A theological reflection on Les Miserable

There are two competing theologies struggling against each other in the musical Les Miserables represented by two characters who serve as perfect foils for one another. Inspector Javert believes in an orderly universe, where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. His system of belief is expressed in the aria “Stars” where he reflects on his hope for capturing the escaped fugitive, Jean Valjean.

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
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!

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
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

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!

There is no room or hope for forgiveness in Javert’s philosophy. Forgiveness is a sign of weakness to him. But as soon as Javert exits the stage, the street urchin, Gavroche, runs onto the stage and in a comical aside sings,

That inspector thinks he’s something
But it’s me who runs this town!
And my theater never closes
And the curtain’s never down
Trust Gavroche, have no fear
Don’t you worry, auntie dear,
You can always find me here!

There are other forces at work in the universe, besides law and order, and that are far greater. More importantly, there is another theology at work counterpoised to Javert’s: a theology of grace. After being paroled from prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children, Jean Valjean finds himself a marked man and an outcast in society. A local bishop takes pity on him, taking Valjean in for the night. But Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and sneaks away, only to be captured by the police who do not believe Valjean’s story that the bishop gave the silverware to him as a gift. Yet when the police bring Valjean back to the bishop’s house, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story adding that the former prisoner left in such a hurry that he forgot the silver candlesticks, which the bishop had also intended as a gift. The bishop then presents the candlesticks to Valjean urging to use this newfound wealth “to become an honest man.”

All his life, Valjean has known only hardship: an “eye for an eye/turn your heart into stone.” But this experience of grace has profoundly changed his life and he cannot go back to the life he knew before. As the recipient of grace he can only respond in kind. He intercedes on the behalf of Fantine when she is left destitute, and when she dies, he takes her daughter, Cosette, into his home, raising her as his own daughter. And when Cosette falls in love with the revolutionary Marius, Valjean takes part in the uprising in order to rescue the young student. Valjean even extends this grace when he personally has much to lose by doing so. When an innocent man is mistaken for him, Valjean turns himself in to the French court so that the man would not have to take his place in prison. And after the revolutionaries capture Javert, Valjean convinces them to put the inspector in his care. But rather than execute his nemesis, which is what the revolutionaries anticipate, Valjean releases him to go free.

However, Javert’s reaction to being the recipient of grace is very different from Valjean’s. He sees the tables as having been turned. Valjean now has dominion over him and, rather than being free, the  inspector is indebted to a man who, in turn because of his crimes, is indebted to society. The inspector has been taken from the safe, secure world of law and order and placed in a world of grace – a world in which he has no idea how to live. In his final soliloquy, Javert sings:

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?

Unable to face this new world, Javert takes his own life.

But the musical promises a different end for those who live by grace. At the end, after Valjean has died and his spirit has been taken to heaven by the ghosts of Fantine and Eponine, the entire cast gathers onstage and sing the Finale:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

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.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!


            The future that awaits is not a fantasy of some blissful life in a heavenly realm somewhere far removed from the cares and worries of this world. If that is the only hope that the gospel promises us, then Karl Marx is right and religion is nothing more than the opiate of the masses. The gspel promise is of a better future for this world. But that future will not be brought by revolution – Marius’ friends die on the barricades and their dreams die with them – and Javert’s theology of law and order is bereft of justice. The only theology left standing at the end of the day is the one of grace.

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