Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Les Misérables, faith, and redemption

I've loved the story of Les Misérables since we were assigned to read it in my high school AP English class.  I was drawn quickly into Victor Hugo's (1500 page) epic story of grace and redemption (and also of tragedy and pain).  I read recently that Hugo was no fan of organized religion, and yet I'm struck by the religious themes that fill this work.

Shortly after graduation, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to do a whirlwind 20-day tour of Europe with the top students from my county, and the highlight for me was seeing the musical stage production of Les Mis in London.  I was in tears as the curtain came up, moved by the opening strains of the music, and was a sobbing mess by the finale.  The soundtrack was on repeat in my Walkman (yes, I graduated in the 90s) for months following the trip.  So this year's new movie adaption was highly anticipated, and I dragged my husband with me to see it as soon as we could find a sitter.

It did not disappoint (although I did wince a little through Russell Crowe's singing as Javert).  But perhaps it was best that his voice was not the most powerful.  It gave credence to the irony of his character.  Though Inspector Javert appeared strong and unbending, a black and white thinker bound to his unswerving loyalty to God and the law, he was weakened by the godly grace shown him by Jean Valjean.  Valjean was a paroled criminal that Javert had spent years tracking.  Valjean was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry family and was given additional time served for attempting to escape.  When he finally earned his release, he was unable to find a living anywhere due to his past.  As in the case of many trapped within the "system" today, he turned to crime once again to provide for himself.  And yet, this time, grace shone on him.  This man that had been made desperate by poverty and hardened by his punishment was given a gift by a man of God, a bishop that had taken in Valjean for the night.  Valjean stole silver from the kind man, and when the police captured him (yet again), the bishop said that he had given the silver to Valjean and gave him two silver candlesticks in addition, imploring him to use them to become a better man.

In song Valjean offers the following:

What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there's another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!

One word from him and I'd be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I'll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Thus begins Valjean's conversion.  He realizes through the gift of grace that he has a soul.  He is no longer the criminal number 24601, "but that another story must now begin".  As the bishop has claimed his life for God above, Valjean lets go of his hatred and searches for a new way to go, escaping from his past sin and identity.  He manages to recreate himself.

Yet Javert does not give up his pursuit of the former convict and one of the story's plot lines involves their cat and mouse chase.  Time and time again Valjean is caught and yet manages to escape.  Finally, Valjean gets the upper hand and has the opportunity to kill Javert and stop his running once and for all.  Instead, he offers him grace and sets him free.  Javert, however, cannot accept the gift.  In a song of the same tune and similar phrases as Valjean's conversion, Javert expresses his confusion, anger, and shame:

Who is this man? 
What sort of devil is he,
to have me caught in a trap,
and choose to let me go free.
It was his power at last
to put a seal on my fate,
wipe out the past,
and wash me clean off the slate.
All it would take
was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his,
and he gave me back my life.

Damned if I'll live in
the debt of a thief.
Damned if I'll yield
at the end of the chase.
I am the law 
and the law is not mocked.
I'll spit his pity
right back in his face.
There is nothing on earth that we share.
It is either Valjean or Javert.

How can I now allow this man
to hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted,
He gave me my life;
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand;
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well.
Instead, I live,
but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart.
Can this man be believed?
Shall his crimes be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
who never doubted all these years?
MY heart is stone
and still it trembles.
The world I have known
is lost in shadows.
Is he from heaven or from hell,
and does he know
that granting me my life today,
this man has killed me even so?

I am reaching
but I fall.
And the stars are black and cold
as I stare into the void
of a world that cannot hold.
I'll escape now from that world,
from the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn,
There is no way to go on.

(final line said in fading as Javert jumps from a bridge to his death)

It is so powerful for me as I see this same struggle played out in the life of faith.  There are people who can freely accept the gift of God's grace, knowing they are unworthy, yet changing their lives so that share this love with others.  And then there are those who wear the Christian badge with pride, yet use it as a tool to exclude others with legalism, dogma, and rules of righteousness.  They become the "God police" like Javert, deciding who is unworthy and what their punishment should be.

Even the New Testament struggles with the Gospel that Jesus came to fulfill the law, add to it, or overthrow it?  Is it faith or works that saves us...or both?  Can people be redeemed, and what is truly unforgivable?  How does one live a life of faith in relation to God and others?  We work out these answers with fear and trembling, with self-righteousness and pride and humility.  We make mistakes, and sometimes we surrender and embrace the mystery that only God knows how it all plays out.  

I ponder the irony that both Peter and Judas were followers who betrayed Jesus.  I believe that both could have been forgiven, but only Peter was given the chance to once again prove his loyalty to Jesus.  Judas could not hold out hope for that gift, and like Javert, gave up his own life.

I don't have the answers, but this I know...I feel moved by a force greater than myself when I see true love, forgiveness, and grace extended.  I feel bigger when all are invited and welcomed into the family of God.  I feel closer to the Divine when I give and farther away when I withdraw.  I feel myself rooting for the Jean Valjeans of the world, who see the unexplainable beauty of God's love and use it to transform themselves.  

May we ever be reaching, and when we fall, may we fall into the forgiveness of God and the loving arms of our community of faith.  

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