Love one another always. There is nothing else that matters in this world except love.
— Victor Hugo
When I was in high school in the late 1980s, I encountered something that touched my heart like nothing I had ever experienced. It left me with mascara and snot running down my face, probably dripping on my Laura Ashley dress. Even after the applause had died away, I sat in my balcony seat of Chicago’s magnificent Auditorium Theatre, spellbound.
Published in 1862, Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict whose life is transformed by a singular act of grace. After stealing silver from a bishop who has given him shelter for the night, Valjean is caught by the police and brought to face the bishop. The bishop knows exactly what has happened, but instead of condemning Valjean, he tells the police that the silver was a gift and insists that he also take his valuable silver candlesticks. The bishop implores him to use the silver to become an honest man. As Valjean departs, the bishop says, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
I didn’t understand exactly what this scene meant the first time I read the book or saw it depicted on stage, yet my heart was strangely drawn, returning to it again and again. I understood that the bishop was a good man, but there was something deeper. I couldn’t get that exchange out of my head.
When I became a Christian a few years later, the mercy and grace shown to Valjean began to make more sense, and I know now that my heart was being drawn to God even as I sat weeping in that theater balcony surrounded by my high school French class.
My faith journey has caused another aspect of the story to resonate deeply as well. Throughout the story, even as Valjean’s heart is softened and his character is transformed by the grace he was shown, he is pursued by a relentless police inspector, Javert, who knows about Valjean’s past. Over the years, this element of the story has increasingly captured my attention. Javert represents Law, just as Valjean represents Love. In a way, this same conflict has played out in my own heart as I’ve learned to let go of my perceived need to be “right,” allowing God to deconstruct my pride and lead me on the path of forgiveness.
Javert was convinced of his righteousness in doggedly pursuing the man he believed to be a lawless criminal. In his heart justice was king. But his entire worldview was thrown into question when he became the recipient of mercy from none other than Valjean, the man he sought to destroy. He sings, “Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!” What can a slave to justice do when mercy triumphs? This incomprehensible turn of events leads Javert to conclude, “There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert.” With this realization, he takes his own life.
But he is correct, there is nothing on earth that Love shares with Law. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3:6) This verse seems to sum up the entire story. Those who live by the letter of the law can never know abundant life. The law leads only to death.
Although I’ll confess to having never seen the 2012 film for fear of disappointment, I still love the staged musical. I had the opportunity to see the national tour of Les Misérables on Holy Saturday this year. Entering this story on the liminal day between Good Friday and Easter, I thought of how utterly appropriate it was to be pondering matters of retribution and forgiveness, darkness and light. I marveled at how the lyrics so accurately preserve the spiritual essence of Hugo’s work. I wondered whether I had ever seen a better depiction of a core Gospel message within the secular sphere.
And here’s the ironic part. Les Misérables’ English-language lyricist, Herbert Kretzmer, was a Jewish atheist. I don’t know how God used this man to tell this story, but there is no doubt in my mind that God’s fingerprints are all over it. The show concludes with the words “to love another person is to see the face of God.” These words aren’t Hugo’s, but they are a powerful way to wrap up the story.
Of course, the musical doesn’t have the same theological depth or masterful character development as Hugo’s novel, but it does a remarkable job of maintaining its heart. I am grateful for the role it played in my young life as my heart searched for something true, and I hope it continues to impact others in a similar way.