Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Reflecting on The Law of God and Les Miserables

Joe Rigney:
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is again a topic of conversation, and for good reason.
Christians, in particular, have rightly celebrated the portrayal of the beauty of mercy and grace in this moving 150-year-old tale. Most of the theological analyses have contrasted Javert, the law-obsessed Inspector, with Valjean, the grace-transformed thief 
And while much of this analysis has been spot-on, it’s important that a central biblical and theological reality not get lost. Let me put it this way: Many people regard Javert as the consummate legalist, the embodiment of a single-minded preoccupation with perfect obedience to God’s righteous Law. The problem is this: he’s not.

Which Law?

Make no mistake, Javert is a legalist, from his back teeth to his little toe. But the law that forms his fixation is not the Law of God, the Law of Moses, or the Law of Christ. It is law, for sure, but it is 19th-century French law, draped in a veneer of religiosity, but bearing only a passing resemblance to anything biblical. 
The apostle Paul says that God’s Law is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). But there is nothing holy about condemning a hungry man to prison for five years for stealing bread. There’s nothing righteous about branding such a man as a dangerous criminal for the remainder of his life. There’s nothing good about a law (or law-man) obsessed with catching a parole-breaking former thief, while ignoring persistent criminals like the Thenardiers. 
The law Javert loves is a bureaucratic web that entangles the poor and privileges the wealthy. The society Javert defends oppresses widows and orphans, driving them into prostitution and theft as a means of survival. Javert’s law privileges the testimony of the well-to-do over that of a shivering and defenseless woman (even as the powerful seek to satiate their lust in the seedy part of town). Javert’s law consigns the poor to a life that is nasty, brutish, and (in Fantine’s case) mercifully short.

The Subtle Seduction in Hugo’s Story

And lest this condemnation of the ruling class in Les Mis be taken as an endorsement of the “angry men” and their revolutionary ideology, let me just say that I regard the glorification of revolutionary violence as one of the central and most subtle seductions of Hugo’s story, and one that discerning Christians will recognize and reject. 
Les Mis romanticizes the Revolution and the utopian radicalism it rode in on: the divinization of “the People,” the glorification of “the barricade,” the obsession with overthrowing the past and recreating the world. The “angry men” make it to “heaven” by their blood and martyrdom for the Cause and “the People,” but the real “angry men” (or rather, their predecessors in 1789) gave us the guillotine and the Temple of Reason in their quest for “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” The ancien regime was awful, but the revolutionaries were arguably worse.

What Jesus Says to Javert

Distinguishing Javert’s legalism from biblical law is of more than merely semantic interest. It can color the way that we as Christians read the Old Testament. It can perpetuate the idea that attempts to faithfully obey God’s Law are problematic and flawed from the outset, when such efforts are in fact worthwhile and commendable, provided they are done from faith in Jesus and out of confidence we’ve already been accepted by God.

Think of it this way: If Jesus (or Moses) came to Javert, he would not condemn him for his meticulous attempts to keep God’s Law; he would condemn him for neglecting God’s Law, forignoring God’s Law, especially its weightier matters: mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23). In other words, Javert would be condemned as a Pharisee, for that is just what he is.
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