taking the words of Jesus seriously

***Spoiler alert: this post presumes that you know the storyline of ‘Les Mis.’***

After watching “Les Miserables” in the theater, I wanted to stand up at the end and shout, “This is what Christianity really is!” kind of like what Peter Enns wrote on his blog. But there are two Christianities represented in “Les Mis” — by the police inspector Javert and the convict Jean Valjean — and though Valjean’s version triumphs in the film, Javert’s Christianity is winning big time in today’s America. Some say Javert represents “justice” and Valjean represents “mercy, ” so we need a happy mix of the two, but that’s already choosing Javert’s Christianity, because Valjean exhibits not only mercy, but an alternative justice that is incomprehensible to the penal retributive justice of modernity. The question of whether we see the world through the eyes of Javert or Valjean amounts to our understanding of justice. For Javert, justice is retribution in the interest of maintaining an abstract order; for Valjean, justice is solidarity in the interest of personal love.

I. Javert

Few evangelical Christians will recognize themselves in Javert because he seems committed to the logic of works-righteousness and a denial of the possibility of spiritual redemption and transformation. He tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change, ” which seems to be one of his basic principles. Kids who grow up evangelical have drilled into us the hard dichotomy between law and grace, so when Javert says, “My duty’s to the law; you have no rights, ” we define him as one of the many lost souls in the world who are trying to earn their salvation through obedience to God’s impossibly strenuous law because they haven’t “accepted Christ.”

But here’s the question: Is “accepting Christ” actually repentance from earning salvation or the appropriate means of earning salvation? The way that many Christians understand divine justice retributively makes “justification by faith” merely a substitute for works-righteousness rather than a repudiation of it. God expects us to be perfect; we can’t be perfect; God tortures people eternally who aren’t perfect; but “accepting Christ” tricks God into “seeing” Christ’s imputed perfection superimposed on top of us so that we can enter the pearly gates.

Related: People Cutting for Bieber – How Did We Get Here? by Christian Piatt

In this system of thinking, God’s justice takes a form analogous to the modern penal court or the capitalist free market. For the sake of the universal order, every debt must be paid and every transgression must be punished perfectly; otherwise the system collapses. Default and amnesty are the twin unforgivable sins of modern capitalism and the penal court. Javert’s song “Stars” evokes the order which is the highest concern in this conception of the universe:

Stars in your multitudes, scarce to be counted, filling the darkness with order and light
You are the sentinels, silent and sure, keeping watch in the night, keeping watch in the night
You know your place in the sky; you hold your course and your aim
And each in your season returns and returns and is always the same.

Humanity, like the night sky, exists for the sake of God’s abstract glory. What matters is that “you know your place in the sky, ” that you discover your “purpose-driven life.” For Javert’s Christianity, Jesus’ death on the cross for humanity’s sins confirms the primacy of retribution as the law of the universe. So when Javert holds people ruthlessly accountable to the law, it is his own version of “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). There is nothing inconsistent about Javert’s zeal for the law (in the kingdom of the sword) if the point of the cross is to show that God has zero tolerance for imperfection. By making sure that criminals are punished perfectly, Javert is not saying that they can’t go to heaven (if they fulfill the spiritual requirements for exempting themselves from eternal retribution) and that is the only reality that Jesus’ cross addresses in Javert’s Christianity.

Here’s a litmus test of whether you live under Javert’s Christianity or not. Consider what Bishop Monseñor Bienvenu does when Valjean is caught stealing his silver. If the police came to your house with a thief who had stolen your silver, would you lie and say that it was a gift and add two candlesticks? Of course not! Because the law is the law, and a criminal is a criminal. If you lied to defend someone who robbed you, that thief would just go and rob somebody else because “a man like that can never change.” Anyone who tried to make the argument that letting a thief take your things without being punished would convict him of his sin and bring him to repentance would get laughed out of the room. And yet it is common to the legends of ancient Christian saints like the Desert Fathers and St. Francis that they would chase after their thieves saying, “You forgot something!”

Under Javert’s Christianity (and most of ours), God has zero tolerance for breaking the law, and so must we. Just like I had to accept Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins, a criminal must accept the consequences of his crime and lying to protect him even if I’m the victim of the crime would be a crime on my part. Though it’s easy to make Javert into the works-righteousness pursuing “Catholic” that we evangelicals can define ourselves against, he’s really no different than any of us for whom the most important aspect of Christian orthodoxy is a strong affirmation of a well populated and endlessly torturous hell.

In the Christianity of Javert, a thief is a thief and a prostitute is a prostitute because sin is strictly a matter of individual choice. The clean mathematics of Javert’s retributive justice is threatened when you allow circumstances to mitigate blame, when you allow yourselves to notice that thieves sometimes steal bread to feed starving children or women can become prostitutes after being unjustly fired because they refuse the sexual advances of their supervisor. Under the clean mathematics of retributive justice, a widespread social problem like poverty can never be called “injustice” unless you can trace it to a specific blameworthy deed or infraction of the law.

II. Valjean

“Les Miserables” puts the concept of retributive justice on trial through its sympathetic portrayal of the misunderstood thief and prostitute who are its principal protagonists. It is also offers a different vision for justice through the character of Valjean. It is completely misunderstanding the story to see Valjean’s deeds as the mercy that “complements” the justice of Javert. Both before and after his conversion to Christianity, Valjean’s actions display a justice that is rooted in personal solidarity. Valjean simply chooses to do justice to individual people instead of honoring the requirements of an abstract order.

This starts with Valjean’s initial criminal act. He steals bread as a response to the injustice of his nephew’s starvation. Is it more unjust to steal bread to feed a starving child or to starve children with an economic system that makes bread unaffordable to their mothers, even if it’s perfectly legal and serves the utilitarian needs of the majority of the population? The way you answer depends upon whether you define justice according to the universality of social order or the particularity of personal solidarity. People who live in security have a vested interest in the justice of the social order that provides their security; people who live in desperation are going to care more about the justice shown to personal individuals in their lives than respecting a social order that doesn’t provide them with any stability.

The one unequivocal sin that Valjean commits in stealing the bishop’s silver is actually done out of a sense of retribution at the injustice with which he feels the world has treated him: “They gave me a number and murdered Valjean, when they chained me and left me for dead, just for stealing a mouthful of bread. … Take an eye for an eye! Turn your heart into stone! This is all I have lived for! This is all I have known!” Valjean’s actions follow the logic of an “eye for an eye” in the sense that Valjean justifies stealing the silver as retribution for the world’s cruel injustice of locking him up “for stealing a mouthful of bread.” It is retributive “justice” measured from the perspective of particularity rather than universality and perversely “paid forward” to an undeserving recipient.

Also by Morgan: Why Worship Without Justice Dishonors God

What we see articulated here is the way that retributive logic itself is a primary source of sin. We often do hurtful things to other people as an indirect response to a hurt we received from someone else. Sin leaves a legacy that is impossible to untangle so that blame can be assigned perfectly since there is a complex web of mitigating circumstances associated with every evil. Moreover, we often can’t get back at the people who hurt us for a variety of reasons so we pay our revenge forward, often onto someone down the food chain from us.

The way to interrupt the cycle of retribution is through an act of unilateral, unconditional mercy, which is what the bishop does to Valjean. He is even willing to sin by lying on Valjean’s behalf in order to “buy his soul for God.” If we take the bishop at his word, that his actions articulate “the witness of the martyrs … the Passion and the Blood, ” then this presents us with a cross that addresses a different problem with a different solution. The bishop’s mercy pays a ransom to buy the soul of Jean Valjean in the same way that God pays a ransom through Jesus’ cross not to Himself out of a need for the eternal bank of retribution to avoid default, but to us in our need to be paid back for the injustices we have suffered and to be assured of our amnesty for the injustices we have committed.

Valjean is not merely a thief; he is also a victim of injustice whose victimhood causes him to perpetuate injustice. The bishop’s deed of mercy empowers Valjean to be a man of justice that takes a different form than Javert’s abstract justice of retribution. When Valjean discovers that Fantine has been unjustly fired from his factory, he commits his life to the protection of her daughter Cosette out of justice. Though Fantine argues that Valjean has been negligent, it’s not out of duty to an invisible bank of retribution that Valjean rescues her daughter. It has more to do with the cruel fate that Fantine has suffered than with Valjean’s personal culpability.

Later when Valjean learns that another man has been captured and mistaken for him, he sings about the agony of whether he should speak up or not: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” Look at how he explains why he would be damned to stay silent:

Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not feel his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place

It is not an abstract law of retribution that would damn Valjean for staying silent; it is the injustice another man would suffer that makes Valjean ask, “How could I ever face myself again?” This is a critical distinction. God’s mercy through Jesus’ sacrifice not only addresses the retribution owed by our sin; it gives us a new rubric for justice to live under. An abstract retributive justice is actually a lot easier to fulfill than a justice which is personally invested in the well-being of every creature. While Javert’s justice demands no more than making sure we pay back our debts and avoid deliberately violating other peoples’ rights, Valjean’s justice demands that we proactively seek and address the unfair misfortunes of others even if nobody in particular can be blamed for them.

III. Who will get to stand on the eternal barricade?

At the end of the film version of “Les Miserables, ” Valjean dies and is led by Fantine to the place “where chains will never bind you.” Heaven ends up being a giant barricade on top of which all the martyrs from the film are singing:

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

I did a Google search of “Les Miserables heresy” because I was sure that some Christian blogger would cry heresy at this universalist-sounding ending. Nobody has made that comment yet, so I will, as much as I hate using the “H” word. I don’t endorse the film’s ending as a valid representation of the afterlife because it’s not fair for the “rich young boys” who wanted to play revolution out of guilt for their “nights at the opera” to go to paradise and the working-class soldiers who were tasked with the horrible deed of massacring them to go to hell.

I believe that the eternal barricade of paradise can be climbed by those who embrace the mercy proven through Jesus’ sacrifice and are thus empowered to live in communion with God and each other according to the holistic justice that the cross makes possible (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). I also believe that out of solidarity to those under His mercy, God will protect them from the Javerts of the world who would rather commit suicide than let go of their slavery to retribution.

Maybe Victor Hugo, the original author of “Les Miserables, ” would agree with my assessment; maybe not. In any case, our God is an infinitely better judge than Javert. He is a ruthless perfectionist with those who are ruthlessly retributive towards others (Romans 2:1-5), but He opens up His paradise to thieves without a blink just for saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).

Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at https://www.twitter.com/maguyton.

About The Author


Morgan Guyton is a United Methodist elder and campus minister who leads the NOLA Wesley Foundation at Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, Louisiana with his wife Cheryl. He released his first book in April, 2016: How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity. He blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice and has contributed articles to the Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, Think Christian, Ministry Matters, the United Methodist Reporter, and other publications. Morgan grew up in a moderate Baptist family in the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. His mother’s people are watermelon farmers from south Texas while his father’s people are doctors from Mississippi, which left Morgan with a mix of redneck and scientific sensibilities. Morgan’s greatest influence as a pastor was his grandpa, a Southern Baptist deacon who sometimes told dirty jokes to evangelize his grandson. From his grandpa, Morgan learned the value of irreverence as a pastoral tactic and the way that true holiness is authenticity. Morgan used to have a rock band called the Junior Varsity Superheroes, but after becoming a father, he turned to electronic dance music, which he performs every summer at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes to throw basement dance parties with his sons Matthew and Isaiah.

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