If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed.
The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.
~Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Misérables
The story of Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean who, having spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, is released on parole. Met with severe discrimination as a convict, Valjean breaks his parole and begins a new life under an assumed name.
After a life-altering encounter with a priest, Valjean gives his life to God. He becomes a gentle and respected man, eventually running a business and becoming a town mayor. He offers kindness and aid to those around him because he remembers what it was like to be hungry But his legalistic prison guard Javert is always in close pursuit, threatening to destroy everything Valjean has worked so hard for.
It is easy for we in the audience to champion and sympathize with Jean Valjean as we watch the most recent film adaptation of this old story. But what about when we leave the theater?
Both Javert and Valjean are Christian men, acting in the name of God. But as Morgan Guyton notes, they represent two different Christianities and “Javert’s Christianity is winning big time in today’s America.”
When we leave the movie theater, we return to world where sentencing is harsh and biased (see post: Incarceration: The New Jim Crow). Laws allow 150-year sentences for ancillary criminal involvement, and the Javerts among us are happy to seek maximum punishments.
After serving their time, former-prisoners often have no jobs and no homes to which to go, and are faced with sharp discrimination when seeking either:
“Convicted felons need to find a place to sleep, but can’t get access to public housing because of their felony conviction. If their families live in public housing, the families can get evicted from their homes for housing a felon. They need to find a job, but employers can legally discriminate against them. They need to eat, but felons can be denied food stamps for the rest of their lives.”
With no job, no house, no food, and no allies it’s no wonder that there is a 70% recidivism rate. Valjean too would have returned to jail but for a grace that is too often denied in our modern world.
But hear what Isaiah 61:1 says: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Do we take that scripture seriously?
Audiences also sympathize with Fantine, the working girl whose life we watch crumble, eventually leading to her prostitution and death. But if we knew she was turning tricks on our own street corners would we in reality treat her with the same scorn as Javert does?
Fantine is a teen mom who, having refused the sexual advances of her employer, is fired and is unable to get a new job. Her cries for help are unheeded and she struggles to make ends meet, bit-by-bit selling everything she has to stay current on her child-support payments. Having played the role in the the recent film, Ann Hathaway notes that Fantine is “living in New York City right now; she’s probably less than a block away.”
When we see someone digging through a trash dump, or sleeping on the park bench, we’re not humming “Do you hear the people sing?” Instead, we’re averting our eyes and clutching our purses.
Donald Heinz at Sojourners asserts that
“Javert speaks for all self-made men who believe in the infallibility of the economic order and of the law that sanctifies it. Who know they deserve their fortune, who are quick to judge, who are suspicious of mercy, who enforce the arrangements that keep people in their proper place.”
In Javert’s world, it is “more unjust to steal bread to feed a starving child [than] to starve children with an economic system that makes bread unaffordable to their mothers, even if it’s perfectly legal. ” Likewise in our world, “default and amnesty are the twin unforgivable sins of modern capitalism and the penal court.”
Guyton poses an interesting question that I will rephrase: if the police were to pick up a kid (with sagging jeans and an attitude) who had stolen your car, would you pretend you had actually given it to him, and remind him he forgot to take your MacBook?
Christ’s death lavished God’s grace upon us to a magnitude that we can hardly comprehend. Yet we are so stingy with it in return. We cling to our own accomplishments as though we could take credit for even a single breath we draw (see post: Saved from Meritocracy). We dismiss our won shortcomings as innocent mistakes, and scorn the downfall of others. Praise God for His mercy on Javert and Valjean.
Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers.
We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers.
~Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Misérables
Katelin Hansen (@strngefruit) is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online ministry facilitating justice and understanding across racial divides for the sake of the Gospel. BTSF explores how Christianity’s often-bungled relationship with race and racism affects modern ministry and justice. Recognizing that racial brokenness hinders our witness to the world, BTSF strives to increase the visibly of healthy and holy racial discussion by approaching justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective.