Les Misérables – a lesson for the church
David R. Weiss, December 26, 2012
I saw the film musical Les Misérables last night. I confess to having never read the book nor seen either the stage musical or any of the film versions of the book. I share that not to boast of my cultural delinquency but to acknowledge that my brief reflections are hardly the product of long acquaintance with Hugo’s work. Still, some powerful thoughts came to me while I watched in stunned (and often teary-eyed) wonder as this story of grace unfolded on film and through song.
The entire story is a masterpiece, but I was struck in particular by the opposing worldviews of the protagonist, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), and his nemesis, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). It seems to me that they represent quite vividly the stark alternatives faced by the Christian church as we discern how to meet the challenges of the coming century.
Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison: five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry family and another fourteen for several attempts to escape. By the time he’s finally paroled, his character appears broken, both by his years in chains and also by the terms of a parole that so stigmatize him he has no hope to do more than survive—and little hope even to do that. You can hardly blame him for becoming a thief.
However, thanks to a moment of profoundly unexpected and unconditional grace, Valjean’s life sets a new course: into redemption and the relentless practice of justice clothed in boundless mercy. Despite ample opportunity and reason to compromise, he risks much (again and again) in order to pursue for the sake of others the mercy he received for himself.
Meanwhile, Inspector Javert is the epitome of loyalty to the law and duty to the state. Because he truly regards Valjean as a criminal, he pursues him in the name of absolute justice as relentlessly as Valjean pursue mercy in the name of grace.
One of the major accomplishments of the film is that while we (I assume most of us, at least) find ourselves “rooting” for Valjean, we’re never quite allowed to demonize Javert. We don’t want him to succeed, but he is not vengeful; he isn’t a “villain.” He is duty-bound to justice, but it’s a justice without any place for mercy. Ultimately we pity him, because when finally faced down by Valjean’s radical sense of mercy near the film’s end, Javert must acknowledge both its real power and his own inability to accept it.
As we move into the twenty-first century beset by as wide an array of challenges as ever faced by the human community, the church might be said to face the choice between relevance or irrelevance based on whether it chooses to adjust its worldview to cohere with the latest science or to accommodate its morals to shifting social attitudes. But this largely misses the stakes we face.
Far truer is this: the church can choose the path of Valjean: preaching, promoting, pursuing, and practicing mercy with full abandon—and in so doing it might transform the world within and without. Or it can choose the path of Javert, clinging to principles that are clear but not life-giving, to duty that is admirable but not compassionate—and in so doing betray its place in the world … and betray the world as well. Our relevance or irrelevance in the decades ahead rests on our willingness to pursue mercy—and only mercy—for the sake of grace.
The choice is not so easy as it sounds. Principle and duty have an honored and familiar place in society. And “justice” is often invoked (as Javert does) to support loyalty to a system or a tradition that, in truth, is without mercy. While we recognize Javert as a tragic figure because we see him from a distance, our own commitments in the present often lead us to align ourselves with the familiarity of principles, the steadiness of duty, and the lure of “justice.” But we will not thus preserve our own humanity or the world as a place of beauty. For that task only mercy is sufficient.
Hugo’s story is timeless for this reason. He captures in a haunting narrative (that is easier to hear because it is at a safe distance) a truth that must be dangerously embraced in our own lives in order for it to be true for us. Of course, its truth is needed in the world quite apart from whether the church heeds it. I simply hope the church can heed it, because I’d prefer a church that embraces mercy because it knows grace to a church that clings to principles and tradition because, alas, it is scared of grace. Les Misérables makes those options starkly visible between Valjean and Javert. I hope we realize they are as starkly true for us.
Les Misérables is worth your time and your tears as a tale. But it’s worth much more as a truth asking to be incarnate again in this world in these days of Christmas.
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more atwww.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”