How are we supposed to respond to a world marred by violence, disease, and hunger? Turn on the news or scroll through your Facebook feed on any given day and you will likely encounter stories of senseless tragedy. A friend who lost a loved one to Cancer, yet another bombing in a war-torn nation, an act of violence in a town not too far away. I have seen all of these stories and more just in the last few weeks.
Since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, man has wrestled with how to respond to the evil that stalks our world. Many answers have been presented by philosophers, prophets, and theologians. One of the most powerful answers to the “problem of evil” can be found in one of the longest running and most awarded musicals of all time Les Misérables. Based on the lengthy novel of the same title written by Victor Hugo, the highly awarded musical follows the life of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict living in France during the early 1800’s.
Les Mis features themes of tragedy, romance, love, political revolt, violence, abuse, and through it all, the transformational power of grace.
While I have loved this musical for years, it was only in December that I was able to witness it firsthand. My wife and I got to attend a production of Les Mis at DC’s National Theatre. Though I knew many of the songs, it was in that theater that I realized just how insightful Hugo’s masterpiece was at describing the problem of evil and, more importantly, how we should live in this broken world.
More specifically, I believe Les Mis shows us two possible responses to the brokenness of our world, responses that are readily apparent today, especially when looking at an issue like abortion.
The first response is that of the elderly Bishop Bienvenue in the play’s first act.
The musical starts by introducing us to Jean Valjean, an ex-convict struggling to find employment in a nation where there are few options for men with checkered pasts. Having exhausted the few coins he possessed and unable to find work, Valjean seeks refuge in a church. The elderly Bishop offers him hot food and a warm bed for the night. Valjean sees the expensive silver cutlery and decides to steal them, running off into the night while the Bishop slept. Valjean was quickly apprehended by the local authorities who brought him back to the Bishop for identification. “Is this your silver?!” They demand. Yes, the Bienvenue says. Valjean’s eyes drop. He knows he is about to go back to prison and will likely die there. The Bishop continues, “This silver was my gift” and then looking to Valjean said, “dear sir, you left too early. You forgot the candlesticks.” And with that, the kind Bishop handed over the heavy silver candlesticks to the stunned Jean Valjean.
The Bishop stood face to face with a man who repaid his kindness with theft and provided grace. As his benediction, the Bishop said, “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.”
This profound act of the priest does just that. Bienvenue introduces Jean Valjean, a man hardened by 19 years in prison, to God’s grace and it transforms his life.
While Grace may have been the Bishop’s response, Police Inspector Javert responded to the world by building his life on a foundation of legalistic righteousness.
Inspector Javert sees only lawlessness wherever he looks. Rather than pity, he gazes at those wrecked by the results of their poor decisions as worthy of damnation. As he says at one point, “Dare you talk to me of crime and the price you had to pay. Every man is born in sin. Every man must choose his way.”
Javert is determined he will not be such a man. He will follow the law to its letter. Throughout the play, the tireless inspector pursues Valjean who is guilty of failing to check in with the local magistrate as his parole required. For Javert, grace and mercy are a farce. Justice and justice alone is the balm for the world’s pain. At the climax of the play, Javert comes face to face with Jean Valjean and Valjean saves his life (if you want to know how this transpires, please read the play. It is a powerful moment that is best left up to Hugo to describe). Here, Hugo mirrors the play’s first act. Instead of the Bishop providing grace, it is Jean Valjean. Instead of an ex-convict in need, it is the symbol of legal perfection himself, Javert.
Unfortunately, the grace that redeemed Jean Valjean is too much for Javert.
“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! How can I allow this man to hold dominion over me? This desperate man that I have hunted. He gave me my life! He gave me freedom! I should have perished by his hand It was his right…Instead I live, but live in hell!”
Faced with the prospect of living indebted to the grace of another, Javert commits suicide.
Two men living in a desperate world with two very different responses. One roots his life in grace, the other in works. One says that it is not about what he has earned, or anyone else, but what was already done freely for them. The other says that you get what you earn. No handouts, no charity, no mercy.
As a pro abundant life person, I see these two responses present and active today, especially when it comes to abortion.
There are those on both sides of the issue who look at the difficult circumstances surrounding many pregnancy decisions with a works-based response. On the pro-choice side it can look like this: “Well, you are pregnant and still in college. So, you can either have the baby and kiss your degree goodbye, or you can have an abortion.” On the pro-life side it can look like this, “well, you should have not had sex and, if you did, you should have used protection. Murdering your baby just makes things worse, so buck up and have that child.” I have seen arguments like these frequently in online abortion debates. These arguments, like Javert’s, assume that you get out of this life what you earn and offer little in the way of actual help for the person considering abortion.
As prominent as those voices are, there are countless women and men who embody grace and mercy as they respond to unplanned pregnancies. People like the 30,000 staff and volunteers at the more than 1,100 pregnancy centers in Care Net’s affiliated network. These life disciples reach out with compassion instead of judgement –trading hope for shame. They don’t shun those enduring the dreadful consequences of our sexual revolution, but rather welcome them with open arms. Their churches serve those facing difficult pregnancies and provide healing to those mourning past abortions.
These heroes know Bishop Bienvenue’s secret: that nothing has the power to transform brokenness like the grace of Christ.
Victor Hugo may have written his play more than 250 years ago, but it’s world mirrors our own. The question that each of us must answer daily is this: How will we respond to the needs of our broken world? I pray the answer is and remains with the grace and mercy of Christ.