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Les Miserables, Forgiveness and Transformation

Dr. Andy Johnson
Professor of New Testament

Almost 20 years ago now, I saw Les Miserables on stage in Boston for the first time. Over the last month, I’ve taken my family to see it twice, once to the live stage production in Kansas City and once to a local movie theatre to see the new movie version of the play. Especially the live productions of it that I’ve seen have been spectacular, the kind of artistic expression that might constitute “the glory and honor of the nations” that people will bring into the New Jerusalem. I know that might sound a bit over the top to some, especially if you’ve never seen Les Miserables. But whether or not it winds up in the New Jerusalem, there is no doubt that it powerfully depicts elements of the gospel itself, particularly the transformative power of forgiveness.

The play opens with Jean Valjean (the main character) finishing the 19-year prison sentence he had received for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew. With Inspector Javert standing over him reminding him that he is and always will be a marked man, he re-enters society being rejected by everyone he encounters. But a kind bishop takes him in and gives him food, wine, and a place to sleep. Valjean repays him by stealing the bishop’s silver and running away. When the authorities catch him and bring him and the silver back to the bishop, the bishop—like the Father in the parable in Luke 16—commits a lavishly graceful act. He tells the authorities that he had given the silver to Valjean, makes a show of giving him the even more valuable silver candlesticks that he had “forgotten,” forgives him, and then challenges him to become an honest man because, he says, “I have bought your soul for God.”

This liberating act of forgiveness shatters Valjean’s old vengeance–oriented world, forges a new one in its place and completely transforms his life. But throughout the play he is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert whose world is ordered by a sense of “law” and “justice,” where “justice” is understood as strict retribution. Valjean’s transformation is evident in his taking on a new identity (thereby breaking his parole) and becoming the mayor of a town and a businessman who employs a large number of people. But more than that, his transformation is evident in the variety of ways he becomes a channel of the grace and self-giving love he has received—albeit not without struggle.

The most moving instance of this comes when Javert, while attempting to infiltrate their ranks, is captured by a band of young insurrectionists and given over into Valjean’s hands. Valjean now has the opportunity, the right, and—from the standpoint of the cause of the radicals—the duty to shoot Javert thereby avenging himself, freeing himself from Javert’s relentless pursuit, and safeguarding the worthy cause of the insurrectionists. But, like the bishop—and like the Father in Luke’s parable—Valjean commits a lavishly graceful act by setting Javert free. His own experience of lavish forgiving grace did not just change his status from “guilty” to “innocent” but slowly changed him into a person whose character reflected that of the one from whom he’d received such grace.

But transformation in the face of such grace isn’t automatic in Les Mis (and certainly not in life) because it requires a person to give up the world which seems to make so much sense. Valjean’s action shatters Javert’s secure world whose center only holds when people get exactly what they deserve and Javert would rather die than undergo the transformation that would require him to give up the security of that world. And so Javert ends his own life in an effort to escape from such a world ordered by lavish grace, “the world of Jean Valjean.” With these words on his lips, he leaps into the abyss:

The world I have known is lost in shadow

As I stare into the void

Of a world that cannot hold,
I’ll escape now from that world, 
From the world of Jean Valjean;
There is nowhere I can turn;
There is no way to go on….

The gospel certainly is about forgiveness but forgiveness without transformation is not gospel. Without the shattering of one’s old world and the (usually slow and painstaking) embrace of the new world that lavish grace brings with it, forgiveness isn’t “good news” at all. At least Javert seems to recognize that. Those who conceive of forgiveness as simply a transaction that changes their “status” before God might learn something not only from Valjean but also from the old inspector.


Reader Comments (4)

Well said Dr. Johnson. Great analysis of forgiveness and how it should or must manifest itself in transformation or otherwise - it would lead to despair. Thanks for the review. I thought the movie version was powerful with the live performances.

01.10.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames Copple

Andy, I appreciate your comments. As a prison chaplain, I find Les Mis to be a great portrait of the experience of many inmates. Both those who receive grace and find redemption and those who choose to reject it.

01.11.2013 | Unregistered CommenterKendall Hughes

Andy, I couldn't agree with you more about forgiveness without transformation. I also love Les Miserables, and as I sat in the theatre recently to watch this newest cinematic version, I was struck by very similar thoughts as yours. In particular, I noted that Jean Valjean had to first experience forgiveness as a doorway into the "other way" that he sings about - the way of transformation and of grace. Then he had to to get conditioned to this other way of living, to forgiveness and transformation, that is. This conditioning is what makes it possible for Valjean to do the unthinkable, and set Javert free. I point this out, because I think Christians often struggle with whether and how to offer such strong forgiveness to enemies in particular. The story of Les Miserables, is seems to me, highlights the fact that one begins by first having forgiveness shown to you, and then seeks to continue that forgiveness in small ways towards friends. This "conditioning" if you will, might just allow us to forgive our own Javerts.
Again, great reflection Andy!

01.15.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRusty Brian

Andy, I appreciate your comments. As a prison chaplain, I find Les Mis to be a great portrait of the experience of many inmates. Both those who receive grace and find redemption and those who choose to reject it.

06.25.2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrain G

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