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The Political Theology of Les Misérables

Les MiserablesMy wife, Jana, and I are huge fans of the musical Les Misérables, so we’ve been living the dream lately. We got to see the show onstage again in November while at AAR/SBL in Chicago. Then the movie came out on Christmas Day. And we just found out that, after 20 years of trying, ACU has finally secured the permission to do Les Misérables for our 2013 homecoming musical.

Again, Jana and I are hardcore fans. She and I can sing every line and every part (male and female) of the musical soundtrack. I find the musical to be a profoundly spiritual, and distinctively Christian, experience. (Same goes for the book, which I read in college.)

Thinking the other day about the musical I had these thoughts about the political theology depicted in Les Misérables.

I’m interested here in the contrast been Jean Valjean, Javert, and Enjolras (along with Marius and the other student-revolutionaries at the barricade).

Javert and Enjolras could be considered as two poles along a continuum in how one aligns political power with God. On the one end is Javert who represents a conservative, even Constantinian, vision where God is completely aligned with the state, particularly the law and order aspects of the state (although Javert also espouses the capitalistic theology where “honest work” is the way we “please the Lord”). Thus, to fail in the state’s system–politically or economically–is to fall afoul of God. This view is at the heart of Javert’s theological condemnation of Valjean. Valjean isn’t just a criminal in the eyes of Javert, he’s a sinner “fallen from God, fallen from grace.” Thus Javert prays to God to help him find Valjean to restore order and harmony to the moral universe.

At the opposite end of the continuum from Javert we have the idealistic and revolutionary political theology of Enjolras. The student-revolutionaries are scandalized by the plight of the poor and plan to lead a violent popular uprising (Victor Hugo based these events on the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris). Though Enjolras and Javert find themselves in conflict, I place them on the same continuum as each seeks to take or use political power as means to accomplish the ends of God. They are the poles of Constantinianism on the one hand and Revolution on the other. But both agree that we need to “take charge” of the world, violently so, for the Kingdom to come.

And picking his way through these political theologies is Jean Valjean, the hero of the story.

I’d like to use Valjean to make a contrast with both Javert and Enjolras.

Regarding Javert, we see how Valjean’s grace eventually explodes Javert’s worldview. This conflict, the conflict between grace and law, drives much of the dynamic between Javert and Valjean. We come to see that God is aligned with grace and love as displayed by Valjean rather than with the justice embodied by Javert. The love, grace, and mercy of God cannot be reduced to the way political systems define and enforce law and order or the way economic systems define winners and losers. Valjean is poor and a criminal. That’s how Valjean is seen by “the system,” by Javert. But we see that the system is wrong and satanic. We see that Valjean is a saint.

The contrast with Valjean and Enjolras isn’t one of direct confrontation as between Valjean and Javert. But I’d argue that a contrast is present in how Valjean and Enjolras relate to the poor. Les Misérables can be variously translated as The Miserable, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims. These are the people the story revolves around, and we see Valjean and Enjolras approaching les misérables in different ways.

Again, Enjolras’s remedy is one of violent revolution. And yet, these are idealistic, well-to-do “schoolboys” contemplating injustice philosophically and, one could argue, somewhat abstractly and distantly. This isn’t to be judgmental, just to draw out a contrast with Valjean’s interaction with les misérables.

In contrast with Enjolras, Valjean’s relationship with les misérables is more personal. For Valjean there are no abstract discussions about corrupt political systems, there is only Fantine.

Fantine is the embodiment of les misérables, her story is the incarnation of tragedy, exploitation and victimhood. (Incidentally, in the movie Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is utterly soul-crushing, the singular performance of the movie.)

What drives Valjean for most of the story is his personal, concrete and lifelong commitment to Fantine, in particular his commitment to care for Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. And I’d argue that this is a contrast with the revolutionaries at the barricade. For Valjean les misérables are not “the people” or “the poor” in the abstract but a particular person with a name. For Valjean les misérables is Fantine.

Incidentally, I think this is an important contrast for churches to ponder. For example, in my own faith community there is a lot of abstract talk about “the poor” and “the homeless.” More, a lot of the members of my church are pretty passionate about “the poor” and “the homeless.” But the vast majority of these same people don’t actually know any poor or homeless people or count them among their friends. In short, they have no Fantine, no concrete personal relationship. All they have is the abstract radical rhetoric of liberals.

And finally, for my left-leaning and revolutionary friends who think I’m being too hard on Enjolras let me make a concluding observation.

I think it’s noteworthy that in the story Valjean comes to care for Fantine because he is confronted with his own complicity in her tragic story. Valjean is both mayor and factory owner–politician and capitalist–and he presides over the systems that victimize Fantine. Fantine’s life becomes fatally tragic because Valjean, the politician and capitalist, “turned away.” When Valjean is finally confronted with his sin he commits himself to the care of Fantine and Cosette. This is, we might say, the second conversion of Valjean in the story, a conversion that stands as an indictment of the economic and political systems that create victims like Fantine.

And what of Valjean’s first conversion? That occurred, as we all know, when Valjean is given the candlesticks by the priest as an act of forgiveness, mercy and grace. A gift that buys Valjean’s soul for God. And what we witness in Les Misérables are the cascading ripple effects of that singular act of kindness. That act of grace changes the world. That act of mercy saves Valjean who goes on to save Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. And even Javert.

Two candlesticks–one act of mercy–saved them all.

And in contrast to Javert and Enjolras I wonder if those two candlesticks isn’t the political theology we are all called to embrace.

Richard BeckRichard Beck is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, as well as author and blogger at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared. Richard’s area of interest–be it research, writing, or blogging–is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard’s published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad.

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