For many centuries Christmas Day worshippers have been hearing these words as their New Testament reading: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Grace, everyone used to know, is foundational to the Christian Gospel.
But this Christmas I’m noticing the surprising version of grace in Les Miserables, already seen by 60 million people as a musical and now as a film. Victor Hugo’s novel may be seen as a story of grace transforming in the life of the common man Jean Valjean and grace rejected in the life of the rigid functionary Javert.
As the story begins, Jean Valjean is being released from 19 winters of imprisonment for having stolen some bread to save his sister’s son from starving. But in the eyes of Javert, Valjean will always be a thief, which is his nature, because he has not learned the meaning of the law. Crushed under this ideological overlay, Valjean sees himself as a slave of the law — in a way remarkably similar to that of St. Paul, who makes grace and law antithetical. The chorus confirms it: “Look down, you will always be a slave.”
In his first job after prison, Valjean is deliberately underpaid. When he objects, the boss says: “Why should you get the same as honest men like me?” (Jesus once told a parable about laborers in a vineyard to open people’s eyes to grace.) Valjean concludes that society has closed every door to him. When he is refused lodging, the innkeeper says: “We’re law-abiding people here. Thanks be to God.” The conservative identification with the law is commonly made in alliance with God, while Victor Hugo seems to understand that the Christian vision identifies grace, not law, with God.
When Valjean finds himself at the door of a rectory, his last chance at lodging, the Catholic bishop welcomes him and we unexpectedly encounter a cleric who epitomizes grace:
Come in, Sir, for you are weary
And the night is cold out there.
Though our lives are very humble
What we have, we have to share.
There is wine here to revive you,
There is bread to make you strong,
There's a bed to rest till morning,
Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.
Accepting the bishop’s hospitality, Valjean soon enough mocks him as an old fool and steals the silver. When he is caught and charged with a theft that will send him back to prison for life, the bishop protests that in fact he has made a gift of the church’s silver to this man. Turning to Valjean, the bishop astonishes him by saying that in his haste he left behind the most valuable of the gifts given him — the church’s precious silver candlesticks. The bishop wonders if unexpected grace might turn Valjean’s life around:
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!
Valjean gets it. He accepts a grace beyond understanding. The bishop touched his soul and taught him love, called him a brother, claimed his life for God. Can such things be? Valjean had come to hate the world which hated him, turning his heart to stone. As a moral void was closing in, Valjean accepts grace as the new story of his life. He goes on to become a factory manager, then the mayor. Witnessing the suffering of the poor, he sees that in God’s name his life task has just begun. When Javert wants to arrest the hapless Fantine, Valjean intervenes: “She needs a doctor not a jail.” When Javert intends to put away for life a man he thinks is Valjean, Valjean has a crisis in his new identity and wonders “Who am I?” His new life requires the truth. When Fantine lies dying, Valjean offers to become the guardian and then father of her daughter Cosette. Whence all this goodness?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope, when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on.
When student revolution is in the offing, Valjean goes to their side because embracing justice as one born of grace is his new vocation. Because he has discovered that “to love another person is to see the face of God,” he joins his story to the story of the downtrodden:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
By contrast, Javert speaks for all self-made men who believe in the infallibility of the economic order and of the law that sanctifies it. Who know they deserve their fortune, who are quick to judge, who are suspicious of mercy, who enforce the arrangements that keep people in their proper place. Javert experiences no need of grace and cannot accept it. When he hears oppressed workers singing, “At the end of the day you're another day older. And that's all you can say for the life of the poor;" when he cannot see how “the righteous hurry past and don’t hear the little ones crying;" when Fantine sings her show-stopper, “I dreamed that God would be forgiving,” Javert has heard it all before and it cannot penetrate his righteous certainty:
I have heard such protestations
Every day for twenty years
Let's have no more explanations
Save your breath and save your tears
Honest work, just reward,
That's the way to please the Lord.
As the student revolution begins, Javert attempts to infiltrate it, and is discovered. The students intend to kill him as a traitor to their cause, but accept Valjean’s offer to see to his fate. When Valjean pretends to be executing Javert but in fact sets him free, when it is clear that this is not a quid pro quo on behalf of Valjean’s own freedom, Javert faces a crisis in his own self-understanding. He has devoted his life to an unjust order that denigrates the poor and congratulates the fortunate. He realizes that people with his commitments cannot change their views. He cannot understand or accept the grace Valjean offers, musing to himself, 'What sort of devil catches someone in a trap and then sets them free? Vengeance was Valjeans,' but he gave me back my life.'
Ultimately, Javert must reject grace, perhaps honorably if also pathetically, because he sees that it is incompatible with the worldview to which he has devoted his life. Damned if he will yield at the end of the chase. “I am the law and the Law is not mocked. I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert.”
To accept mercy, to acknowledge need would be to admit that we all must live by grace and accept its dominion, and that Javert will not do. Grace would be hell, a betrayal of all he has stood for. It is too late to doubt his firm assumptions. Instead he escapes the world where grace is necessary.
Donald Heinz is professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico and a Lutheran minister.