Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables: The Struggle Between Legalism and Grace

You know those moments when you look at something you've seen your whole life, and suddenly, you see something you have never seen before, but as you look at it, you wonder how the heck you never saw it before, because it's just so obvious?! Yeah, me too. In fact, I just experienced one of those today.

My cousin Andrea and I have a Christmas Break tradition, wherein we go out to eat, and see a new movie. In the past, we have enjoyed such movies as Enchanted and both Sherlock Holmes movies. Today, we went to see Les Miserables. We both love musicals, and were dying to see it. We were not disappointed. The movie was spectacular. Aside from Russel Crowe's lack of vocal training, and the fact that his vocal coach failed to tell him that his vocal "scooping" served only to heighten the audience's awareness of his lack of training, the movie and music were absolutely breathtaking. Each actor chosen (yes, even Crowe) was perfect for his or her role. But the quality of the movie was not the only thing which took my breath away.

Before you go on, massive spoiler alert. I basically go through the *entire* story, as it is impossible to talk about my point without essentially retelling the whole thing beginning to end. If you don't know anything about the story, read at your own risk. If you're familiar with it, I doubt you'll find anything from the story surprising.

I have long loved the story of Jean Valjean's redemption. I grew up watching a little-known movie version of the story, and read the book when I was 12 or 13. The fact that Valjean served 19 years hard labor for stealing a single loaf of bread, became bitter and cynical, and then found redemption through the kindness of a priest, has always intrigued me. Of course, the historical setting of early 19th century France has always been fascinating to me as well. (As a side note, even though France is the butt of many military jokes- and rightly so- I never cease to be amazed that France didn't totally self-destruct in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that's another blog post for another time.) But this time, I saw something I had never seen before, in spite of my multiple viewings of the many movie versions, my reading of the book, my countless listenings to the musical soundtrack, and my previous stage viewing. About 10 minutes in, I realized something:

Les Mis is the story of two men, Jean Valjean, and Inspector Javert, and these two men embody the constant struggle between grace and legalism.

This realization shocked me, and I literally gasped. It was suddenly clear before me, and I was thrilled by my new discovery, and amazed I'd never caught onto it before. But there it was, before my eyes and ears, on the big screen.

I'll start with Valjean. He began as an ordinary man, who, like many during this time in France, was poor and starving. He stole a single loaf of bread to keep his sister's son from dying, was caught, and through a series of events, wound up serving 19 years of hard labor for the one loaf of bread. Valjean lived in less-than-human conditions, and was treated like a hardened criminal. When he finally got out on parole, he was given papers which branded him a dangerous man, meaning he couldn't find a job or make a living. (If my memory serves me correctly, he'd killed a prison guard who was unjustly beating a fellow prisoner, which is why his papers stated he was dangerous, but that wasn't in the movie.) Right before he left, Valjean had an exchange with Javert, where Javert tells him he will starve unless he learns the meaning of the law, to which Valjean replies that he had spent the last 19 years "a slave to the law."  At this point, Valjean did not understand grace, because he had yet to experience it.

Enter the priest. Valjean, upon discovering he could not get a job, and knowing he would be on parole his entire life because the courts had deemed him dangerous, decided to steal a living. One night, he was given dinner and a place to sleep by a priest in his rectory, and Valjean saw the vast amount of silver the priest had. While everyone else was sleeping, Valjean stole the silver, and ran off. The next morning, he was brought back to the priest by the police, who had accused him of stealing. Though Valjean had indeed stolen the silver, the priest said he had given the silver to Valjean, and even gave him two silver candlesticks he hadn't taken. The police left, and Valjean was speechless. The priest said Valjean's soul now belonged to God, and he should take the silver and use it to turn his life around, and be of service to others. Then Valjean has a moment in the chapel, where he sees that all that was left in his heart was hate, but he then sings,
              "And 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?
               Though I had come to hate the world,
               And this man who was hate to 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 had a soul,
               How does he know?
               What spirit comes to move my life?
               Is there another way to go?"
After this, Valjean decides that the old him is dead, and determines to create a new identity and a new life, recognizing now that his life belongs to God. Of course, the priest could not actually claim Valjean's soul- Valjean had to give it to God himself. But this was Valjean's first real encounter with grace, and he decided to accept it, and dedicate his life to serving God, and extending grace to others.

Eight years later, Inspector Javert, who had been a guard at Valjean's prison for most of Valjean's time there, arrived in a smallish town, where he reported to the mayor, and proclaimed himself to be at the mayor's service. By this time, Valjean had disappeared, having failed to report for parole for the last eight years. Javert felt as though he recognized the mayor, but couldn't place him until he accompanied the mayor on an emergency call. A man from the town had been pinned under a very heavy cart, and no one could move it. When Javert saw the mayor manage to lift the cart high enough for the man to be saved (which no one else could do), he realized where he had met the mayor before. The mayor was Jean Valjean, who had demonstrated his incredible strength in prison. Now of course, Valjean had recognized Javert immediately, and had become alert to the danger. At this point, Javert had a choice. He could see that Valjean had built a successful business which was the lifeblood of his town, and was a much beloved, revered, and successful mayor, and he could have left it at that. Javert had even witnessed Valjean extend grace to a prostitute, Fantine, who was being charged with assault. Valjean took the time to listen to Fantine's story, and not only apologized when she told him she had been dismissed from his factory unjustly, but also took her in, cared for her as she died, and promised to get her daughter from the people who were keeping her, and look after her. Even so, as becomes clear later, Javert is a slave to the law. He lives only to see justice served, and the concept of grace is entirely foreign to him. Because of this, he chooses to bait Valjean. A few days later, Javert comes to Valjean and apologizes for making a false judgment; he had thought the mayor was a former criminal who skipped parole, but he was wrong, as the real Valjean had been apprehended.

Thus begins much turmoil for Valjean. He is torn between turning himself in, to save an innocent man, and allowing that man to be his insurance; if another man was imprisoned as Valjean, he'd never have to worry about being found out again. He knew the people of his town depended on him, and if he admittend his guilt and was arrested, many of them would likely be out of jobs. He also couldn't live with the guilt of knowing an innocent man was in prison in his place. He finally went and appeared at the sentencing of the "other" Valjean, and admitted to his true identity. The judge didn't believe him, but Javert saw, and finally knew for sure, this man was Jean Valjean, which of course does nothing but strengthen Javert's resolve to apprehend him. It is interesting that Javert counted on Valjean to appear and take responsibility, and yet he still thought Valjean was pure evil.

The scene cuts to the hospital, where Fantine lies dying, and this is where Valjean promises to get her daughter, Cosette, and raise her as his own daughter. This is where we again see Valjean extend Christ-like grace. He had no prior acquaintence with Fantine or Cosette, but he sees what is right, and does not hesitate to do it, regardless of Fantine's status as a prostitute. But before he can leave, Javert confronts him. Valjean begs Javert to allow him three days to find Cosette and take her to a safe place, but of course, Javert refuses. His reply to Valjean is telling:
              "You must think me mad-
                I've hunted you across the years.
               Men like you can never change;
               A man such as you.
               Men like you can never change,
               Men like me can never change,
               No, 24601.
               My duty's to the law, you have no rights,
               Come with me, 24601,
               Now the wheel has turned around,
               Jean Val Jean is nothing now.
               Dare you talk to me of crime,
               And the price you had to pay.
               Every man is born in sin,
               Every man must choose his way.
               You know nothing of Javert,
               I was born inside a jail;
               I was born with scum like you,
               I am from the gutter too!
               There is no place for you to hide,
               Wherever you may hide away,
               I swear to you, I will be there too!"
Javert's words are filled with loathing- both for Valjean and for himself, for being born inside a jail. Of course, he's not entirely wrong, in that every man is born in sin, and every man must choose his way. However, he misses what true grace is, and that men indeed can change, and in fact, Valjean had changed. He even begins to call Valjean by his prison number, rather than his name- further proof of his utter lack of regard for Valjean as a person. He also had some warped idea of righteousness (as we'll see again later), as he said men like himself couldn't change. It's as though, in Javert's head, once each person has chosen his or her path, they're locked in and can't change their minds. This of course then puts Javert in a position where he thinks he can't fall from righteousness. Less obvious here is also the idea that a person can earn righteousness, whereas Valjean clearly realizes this is pure gift. Because Javert feels he must earn his righteousness, he is relentless in bringing those he sees as criminals to "justice." How else could he earn favor with God, and erase the shame of his birth? Valjean manages to get away, and find Cosette, with whom he flees as Javert is again pursuing him. Valjean again manages to escape.

Because Javert was so bent on seeing justice served, he was disturbed by Valjean's successful escape. He then sang what is known as Javert's big song in the musical, "Stars." It is an absolutely gorgeous piece- majestic and determined. I still remember the very first time I heard it. I was struck by the words even then, but they did not hold the meaning they eventually grew to hold for me, as I traveled on in my own journey to understand grace, and break free of my nearly decade-long detour through the land of legalism. Today, they hit me again, this time in full force (I'm going to edit out some things here):
                              "There, out in the darkness,
                                A fugitive running,
                                Fallen from God,
                                Fallen from grace.
                                God be my witness,
                                I never shall yield,
                                Till we come face to face.
                                He knows his way in the dark,
                                Mine is the way of the Lord,
                                And those who follow the path of the righteous
                                Shall have their reward.
                               And if they fall as Lucifer fell,
                               The flame, the sword!"
Here, he has completely missed the true meaning of grace. He mentions it, for sure, but he clearly has zero understanding of what grace actually is. Not only that, he somehow has come to the conclusion that it is his job do dole out justice to those who fall. He has clearly stated that it is his path that is righteous. That it is he who is following God, not Valjean. He continues:
                               "And so it has been, and so it is written,
                                On the doorway to paradise,
                                That those who falter, and those who fall,
                                Must pay the price!
                                Lord let me find him, that I may see him,
                                Safe behind bars- I will never rest till then!
                                This I swear- this I swear by the stars!"
It amazes me here that Javert seems to see righteousness as something one chooses at the very beginning of one's life, and after making such a decision, one can never stray from the path, and once one does, one is damned forever. He has completely missed the entire point of the Gospels. It's as though Jesus's death was almost irrelevant. The odd thing is that he recognizes men are born sinful which, taking the logic a bit further, indicates that Jesus's death was necessary, but it only allowed for one chance, and that chance could be blown. True grace is nowhere to be found in this. I realize this was a creation of Victor Hugo's imagination, but nonetheless, I have known people whose thought processes are not so far off from Javert's. This lack of understanding on Javert's part ends up bringing him to the breaking point later on.

After Valjean's escape, he spent the next nine years raising Cosette as his daughter. By this time, trouble is brewing in France. Again. (Remember how I said earlier I'm amazed France somehow managed to avoid self-destructing in the 18th and 19th centuries? Yeah, this is just one small example of why.) The Paris Rebellion of 1832 is the backdrop for several of the last scenes of this story. I shall briefly put on my historian's hat to give some background for anyone who may be unfamiliar with this particular rebellion. It was an unsuccessful, two day, anti-monarchist rebellion, mostly by university students (as shown in Les Mis) and working class people who were unhappy with the current monarchy, which had been established two years before. The occasion for this rebellion was the death of General Jean Maximilian Lamarque, who was much revered by many Parisians for his open criticism of the current monarchy. Large numbers of Parisians crowded the streets as Lamarque's body made its final round of the city's streets. (This is the hearse that is shown in the movie.) It is from this crowd that the rebels emerge, but I'll stop my historical rabbit trail here.

The night before this rebellion breaks out, Cosette and Marius (the dashing young revolutionary/university student she eventually marries) see each other across a crowded room- er, city square- and fall instantly and hopelessly in love. (Cue string quartet.) Or so the story goes. Call me a bitter skeptic, but I don't believe in love at first sight.(Cancel string quartet.) But again I digress. While Cosette and Valjean are in the square, Javert discovers them. Valjean finds out about this later that night, and takes Cosette and is ready to flee to England. Cosette is distrauhgt that they are leaving France, because she and Marius had spoken that same evening through the garden gate, and pledged their deep and enduring love forever and always. She leaves a message for Marius at the gate, and through a series of events which are completely irrelevant to my purposes here, he gets the message, and sends one back to her, from behind the barricades.

This is where my story picks up. Valjean gets the message, and reads it. When he discovers how much Marius means to Cosette, he goes to the barricades himself (following the messenger), to find him. When he gets to the barricade, he does not tell Marius who he is, but offers his services. He helps fend off some rooftop enemies, and then discovers Javert, tied up in a room next to the barricade. (Javert had posed as a revolutionary, been discovered as a double agent, then restrained while shouting all traitors must die.) Valjean asks for permission to deal with Javert, and it is granted. He takes Javert out back, where he proceeds to let Javert go. Javert warns Valjean that if he is released, he will not give up his pursuit of seeing Valjean punished as he should be. Even though  he knows he is releasing his worst enemy, Valjean extends grace to Javert, releasing him. Valjean did not take Javert's life, though he was given a great opportunity to do so. I'm reading into this a little, but I would conjecture that Valjean not only knew Javert's life was not his to take, but also intentionally took advantage of an opportunity to turn the other cheek, and show love and grace to a man who hated him, and wanted to see him back in prison.

Javert leaves, and Valjean returns to the barricade. Marius is shot, and Valjean picks him up, takes him away from the shooting, and discovers his only way out is through the sewers. Marius is severely wounded, and a complete deadweight, and yet Marius travels a significant distance through sometimes chin-deep refuse, even fighting off robbers who were hiding in the sewer, determined to get Marius to safety for Cosette, which he does. Cosette and Valjean nurse Marius back to health. Shortly before Marius and Cosette are to be married (the exact timeline is vague in the movie, and I don't remember from the book), Valjean sits Marius down and tells him the truth of who he really is. He tells Marius he's going away so that if he is ever caught, Cosette's honor will not be tarnished. Valjean leaves without telling Cosette goodbye. While at their wedding reception, through an encounter with one of the men who tried to rob them in the sewer (long story), Marius finds out it was Valjean who had risked his life to save him. Marius grabs Cosette's hand, and they go together to the same abbey which had provided a refuge for her and Valjean years before. They find Valjean dying there. Cosette and Marius express their gratitude to and love for Valjean, and are with him when he dies.

They were all unaware of what had already happened with Javert. I don't remember the exact chronology, but between Valjean saving Marius's life, and Marius's recovery, Javert has one final scene. I don't think these lyrics will ever stop amazing me:
                  "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 hour 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, he gave me back my life!"
This is astonishing to me. Valjean said something similar when the priest introduced him to grace, and he accepted it. Javert was extended the same kind of grace by Valjean, and yet he could not accept it. Not only could he not accept it, he couldn't understand it at all. He referred to Valjean as a "devil," indicating that he thought this grace was something twisted; not from God. Javert could not conceive of what true grace was, even though he had referred to it earlier. True grace had stared him straight in the eye, and he could not recognize it. He goes on:
                    "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 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...and live in Hell."
I find it fascinating here that Javert is unable to see grace as anything but pity. And he is so convinced that Valjean and Javert are so diametrically opposed, one is good, the other is evil, and one or the other has to "win." They can't both be free. It's the old legalistic idea that someone has to pay, and that if A is good, then B is bad, and there's no other way to see it. This concept is so ingrained in Javert's mind, that to live in this world of grace, which he cannot recognize as such, is actually Hell to him. Again, he continues (and I'm posting this whole thing because it is all so significant):
                           "And my thoughts fly apart,
                            Can this man be believed?
                            Shall his sins 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 shadow.
                            Is he from Heaven, or from Hell?
                            And does he know that granting me my life today
                            This man has killed me even so?"
At this point, he realizes maybe he's been wrong. Maybe grace does exist. Maybe sins can be forgiven. He concludes:
                            "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 the world,
                             From the world of Jean Valjean.
                            There is nowhere I can turn,
                            There is no way to go on."
Javert has lived his entire life thinking grace and justice were mutually exclusive. That grace meant the triumph of evil. That justice was the most important thing in life, and God can only be pleased if justice is served. He had used the word "grace" earlier, but his version was so far removed from true grace, he couldn't even recognize the real thing when he saw it. The idea that true grace could be greater than justice was a concept he simply could not handle. He was so entrenched in his legalism and the belief that he was absolutely right and absolutely on God's side, he literally could not handle this sudden paradigm shift, and he hurled his body off the bridge he had been standing on, into the rushing river.

As I hinted earlier, though I realize this is something Hugo made up, I know many people who live much like Javert: thinking they understand God and grace, but tied to the law, and essentially clueless. I used to be one of them. Thinking I had it right. That the more closely I followed the law, the more I loved God. That God wanted me to make sure others followed His law too, by "encouraging" and "exhorting." That I could only please God if I didn't ever screw up. That God's blessings in my life were directly proportional to the degree to which I followed His law. I used to be much like Javert. I thought that if others weren't following the law, they weren't pleasing God.

In reality, Valjean was the one who got it right. Both Valjean and Javert came face-to-face with true grace, multiple times. Both were given the chance to accept it, and thereby be set free from their slavery to the law (which makes me think over and over of Romans 6, which is ALL about slavery to sin and the law, and grace), but only Valjean accepted it. Javert clung to legalism until the day he killed himself. The theme of this war between grace and legalism is so vivid and obvious, now that I see it. I almost have to wonder if Hugo was intentionally trying to point out the difference between the two choices. Regardless, my mind has been blown  by the very accurate portrayal of the freedom that comes with grace, and the bondage that comes with legalism.