I sat there, in the dark movie theatre, surrounded by hundreds of patrons at a sold-out playing of “Les Miserables”, squirming uncomfortably.
When you’re not used to openly showing emotion, this movie is painful to watch.
If you don’t know the story of “Les Mis” you shouldn’t read further: spoilers abound. Many theatre-lovers have seen the stage production at least once. Many – like me – have seen it multiple times, which is the only reason I feel comfortable using the story to illustrate something.
A while ago, I had a conversation with someone about the story of Christ and his crucifixion. The question was specific: why? Why – if the story is true – did it need to happen?
Years of church-going and catechism knowledge could have provided an easy answer. But it wouldn’t be logical – it would be rote repetition. I think this movie brought me a little closer to an understanding. Perhaps not all of the way though.
In “Les Mis”, Inspector Javert pursues a prisoner who has broken his parole, by the name of Jean Valjean. The latter serves as the protagonist in the story; a man who was convicted of stealing bread to feed his sister’s children.
Throughout the story (and there are many subplots – this is only one of the main ones), Javert pursues his charge with the ferocity of the truly righteous. There is no variance with him, no nuance. Things are either good or evil, black or white. There is no room for maybe, for grey, or for any other colours. Javert is immune to the notion of mercy, or of pity. Those who do wrong are to be despised, without exception. He labels them confidently as gutter rats and scum. The only motives for such despicable creatures are entirely selfish, whatever their objection, whatever their explanation.
Later in the story, Jean Valjean saves the inspector’s life. When revolutionaries want to kill Javert, Valjean intercedes, begging permission to kill him himself. Instead of doing so, he tells him to flee, and then fires a gun so that the revolutionaries think he’s done the deed. Incredibly, and still full of his self-righteousness, Javert promises to hunt him down anyway. Valjean understands and says “we’ll likely meet again”.
Meet again they do, and when Valjean asks for just an hour more, so that he can bring someone to the hospital, Javert points his gun and says “one more step and you’re dead”. Valjean turns around and walks away with the injured man. Javert doesn’t fire. Instead he drops his gun.
He understands that he has shown mercy because he has been shown mercy, yet his righteousness – the thing upon which he has built his life – can’t parse it. He can’t live with the dichotomy, and so he commits suicide – the ultimate despair.
The author has captured a truth about human nature. How many of us, having read stories of criminal activities, have stated our heartfelt desire to visit retribution upon the miscreants? I know I have. This is perhaps one of the key human characteristics that separates us from the animal kingdom. We have this keen sense of righteousness – a need to right the wrong, to achieve a balance. We truly aren’t all that interested in fixing what’s wrong with the criminal. What we want is payment.
It goes beyond a logical understanding. It is visceral. I assure you: if anyone brought serious intentional harm to anyone I loved, I wouldn’t care what the reason was. I’d want blood. I’d want payment – even knowing that no amount of punishment would right the wrong, as if it never happened. I’m guessing the same is likely true for you too. It’s universal. We understand it instinctively.
The thing is: we also believe it to be true of ourselves. We are our own harshest critics and judges. Oprah once said that the thing all of her guests had in common was a belief that they didn’t deserve anything good in life. Most of us know of women who continually go back to abusive mates: the core of this is a belief that they somehow deserved the pain of those relationships. It’s twisted and wrong, but it’s visceral again – and it takes counselling to break free of it. Stephen Chbosky said “we accept the love we think we deserve”. I think he’s right.
If there’s a word that describe’s Jesus’ life and teaching – other than life – it would be “freedom”. He came to set men free (he said). Free of what? I think it involves freedom from the internal judge, the one that holds us back. He said he came so that we could live an abundant life. For years I thought he meant “after we die” – but he used the present, not future tense.
If there’s a God, and if he truly loves us as unconditionally as we love our own children, and so wants us to live according to our potential, instead of our perceived limitation, then something has to be done. The crucifixion sort of answers that, to a degree. Back then especially, there was a severe moral structure in place. The old and new testaments are filled with Javert-types: people for whom there are no shades of grey. It was endemic in religion.
Back then, as now, people wanted to be seen as good, and so they subjected themselves to all kinds of self-inflicted punishments. Many used whips on their own backs, not satisfied until they drew blood. This practice still exists in places today.
I can think of no better way to bring a message of universal acceptance, where people could feel they they deserve a good life, then to set up the crucifixion story. Jesus “paid the price” for all of our sins. It’s pretty genius really. If he has paid the price of our wrongs – according to our own human visceral sensibilities, which we ascribe to the universe and ultimately to God – then we don’t have to go around in abject guilt and self-recrimination anymore.
This is not to say we don’t suffer guilt still. I know that we do. It’s just that it’s unnecessary. Again I come back to our kids. We watch them make mistakes, from the first time they stumble when trying to walk, to getting into fights at school. We don’t condemn them. We’re disappointed – but that’s a different thing entirely. At the end of the day we understand that these are all experiences for growth.
Maybe the message of “Les Mis” is that we need to give ourselves a break. One thing I know for sure: if we are merciful to ourselves (and you know I don’t mean in a narcissistic way), then we are more likely to cut others a break too.
At any rate – Merry Christmas!