Javert vs. Valjean: the two Christianities of Les Miserables

***Spoiler alert: this post presumes that you know the storyline of Les Miz.*** 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 Miz 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.

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.

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).

  • Andrew

    Very orthodox of you! Haven’t seen that lately. What of all the working class soldiers who don’t “embrace Jesus’ sacrifice?”

    • Morgan Guyton

      I believe that God protects those who seek His mercy and don’t know exactly how that translates.

    • http://covenantbond.wordpress.com LuAnn

      Thank you for writing this. You said brilliantly what I would love to have said.

      • Morgan Guyton

        Thanks LuAnn!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dcsloan Douglas C. Sloan

    1) Only when in a legal context, is Valjean’s actions merciful; otherwise, it is compassion.
    2) Valjean’s actions are not complimentary to the actions of Javert, they are defiant and oppositional.

    • Morgan Guyton

      How are you distinguishing compassion from mercy? And is defiant and oppositional a positive or a negative for you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dcsloan Douglas C. Sloan

    1) Only when in a legal context, are actions, such as Valjean’s, merciful; otherwise, they are compassionate.
    2) Valjean’s actions are not complimentary to the actions of Javert, they are peacefully and non-violently defiant and oppositional.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dcsloan Douglas C. Sloan

    Mercy is the settinng aside of judgement.
    Compassion does not involve judgement.
    The positive/negative aspects of defiance and opposition depend on how you view the Empire and The Way taught by Jesus. Opposing and defying the Empire – peacefully, non-violently, fearlessly, openly – as Jesus did is a positive. The way the Empire or Rome and the Empire of the Temple authorities opposed Jesus is a negative.

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

      Ah. Yeah I wish I were more defiant and oppositional to the Empire. I am far too complicit.

  • automatic7

    “To love another person is to see the face of God.” ~Hugo
    “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

    So if Javert was “Christian” who did he love? Do you consider that his song to the stars was a prayer? Was he praying to God or the stars? Did Javert appreciate the beauty of the stars or just their order? I appreciate your thoughts and hope you will write more!

    I really appreciate your thoughts &the hope

    • Morgan Guyton

      That’s just the thing. The Christianity of Javert thinks it loves God because it loves order but it doesn’t really love anyone God has created.

  • http://gravatar.com/dietzign dietzign

    I don’t think the eternal barricade is a full representation of Heaven in it’s entirety. We don’t see Christ and the Disciples and all the saints that had gone before etc. What we do see is all the “miserable” people helped by Valjean who are now miserable no more. It is Valjean’s reward for all the injustices he suffered. The ending of la mis is a taste of Valjean’s eternity not the entire heavenly pie.

    • Morgan Guyton

      That’s an interesting interpretation. Thanks for sharing.

  • sherwood8028

    Please, no more about Les Miserables as you seem to have missed the moral of the story. There always have been and always will be Jean Valjeans in our midst and you and I represent Jean Valjean in this day and age. That is the moral – no need for elaboration. Sherwood MacRaeCookeville, TN

    Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2012 00:31:07 +0000 To: sherwood8028@hotmail.com

    • Tyler

      I’m sorry, but I find it completely laughable that you’ve boiled down the immense work that is Les Miserables into the phrase, “There have always been Jean Valjeans in our midst and you and I represent Jean Valjean in this day and age.”

      One: That’s not a moral. That’s not even particularly helpful in any way shape or form.

      Two: By limiting the “moral” of the story to that useless sentence, you are robbing the intense power of the book/musical movie and replacing it with something shallow and unimportant. There are many “morals” in Les Miserables, and you’ll probably learn a lot more about the world (even about God), if you will open yourself to the possibility that you don’t have all these answers figured out.

      I find the sections about Javert’s Christianity, particularly that evangelicals might pity Javert for his staunch legalism, while at the same time unaware that they are playing the same game as Javert, only using Christ as our resident pinch hitter.

      You certainly don’t have to come to the same conclusions, Sherwood, but it is better to disagree intelligently, than to refuse elaboration on an overly-simplistic (and wildly inaccurate) moral merely because you think you’ve already figured it out.

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  • deebrestin

    This is such an excellent article. So thankful for it. I will be quoting you in my blog next Sunday. Thank you.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Cool. Thanks Dee!

  • soonguy

    Thanks so much for your insights. I believe that this film represents a major opportunity for us to start conversations with outsiders, and I’ve tried to draw together some helpful resources on the Digital Evangelism Issues blog: http://ieday.net/blog/archives/9802

    • Morgan Guyton

      Definitely. If you’d like to link to this piece, feel free by all means.

      • soonguy

        Thanks Morgan, I have added a link!

    • http://www.facebook.com/dcsloan Douglas C. Sloan

      Especially in the way “Les Mis” portrays a radically different understanding of the Good News than “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson’s film is strictly about the view embodied by Javert. In “Les Mis” we more precisely and fully see how literal legalism only produces blindness and death – and is not the “Good News” message. While lived incompletely and imperfectly (and more completely and more nearly perfect by the Bishop), Valjean shows the power of death, resurrection, and transformation which enables living a life of justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality, and service. It is telling that the churches that so strongly promoted “Passion” are saying nothing about “Les Mis.”

      • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

        Exactly.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jwilliamslpc Jeanne Camp Williams

    Great thoughts on differing views of Christianity. One point to note: The priest saved Valjean from Javert by presenting a non-truth (some might deem it a lie) for the good will of granting repentance to Valjean (who in truth stole the silver) ~ what levels of goodness or Christian principles used by any one of us is up for speculation. Most deem it not okay to murder, or to steal, (not very “christian” to do so) but, are okay with a tiny mis-truth to grant someone else grace (like misrepresenting the truth about the stolen silver) – it gets fuzzy sometimes when we try to determine Christianity and the principles we adopt.
    Thanks for the great article… good thoughts.

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  • stephanie

    Actually the Bishop was not lying because as he explained afterwards he never regarded the silver as his personal property anyway and he said that he himself had been wrong to keep it so long. He felt that it rightly belonged to the poor and that man was one of them. He gave any contents in his house by never locking anything away and never locking any doors so all were free to come and take whatever they wanted.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Good point.

  • http://www.aboutus.org/whydoiexistblog.wordpress.com meaning of existence

    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it
    for you? Plz reply as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. thanks

    • Morgan Guyton

      It’s actually a wordpress.com theme.