Theology at the Theatre: Les Misérables
How many Harry Potter fans do we have out there? You might be saying to yourself, “I thought we were talking about musicals, about Les Miserables today!” and we are. I promise I’ll get there…in a minute. I love the Harry Potters series. My childhood pastor actually got me hooked on them – he was reading and enjoying them, so I gave them a try. Some of you know that I even have a Harry Potter closet under the stairs, like Harry sleeps in in the first book, set up in my parsonage. I claim this is for my niece and nephew to enjoy, but it’s at least 50% for me! Anyway, through the years, author J.K. Rowling has continued to expand and explore the world of Harry Potter that she has so masterfully created, and she is pretty free with her comments about the series and characters. The villain of Harry Potter is the evil Lord Voldemort, and people pretty universally think he’s awful. But Harry also had a nemesis all through his school years, a rich, prejudiced, mean & nasty fellow student named Draco Malfoy. Draco seems to express some regret for his actions by the end of the series, but he’s never exactly one of the good guys. Nonetheless, Draco’s character has lots of fans, and J.K. Rowling has written about how this fact troubles her. She says: “I have often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character (although I do not discount the appeal of [actor] Tom Felton, who plays Draco brilliantly in the films and, ironically, is about the nicest person you will ever meet,” Rowling writes. “Draco has all the dark glamour of the anti-hero; girls are very apt to romanticise such people. All of this left me in the unenviable position of pouring cold common sense on ardent readers’ daydreams, as I told them, rather severely, that Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering.” She does go on to say that there is “some unextinguished good at the heart of Draco,” but she still doesn’t understand why so many people imagine that Draco turns out to be not-so-bad after all.
Personally, though, I’m not surprised at all that people imagine a more forgiving, loving future for Draco than the life he experiences through the Harry Potter series, that people want to imagine stories about how his heart is changed, and he lives a different life in the imaginary future. I’m not surprised that people imagine Draco’s redeeming, and I think the reason goes beyond young people having a crush on the actor who plays Draco. Instead, I think people are drawn to imagining a redeemed Draco Malfoy because redemption is our favorite story. Redemption in everyday use means “the action of regaining…possession of something in exchange for a payment, or clearing a debt.” If you take your recyclable soda bottles back to the store, you can redeem that 5 cents extra you paid when you purchased the drink. In theological language, in God language, redemption takes this meaning to a deeper place. Redemption is “the action of saving or being saved from sin, [from]…evil.” The idea is that we have been lost to the power of sin and evil in our lives, but that God “buys us back,” offering up the life of Jesus as payment for the consequences of our sinfulness. Our hope in redemption, our hope in this idea that someone, something, can save us from our sinfulness, save us from the evil path we sometimes choose instead of the path of good? As I said, I think it is, as a culture, maybe as a human race, one of our favorites stories. Today we will sing one of our faith tradition’s favorite songs, “Amazing Grace.” Why do we love it so much, this song? Because it is a redemption song, a story of being saved even though we put ourselves on the wrong path so many times, a story that lets us hope in God’s unlimited power to redeem us from sin and evil.
Les MIsérables is a redemption story, a work that examines through the lives of its characters themes of redemption and how we do – or don’t – long for redemption and offer redemption to others. The musical Les MIsérables is based on the incredible novel by Victor Hugo, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil. The action takes place in France in the early 1800s. The key player is a man named Jean Valjean. As the musical begins, Valjean is being released from prison, where he’s served for 19 long years, serving in hard labor. He served 5 for stealing the loaf of bread, but an additional 14 years were added to his sentence for trying to escape from prison. He gets a ticket of leave, and bears a brand on his chest with his prisoner number 24601, both of which identify him to people as an ex-convict and make it hard for him to start fresh. He can’t find work or a place to live.
Finally, a Bishop offers him food and a place to stay, but Valjean steals silver from the Bishop and flees. He’s caught by the police, who are ready to throw him back into prison. But instead, the Bishop comes and vouches for Valjean, saying the silver was a gift, and also giving him a set of silver candlesticks which the Bishop says Valjean forgot. The Bishop says to Valjean: “Remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God!”
Valjean is overwhelmed with this act of mercy that gives him a chance at a new life. “Why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?” he wonders. “He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?” Valjean asks. “Take an eye for an eye. Turn your heart into stone. This is all I have lived for. This is all I have known. One word from him and I'd be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom. I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? … As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin, I'll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now. Another story must begin.”
He rips up his ticket of leave and takes on a new identity, working hard to live a good life, constantly helping others whenever he has the opportunity. There some other stories unfolding in Les Mis: Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette falls in love with a young man named Marius. Marius is involved in student rebellion, a group of young revolutionaries who are concerned for the plight of the poor and seek to overthrow the powerful government, particularly after the only advocate in the government for the poor and downtrodden dies. Valjean hates seeing Cosette fall in love, recognizing that he will lose his role in her life if she marries and moves on, but because of how much he cares for Cosette, he throws his lot in with the rebellion, which eventually fails, in order to protect Marius for Cosette, never revealing his identity. (The anthem the choir sang, “Bring Him Home,” is Valjean’s prayer to God to protect Marius.) But throughout all these events, the main story unfolds. A police captain, Inspector Javert, has hated Valjean since he was discharged from prison. Javert, who was born in a prison to a criminal mother, lives his life according to law and order. There is no room for grace and mercy in his life. And when he realizes that Valjean is the ex-con with a new identity, Javert pursues him relentlessly through the years. He’s obsessed with bringing Valjean to his idea of justice. Says Javert, “So it is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price!”
Eventually, though, Jean Valjean gets the chance to kill Javert when Javert is caught out by the student revolutionaries, trying to infiltrate their movement. At the least, Valjean has the opportunity to let others kill Javert and not speak up for him. How easy would that be? Instead, Valjean saves Javert’s life, and Javert, in turn, lets Valjean go so that Valjean can save Marius’s life too. After he lets Valjean go, Javert unravels, unable to figure out why either he or Valjean acted with mercy. He says, “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free? It was his hour at last to put a seal on my fate, wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate! All it would take was a flick of his knife. Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!” “I am the law and the law is not mocked.” “And must I now begin to doubt who never doubted all these years?” Javert cannot reconcile mercy with the order of law that has guided his life. In turmoil, he commits suicide.
Les Mis is about two people struggling with the idea of redemption. Javert can’t imagine that anyone is deserving of redemption – and therefore he doesn’t extend it to others, ever. He can only imagine that we are redeemed by following the rules, and so he seeks to do that with expert precision, and feels that anyone who fails to adhere to the law in complete perfection is worthless, irredeemable. No one can be perfect under the law, though, and when Javert himself ignores the law, his world crumbles. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, can’t imagine that he is worthy of redemption. But when the Bishop offers him redemption so easily, so freely, so lovingly anyway, despite his unworthiness, Valjean can’t doubt it, can’t ignore the gift of grace he’s received, even if he feels like he is unworthy of it. He has experienced redemption, and it transforms him, frees him to live a life serving others, even transforming him into someone capable of offering grace and redemption to his very worst enemy.
This contrast between seeking our worthiness from perfect adherence to law, and discovering that our value comes from being redeemed by God’s free gift of grace is exactly the theme that Paul takes up in his epistle, his letter to the Romans. Paul has spent the first four chapters of Romans explaining how Gentile followers of Jesus – non-Jewish followers of Jesus – have come to be included in God’s plan of saving grace even though they are not part of the covenant, bound by the law of Moses, that the Jews have been part of for centuries. It isn’t that we are so good at following the law that earns us a place with God, Paul argues. Even Abraham, to whom God first gave the sign of the covenant in the act of circumcision, even Abraham didn’t find his place with God because of that covenant. Abraham’s relationship with God was built on faith and trust in God’s grace and God’s promises. Our hope is in God, Paul writes, and our hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love “has been poured into our hearts.” We were sinners, and Jesus gives his life for us anyway. Paul uses the language of reconciliation – we are reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are redeemed by the actions of God in Jesus, and that can be our boast, our joy, our celebration. We can’t boast in adherence to the law – we’ll never hold up to that set of rules. But we can boast in the gift of grace that God gives us, the gift that is available to each and every one of us. Paul writes with passion and conviction in Romans. It is some of his most eloquent, in depth work. Because the redemption story is Paul’s favorite story too.
Where are we in this redemption story? Sometimes, I think maybe we’re a bit more like Javert than we’d like to admit. Both Javert and Valjean struggle to accept God’s grace for themselves. Indeed, it is an awesome gift and we can spend our whole lives in wonder, giving thanks for this gift that seems too good to be true. But because grace seems too good to Javert, he can’t extend grace and mercy to anyone. He can’t imagine that anyone can be redeemed from their wrong choices. What about you? Have you accepted God’s redeeming love in your life? Are you withholding redemption from someone, unable to believe that God’s grace is for them, too? If you are, my prayer is that you will set them – and yourself – free from the idea that we must be good enough to earn God’s love and mercy, that you must earn what God wants to give as a gift. Jean Valjean felt bowled over by the power of God’s redemptive grace in his life. It was so powerful, this gift that he experienced through the Bishop’s forgiveness, that his whole life was transformed, and he couldn’t stop extending mercy to others, whenever he had the chance. What about you? What about us? How are you letting God’s redeeming love change your life? What’s the new life you can live because God has redeemed you from the power of sin and evil? What opportunities to shower others with grace and mercy do you have, waiting for you to take action?
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Rowling, J.K., as quoted in Time magazine, http://time.com/3644311/jk-rowling-harry-potter-draco-malfoy/