Les Misérables: Law, Grace, and the New Creation
A few days I went to see Les Miserables at a nearby theatre. Once it is out on Blu-Ray and I’ve had a chance to watch it again while taking notes, I may return to revise this post but I’ve decided I can remember enough to discuss a couple of its main themes now.
The primary protagonist Jean Valjean and the primary antagonist Javert are defined by their driving motivations. Javert is interested almost entirely in maintaining the law. He is brutal in carrying it out, but interestingly, he never goes beyond the law. In a sense, he is what many think God is; he may not really like to punish people but he feels bound by an extreme form of retributive justice that requires the good be rewarded and the bad be punished (where good vs bad can be determined on a variety of scales: ethical, ritual, doctrinal, etc).
Valjean starts out with the same perspective. However, as Jesus said, the one who has been forgiven much loves much. The movie begins with Valjean as a slave to the state. 19 years earlier he had stolen a loaf of bread in order to save his sister’s son from starving. Even after 19 years of slavery, he still expresses a lack of regret for doing what was necessary to save a life. As an interesting side note, Valjean would have only been in prison for 5 years but the sentence kept being drawn out because he tried to escape. This says something very important to me: we judge ourselves and make any wrong we’ve committed have far worse consequences than necessary. If there is a case for eternal torment, it might be this idea that we do typically torment ourselves in our shame. When Valjean is offered forgiveness by the priest, he is mostly – not entirely – able to finally forgiven himself and then others (see the next post).
When shown love and forgiveness by the priest and consequently coming to grips with a worldview of grace, Valjean becomes a renewed man. He rips up his parole papers in celebration of the sense of new freedom. He takes on a new name, which I don’t think was simply for the sake of avoiding Javier longer; I think it was symbolic of his sense of being a new man. The New Testament is filled with this language of new creation. When we repent, which means completely changing our approach and not simply saying we’re sorry, we are given a new life in Jesus.
Particularly of note for Valjean’s new worldview of grace is his grace toward his enemy Javert. Multiple times Valjean is given the opportunity to kill Javert and refuses to do it. In one case, he wouldn’t have even had to kill him himself. Javert approached Valjean, living under his alias as an important businessman, and confesses to the slander of accusing him of being the convict Valjean who had skipped out on parole. Valjean faced three options: he could have had Javert turned in and then he would never be on his case again, he could have taken the neutral route where he let the other arrested man take the fall for him but without getting Javert in trouble, or he could have turned himself in to save both the innocent man and his enemy Javert. After torment between the latter two – he really showed no interest at all in punishing his enemy – he turns himself in and brings on a much more hectic life which he could have easily avoided.
The most tragic part of the movie is watching Javert struggle with this radical grace that had been extended to him. It is clear that he cannot understand it in the slightest. He has begun to crack emotionally but is still determined that law with tough consequences is the only real way to deal with the world. He stands on a bridge singing his tortured thoughts and ultimately jumps to his death. Like the apostle Judas, Javert was simply unable to consider the possibility that there is an alternate worldview in which sins are forgiven. Javert’s inability to accept grace speaks to our free will, in my opinion, which necessitates the freedom to choose either the law worldview which ultimately ends in tragic death or the forgiving worldview of Jesus.
Contrary to Javert, though, many others do catch hold of this radical grace and it becomes almost contagious. As the movie expands to take on a national scale, many others give up their comfort and even their lives for their fellow human. The movie ends with the death of Valjean and his entry into Heaven escorted by Fantine. The way they represent Heaven is an important one: it is the radicals who gave up their lives for others who are seen celebrating, even though their rebellion on earth resulted in their deaths, while those like Javert who insisted on the rule of law are nowhere to be seen. Grace may not defeat law in the short term, but grace changes us in a fundamental way and it is this grace rather than law which is able to change the world.