Grace and Love: The Lesson of Les Miserables for The Church
In a spur of the moment decision on the way home after visiting with some of my classmates, I went and saw Les Misérables at the movies on Wednesday (the cover to the right comes from the musical, not the film). I am still processing my reactions and my thoughts to it in some ways, as I continue to mull it over in my head. I admit, with no shame whatsoever, that my eyes were welling up with tears in a few different places in the movie; the same happens every time that I see the musical live on the stage.
I am also intensely aware of the connections between our society in America at this moment and the society depicted in the film (and in the novel as well). Fantine’s experiences with the factory foreman and her co-workers, as well as her downward spiral into misery, desperation, and prostitution (beautifully expressed in the song, “I Dreamed a Dream”) give the lie to the rhetoric of modern politicians that the fate of the poor and downtrodden will miraculously improve “if they just work harder and show some responsibility for themselves.” Additionally, it is easy to notice how the excessive punishments and abuses of the law in modern society (like a $57.50 fine for not paying a $3.25 toll on a toll road) have a mirror in Jean Valjean’s 19 years of working on a chain gang for stealing some food for his sister’s family (5 initial years, and the rest for trying to escape). Also, in the realm of politicians and policy makers, it is obvious how few of them care about the people and the poor, just as in the film the only person of power that is on the side of the poor is General Lamarque. All of these are important connections between literature, film, and society, which are worthy of consideration. The film’s release, immediately following the recent elections and amidst the arguments in Washington, D.C. about taxes and social programs such as Social Security, was well timed.
Yet, of all the issues that the film brings up, these are not the most pressing, even though they are important. Throughout the film, help from an external source is required to get out of the terrible fate that you have been dealt (Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette are all examples of this), often by the law and by those in power in society. In the film, it is a bishop from a small community that first helps Jean Valjean, saving his life from terror, misery, and poverty. This, in turn, allows Jean Valjean to help others as he had been helped, to protect the poor and defenseless as a factory owner and mayor. In a way, the Bishop and Jean Valjean after him both represent the Grace and Love that followers of Christ everywhere must emulate: “to help widows and orphans in their time of need” and to “love your neighbour as yourself.” In the film, Grace and Love often runs counter to the Law (when the Bishop lies to the guards and when Jean Valjean helps Fantine, Cosette, and Marius have a better life), which often focuses not on forgiveness but on unnecessarily strict punishment and condemnation.
Discussions of Law and Grace have surrounded the novel and musical for years, and so it is natural for them to surround the film as well. However, I am all too keenly aware that Christianity in America, often represented in public discourse by Conservative Republican politicians and people like Westboro Baptist Church, has allied itself with the Law to punish those with which it disagrees and to deprive the poor of the help they need to survive and live fruitful lives. In the public discourse, the people of Grace and Love instead wield the Law like a whip. They believe like Javert that God’s favor, and man’s along with it, must be earned and worked for; “Honest work / Just reward / That’s the way to please the Lord,” Javert sings in “Fantine’s Arrest.” Grace and Love, by definition, cannot be earned.
Among all of the possible concerns that the movie raises, this is the most important. Grace and Love are intentionally different than the Law, and they must not blur that line by blending them together. The people of Grace and Love must protect the poor and defenseless from the excesses of the Law, from the uncertainty of poverty and misery, from exploitation at the hands of the rich and powerful. They cannot become part of the legal establishment, enforcing opinion and belief with the oppressive weight of the Law; they must help the criminals, the hated, the defenseless, the homeless, and the poor (as Jesus himself did) by bringing rest to the “weary and heavy-laden,” instead of, as those in the media respond, saying, “It’s your own fault. You didn’t work hard enough.”