The Common Good

MLK and Les Miserables' Case for a Socialism of Grace

If the latest Billboard album chart is anything to go by, the answer to Victor Hugo’s question “Do you hear the people sing”? is a resounding “Yes!” as the soundtrack to the latest film adaption of his novel has hit number one. More ambiguous however, is the answer to the question: do we understand what they are singing? 

Many know of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Fewer know of Dr. King’s letter from a Selma jail where he wrote, “If we are to achieve a real equality, the U.S. will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.” This week will see President Obama sworn into office by laying his hand upon the Bible of America’s greatest preacher and prophet, M.L. King. If the appropriateness of King’s radical legacy being invoked by Obama goes beyond being skin deep, might we also ask the question: do we hear and understand the song Martin King sung?

As many blogs will brim with praise for Martin Luther King, Jr., with little mention of his politics, so too are they awash with praise for the latest Les Misérables film without mention of its vision for society. They praise Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s ability to blubber while beautifully belting out ballads. They have shown the Christian virtue of mercy to Russel Crowe’s singing (at least more mercy than the infamous critique of his musical ability by Australian punk band Frenzal Rhomb). All this before moving on to talk of Les Misérables’ less-than-subtle Christian themes.

As CNN reported, since the micro-targeted marketing success of movies like The Passion of the Christ, film studios have been courting Christians to exchange their pews for popcorn and Gospel songs for cinema going. Again, this time with Les Misérables, the faithful have responded to the box office like it was an altar call offered with Dr. King’s eloquence.

Evangelicals Accepting Les Mis into Their Hearts?

Much like Martin King prior to 1964, Les Misérables’ first act is initially easier for white evangelicals to invite into their hearts. After 19 years of brutal imprisonment, the lead character Jean Valjean abuses the hospitality of a kind bishop who takes him into his home. In the night he steals the silverware, only to be caught red-handed by police and returned to the bishop to face life imprisonment in the morning. In a dramatic move that mimics not just the story of the prodigal son but the very dynamics of the Gospel, the bishop chooses not to leave him as a victim of his sin and a sinful system but instead shows him a gratuitous grace. Grace, Martin Luther King, Jr., would insist is “a gift we don’t merit, that we don’t deserve, but which we so desperately need.” Declaring Valjean innocent despite his guilt, and adding the most valuable items that he has to what Valjean has stolen, the bishop dismisses Valjean’s accusers and then announces to him:

But 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!

*Ok, I admit it, just reading this I feel like doing some blubbering of my own all over again*

Yet before we start saying (or singing?) proud prayers like, “God, I thank you that I’m not like Javert,” can we understand why Tolstoy called Les Misérables “the greatest of all novels” without seeing Victor Hugo’s all encompassing vision of grace? Is there a danger that Hugo’s masterpiece – a masterpiece that caused such a stir a decade before the Paris Commune that it inspired reform initiatives in prisons, schools and factories – could be reduced to a sermon illustration that safely domesticates grace to a merely privatised spiritual reality, albeit awkwardly staged on a very leftist revolutionary themed set? 

To situate Victor Hugo politically, it’s significant to note his poetry in praise of the Occupy Movement of his day was some of the first public support of the Paris Commune. According to The Encyclopaedia of the Romantic Era, Victor Hugo’s political imagination became “on behalf of the poor, in favour of social justice, against kings and their wars, and against capital punishment.” On the surface, this sounds rather what like Tony Campolo and others would call “Red Letter Christianity,” or what anyone who has spent time with the writings of the early church would just call “discipleship.” I do, however, want to resist making Victor Hugo into my own image. My faith is fiercely committed to the nonviolence of Christ and orthodoxy generally, two things of which Hugo isn’t often accused. What I do want to point out is that the radical outworking of grace from the personal into the public that is so central to Hugo’s Les Misérables, is decidedly missing from most talk of the film. 

For many, the social implications of grace in Les Misérables (not to mention the Gospel) seem to share the same fate as Fantine on her death bed. The character that represents the enforcer of segregation between the personal and social implications of God’s grace is of course police inspector Javert. Despite all the commentary to the contrary, there is not one line from Javert to support him believing in a “works-based righteousness.” There is nothing to suggest that Javert thinks he’ll be saved by anything but grace. Yet all Javert’s prayers and pleadings point to a belief that grace is a “spiritual” reality, to be segregated from all social implications. We want mercy from God but that’s got nothing to do with welfare for the poor. We are saved by grace but that’s very separate to any discussion of the death penalty. 

Javert believes the grace God shows us sinners cannot be allowed to interfere with maintaining a “moral universe.” The law must be maintained like the stars are maintained in the sky. Forgiveness, mercy, grace, and redemption for Javert are all “religious truths” that animate his high moral standards and motivate him to maintain systems that show none of these qualities to the suffering poor. “Mine is the way of the Lord,” sings Javert, and no doubt in his mind it is ‘to the glory of God’ that “if they fall, as Lucifer fell, the flame, the sword.” If we are preaching against Javert’s Christianity without calling for an end to punitive retributive justice in the forms of the death penalty and the new Jim Crow of the Prison Industrial Complex, our understanding of Les Misérables is as problematic as Javert’s understanding of the Gospel.

Use of the “S Word”

This brings me to the use of the “s word.” I’m not referring to the colourful language Thenardier uses to complete the line “Master of the house? Isn’t worth me spit! ‘Comforter, philosopher and life long –s*#!’ No, I’m referring to that other “s word.” Socialism.

In the final years of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., would use the word “socialist” with the disclaimer “democratic” (referring to the practice not a party) to describe to co-workers his own politics as a Christian. Recently I had the life-changing privilege of spending four days with Dr. King’s close friend, co-worker and speechwriter Dr. Vincent Harding. One of the things Dr. Harding corrected Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and I on was the use of the term “conversion” when talking of Dr. King’s journey to this political position. According to Martin King’s wife Corretta Scott King, when they met in 1953 King discussed with her “working within the framework of democracy towards a kind of socialism.” Before we return to Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Javert, I want to mention two things that might be helpful to locate me in this conversation regarding King’s “kind of socialism.” Firstly, I’m Australian. Secondly, I’m no Marxist (nor was Dr. King).

Don’t Shoot! I’m Australian! 

Last month I was speaking again in the U.S., and I’m always struck by how much people in the U.S. love Australia. So much so that when Obama was re-elected it made the “news” in Australia that some displeased people were going to move to Australia. We Aussies love the U.S. too. But there are certain realities about Australia that might surprise some Americans. 

Here’s the thing. Imagine growing up in a reality where there is no death penalty, for anyone.  A reality where you never see a gun as a child, even in the roughest inner-city neighbourhoods, other than on TV. A reality where everyone has healthcare regardless of insurance or employment. And where everyone can go to university and receive a degree if you get the grades required, regardless of income, and without a scholarship. That’s where I’ve grown up: Australia. We are not more morally upright than our mates from the U.S. (after all, a lot of us are descendants of convicts and invaders!). We are not naturally more intelligent. And we’re NOT the greatest nation on earth!

In reality these conditions are like those in many other democratic nations. Australia is far from being the Kingdom Come obvious in our horrific and ongoing treatment of aboriginal people groups and shameful cruelty to desperate people who seek asylum on Australian shores. Yet many in the U.S. might be surprised to learn that a significant number of the Obama administration’s policies are to the right (regarding social welfare, healthcare, gun control, and capital punishment) of Australia's equivalent to the Republican Party (called the ‘Australian Liberal Party,’ which adds to confusion of some U.S. friends). 

The Australian experience demonstrates that healthcare for all heals rather than harms a nation, that liveable welfare fosters more decency not dependence, that greater access to education makes a great nation greater, that the death penalty doesn’t minimise crime it just makes us murderers and, maybe, semi-automatics aren’t necessary for hunting kangaroos, or for that matter, deer.

Even a literalist reading of the Gospels makes it hard to deny; Jesus healed without charge, there were no food stamps needed at the feeding of the five thousand, the greatest teacher the world has ever known taught for free, died for everyone a victim of the death penalty and commanded his followers to love our enemies like he has loved us, with a Calvary-like love. You don’t need a PhD in New Testament ethics to realize a Jesus-like-love kind of rules out blowing your enemies away with a semi-automatic. 

This in Australia is partly due to what Dr. King would call a tradition of “a kind of socialism” that predates Marx, and it would be disingenuous, (not to mention dishonest) not to mention the tradition that precedes him. I’m no Marxist; by grace I’m seeking to be a follower of my Lord Jesus. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx, I got it from a man named Jesus. Who said he was anointed to preach good news to the poor.” 

MLK: “Never Can We Accept Communism and Be True Christians”

But let’s not jump to Communism. Communism is to Socialism what Mormonism is to Christianity. Or Nickleback is to music. That is to say, it’s something completely different. In Martin Luther King’s sermon “Can a Christian be a Communist?” he answers that question “with an emphatic ‘no.’” Martin King was very clear, “no Christian can be a communist.” King rejected outright Marx’s claim that humanity “unaided by any divine power can save himself [sic] and usher in a new society.” King also rejected; any ideology that stifled freedom of thought, the Feuerbach adapted materialism of Marx, the economy as history’s main mover, “any means necessary” methods, and the ‘end’ being the State. Yet as King’s late wife Corretta shared, King insisted “a kind of socialism has to be adopted by our system because the way it is, it’s simply unjust.” Do Dr. King’s witness and Hugo’s Les Misérables hold out the possibility of “a kind of socialism" that could be something different to Marxism? 

Christian Socialism?

Christian socialism, including the romantic socialism of Victor Hugo, pre-dates Karl Marx’s writings and sought to see Christian concern integrated into the organization of society in relation to the marginalized, the poor, the victims, the wretched; or to sum it up in one phrase in French, Les Misérables. In the words of Victor Hugo, it is the conviction to ask and act on the question; “Is the bottom of civilization, being deeper and darker, any less important that the top?” The tradition of Christian Socialism saw grace not only as a life changing personal experience but also as an alternative way of organising all of life, including social structures. 

Given that the term “socialism” is so traumatic for post ‘reds-under-the-bed-McCarthy’ America, why would I bother using it? For the same reason that M.L. King in his last years self-described to co-workers as a “democratic socialist,” and why former Princeton University, now Union Theological Seminary professor Dr. Cornel West self-describes as a “non-Marxist socialist:” because once we get over our prejudice, it names a vision of grace that doesn’t stop at the self but works [and I would want to insist nonviolently and democratically] for that grace to be witnessed throughout society. Especially for les misérables! 

Les Misérables and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Socialism of Grace”

For Jarvet, it was not just the ‘non-spiritualized’ grace of Valjean’s conversion that was offensive. It was its implications, seen fully in the finale of the film. In the finale we see that Hugo’s vision of grace is as expansive as the Bible’s. Grace isn’t just transformative for the individual, here on these ‘heavenly barricades’ that have descended to earth is a vision of grace realised throughout all of creation:

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 nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
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! 

And the key to understanding the nonviolent means to this coming “tomorrow” is given in the line that precedes this final chorus: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Victor Hugo and Martin Luther King, Jr., challenge us to reject the idea that “socialist” is the worst thing you can be called, and to freely explore a kind of “socialism of grace.” For me this is a “socialism of grace” that rejects violence and takes up the cross of nonviolent love. A nonviolent love that sees in the faces of les misérables, and even Javert, the face of God. 

The grace that brings us to tears in the conversion of Valjean is the same grace that should bring us to tears in the finale of Les Misérables. The grace that flows from the cross of Christ, that is ours in the Resurrection, can never be separated from the “tomorrow comes” of the Kingdom, “the world we long to see.” Can you hear the song Martin Luther King, Jr., sung encouraging us to:

“recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."

With the God of grace, can you hear the people sing a nonviolent alternative to both communism and capitalism?

Jarrod McKenna is amazed by grace and is seeking to live God’s love. Amongst other things, he lives with 17 others at First Home Project, an innovative community that empowers through welcome newly arrived refugees. Follow him on Twitter here.

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