bridge. OK, you go home.”
Pita: “OK. Where are you going?”
Creasy: “I’m going home too.”
Pita runs to the arms of her mother. A red laser scope lands on Creasy’s heart, which he covers with a hand that is dotted in scars. He throws up his hands and walks slowly to the kidnappers. He stumbles to his knees in pain as they drag him into a car. Pita cries watching Creasy surrender to certain death. Creasy closes his eyes in the car and dies.
I missed it the first ten times I saw the movie. Missed that I’m Pita. I’ve lived most of my life under the stairs in a dark, dirty cage. But unlike Pita, this is the place I deserve. For although she did not ask to be kidnapped or receive this experience as a consequence of her actions, I did. If this were the story of my life, justice would have already been served. The prisoner’s life is the life I deserve. But God is like Creasy. In Isaiah 30:18 it says “he rises to show you compassion.”
The new life that Creasy finds when he meets Pita is but a glimpse at how God delights in us. And it is this love, this adoration that drives him to rescue us. But is he violent? Is there anything he wouldn’t do to rescue me and rescue you? I don’t think so. To the violence question we need only look to verses like Numbers 24:8 in which the Israelites, God’s people, are said to “devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces.” That was describing work and battles that the Lord had blessed.
Is that any less graphic than anything that happens in “Man on Fire?” God’s love has no limits. If violence is what it would take to rescue me, I have little doubt that he would be violent. That he would remove an entire planet in a flood to save the righteous family of Noah. And even though he is blessed with the ability to open the core of the earth with his fury, it is love and ultimate surrender that shows us the true depth of his heart. In the movie, Creasy could have easily continued killing the kidnapper’s family. The brother could have been tortured, the pregnant wife and unborn child murdered. But it wasn’t about revenge, it was about rescue. And when Pita was discovered to be alive, he stopped everything. He surrendered and walked willingly into a certain death.
I’ve always been struck by the description of when Christ was arrested. In Luke 22:49-51 it says: 49When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. 51But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. What I think is shocking is that Jesus healed the priest. There’s great power revealed in that. Obviously someone that can heal a severed ear can at the same time cause much pain.
In his last moments, before the cross, the undeniable power of Christ is revealed one more time and yet he denies it. He surrenders. That’s how I felt about the last scene in Man on Fire. Creasy had just blown off all the fingers of the brother. He had the pregnant wife and a shotgun and a mouth full of loud, angry words. But the second he knew Pita was alive, he surrendered.
That is the Christ I serve. Powerful, fearful, able to heal the sick and blind, capable of walking on water itself. But willing to give it all up upon realizing I am found. Willing to pay the ransom with his own life. Willing to free me from a prison I created. And whether he’s crucified on a cross or forced to walk across a bridge in Mexico, he’s willing to do it all over again for me. And for you.