“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!
(Bishop’s Song, Les Miserables)
I first saw Les Miserables as a musical production in my early teens, when it was performed at the Jubilee auditorium in Edmonton (we bought the cassette tape of the soundtrack and I learned the music by heart.) I quite enjoyed the 1998 live-action version that starred Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush – the interplay between Neeson’s Valjean and Rush’s Javert was incredible. When I heard of the musical being turned into a movie this year, I couldn’t miss it, and saw it in theatres as soon as I was able.
My first reaction was that they absolutely nailed it. While there are some artistic decisions I wouldn’t have made, the casting, the music, and in particular the director’s choice to have the cast sing the music live (rather than dub it over later on) put an emotion into the movie that was incredibly moving (I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears throughout the movie.)
For those who don’t know the story, the protagonist is Jean Valjean, a frenchman who is paroled at the start of the movie for having stolen bread nineteen years earlier. While he attempts to start his life over, he finds that the mark of being a convict follow him everywhere he goes. His encounter with Bishop Myriel who takes him in and feeds him sets him on a new path. Valjean tries to steal the silverware from the Bishop’s residence, and once caught by the police is brought back. The Bishop seeing his desperation, tells the police that the silver was a gift from him to Valjean before giving him two candlesticks as well. His expectation captured in the lyrics above are that this act of mercy would inspire a change in Jean Valjean’s heart (which it does.) Valjean takes on a new name and begins to write a new story with his life, which leads him to a variety of moments where he chooses to act for the sake of others rather than his own benefit: Fantine, a former factory worker of his who, in desperation, turns to prostitution to feed her daughter; a man falsely accused of being Valjean; Fantine’s daughter Cosette… and many, many others in this wonderful story.
The antagonist is Javert, a police officer for whom law is absolute. Again and again, Javert and Valjean cross paths – Javert pursuing Valjean for having broken his parole (with no regard for any good he might do or have done for any around him.)
This interplay between justice and mercy is worth a few further thoughts:
1. Justice is not always black and white: Valjean is first arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He wasn’t stealing maliciously or for kicks, but for the sake of some he loved who were starving (the story is set in a particularly poor time in French history.) Javert brands him as being scum because he is a thief and a criminal, with no regard for the circumstances which drove Valjean to do what he did.
I get into conversations on a regular basis with students who ask me “will I go to hell if…” – and the problem is, in all honesty, that it depends. It depends not only on what you did but on why you did it. This doesn’t mean we get away with doing whatever we want as though God doesn’t care – because He DOES care – but that He cares more about the state of our hearts. If you break into my house and want to harm my children, I might in self-defense kill you to protect them. Or, I might decide that I don’t like the color of your t-shirt, and drive over you with my car. In both cases you are dead, and I have killed you… but the reason why I did it will have a lot to do with whether or not I have sinned and broken my relationship with God. God is certainly just, but He’s not a lawyer looking to let us into Heaven (or deny us this reward) on a technicality – meaning that He always takes into account the state our hearts and the circumstances which surround the actions we do.
2. Mercy is powerful: The actions of the Bishop in Les Miserables sets into motion a series of events that affect not only Jean Valjean, but many other characters he will encounter or care for throughout the rest of the story. Modern day history shows us countless examples of circumstances where the victims of a crime are able to forgive whomever has sinned against them- making a terrible event a moment of grace, where God do some of His best work. I wrote in my post last week about St. Stephen and St. Paul, but more recently we can look at the story of St. Maria Goretti, who forgave and prayed for the boy who attacked, tried to rape, and eventually murdered her – and her choices salvaged his soul. John Paul II met with and forgave the man who tried to assasinate him on May 13, 1981. The history of our faith is filled with these kinds of moments, and although our own sense of ‘justice’ often cries out for vengeance, this is not the love we have been called to imitate. It also frees us from being bound to seeing ‘justice’ served – we trust that the God who knows and sees all takes care of that for us. We are to act as Stephen, Maria, John Paul II, and the fictional Bishop – extending mercy with no limits and leaving God the room to work good in the space where there has been evil.
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28