The Political Theology of Les Misérables

Jana and I are huge fans of the musical Les Misérables, so we've been living the dream lately. We got to see the show onstage again in November while at AAR/SBL in Chicago. Then the movie came out on Christmas Day. And we just found out that, after 20 years of trying, ACU has finally secured the permission to do Les Misérables for our 2013 homecoming musical.

Again, Jana and I are hardcore fans. She and I can sing every line and every part (male and female) of the musical soundtrack. I find the musical to be a profoundly spiritual, and distinctively Christian, experience. (Same goes for the book, which I read in college.)

Thinking the other day about the musical I had these thoughts about the political theology depicted in Les Misérables.

I'm interested here in the contrast been Jean Valjean, Javert, and Enjolras (along with Marius and the other student-revolutionaries at the barricade).

Javert and Enjolras could be considered as two poles along a continuum in how one aligns political power with God. On the one end is Javert who represents a conservative, even Constantinian, vision where God is completely aligned with the state, particularly the law and order aspects of the state (although Javert also espouses the capitalistic theology where "honest work" is the way we "please the Lord"). Thus, to fail in the state's system--politically or economically--is to fall afoul of God. This view is at the heart of Javert's theological condemnation of Valjean. Valjean isn't just a criminal in the eyes of Javert, he's a sinner "fallen from God, fallen from grace." Thus Javert prays to God to help him find Valjean to restore order and harmony to the moral universe.

At the opposite end of the continuum from Javert we have the idealistic and revolutionary political theology of Enjolras. The student-revolutionaries are scandalized by the plight of the poor and plan to lead a violent popular uprising (Victor Hugo based these events on the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris). Though Enjolras and Javert find themselves in conflict, I place them on the same continuum as each seeks to take or use political power as means to accomplish the ends of God. They are the poles of Constantinianism on the one hand and Revolution on the other. But both agree that we need to "take charge" of the world, violently so, for the Kingdom to come.

And picking his way through these political theologies is Jean Valjean, the hero of the story.

I'd like to use Valjean to make a contrast with both Javert and Enjolras.

Regarding Javert, we see how Valjean's grace eventually explodes Javert's worldview. This conflict, the conflict between grace and law, drives much of the dynamic between Javert and Valjean. We come to see that God is aligned with grace and love as displayed by Valjean rather than with the justice embodied by Javert. The love, grace, and mercy of God cannot be reduced to the way political systems define and enforce law and order or the way economic systems define winners and losers. Valjean is poor and a criminal. That's how Valjean is seen by "the system," by Javert. But we see that the system is wrong and satanic. We see that Valjean is a saint.

The contrast with Valjean and Enjolras isn't one of direct confrontation as between Valjean and Javert. But I'd argue that a contrast is present in how Valjean and Enjolras relate to the poor. Les Misérables can be variously translated as The Miserable, The Wretched, The Miserable Ones, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, or The Victims. These are the people the story revolves around, and we see Valjean and Enjolras approaching les misérables in different ways.

Again, Enjolras's remedy is one of violent revolution. And yet, these are idealistic, well-to-do "schoolboys" contemplating injustice philosophically and, one could argue, somewhat abstractly and distantly. This isn't to be judgmental, just to draw out a contrast with Valjean's interaction with les misérables.

In contrast with Enjolras, Valjean's relationship with les misérables is more personal. For Valjean there are no abstract discussions about corrupt political systems, there is only Fantine.

Fantine is the embodiment of les misérables, her story is the incarnation of tragedy, exploitation and victimhood. (Incidentally, in the movie Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" is utterly soul-crushing, the singular performance of the movie.)

What drives Valjean for most of the story is his personal, concrete and lifelong commitment to Fantine, in particular his commitment to care for Cosette, Fantine's daughter. And I'd argue that this is a contrast with the revolutionaries at the barricade. For Valjean les misérables are not "the people" or "the poor" in the abstract but a particular person with a name. For Valjean les misérables is Fantine.

Incidentally, I think this is an important contrast for churches to ponder. For example, in my own faith community there is a lot of abstract talk about "the poor" and "the homeless." More, a lot of the members of my church are pretty passionate about "the poor" and "the homeless." But the vast majority of these same people don't actually know any poor or homeless people or count them among their friends. In short, they have no Fantine, no concrete personal relationship. All they have is the abstract radical rhetoric of liberals.

And finally, for my left-leaning and revolutionary friends who think I'm being too hard on Enjolras let me make a concluding observation.

I think it's noteworthy that in the story Valjean comes to care for Fantine because he is confronted with his own complicity in her tragic story. Valjean is both mayor and factory owner--politician and capitalist--and he presides over the systems that victimize Fantine. Fantine's life becomes fatally tragic because Valjean, the politician and capitalist, "turned away." When Valjean is finally confronted with his sin he commits himself to the care of Fantine and Cosette. This is, we might say, the second conversion of Valjean in the story, a conversion that stands as an indictment of the economic and political systems that create victims like Fantine.

And what of Valjean's first conversion? That occurred, as we all know, when Valjean is given the candlesticks by the priest as an act of forgiveness, mercy and grace. A gift that buys Valjean's soul for God. And what we witness in Les Misérables are the cascading ripple effects of that singular act of kindness. That act of grace changes the world. That act of mercy saves Valjean who goes on to save Fantine, Cosette, and Marius. And even Javert.

Two candlesticks--one act of mercy--saved them all.

And in contrast to Javert and Enjolras I wonder if those two candlesticks isn't the political theology we are all called to embrace.

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35 thoughts on “The Political Theology of Les Misérables

  1. Bravo! I have often discussed the role of grace from a distinctly Christian point of view with friends, and have never put Enjolras on the spectrum like you have. In my opinion the most stark point on grace is made when Javert takes his own life out of the desperation he experiences in confronting grace. As a friend pointed out to me once, in a weird way it's as if Javert truly understands that to extend grace,
    someone in the equation must pay the price...and not "those who falter and those who fall". Which is of course something we admire in the bishop but fear in Javert -- because death costs more than candlesticks. Enjolras was willing to pay the price, but not from the same coffer as Vajean. Enjolras wants vindication for the cause, saying in Hugo's book, "Dear friends, we're going to die down to the last man. But our deaths will stop nothing. Our example will serve the cause." Valjean wants peace and life for others, especially Cosette. "He is a man who saves others," one of the students says of him in the book. Enjolras (and Thenarier) wants status. Valjean wants men to be seen equally between each other. "I'm a man, no worse than any man." Vajean has the best understanding of true grace and how to extend it. The other (supporting) characters approach that understanding, and confront it in different ways. Javert is the only one we see who grasps it, but in the end outright rejects it: "The world I have known is lost in shadow. Is he from heaven or from hell? And does he know that granting me my life today this man has killed me even so?

  2. Awesome. In a way, this is an interesting companion piece:

    And it makes me wonder: is there a possible hybrid approach between Valjean and Enjolras? Can we recognize our complicity through personal engagement (Valjean) while also acknowledging structural inequities (Enjolras)?

  3. Awesome. This provides an interesting companion piece:

    Also, I wonder if a hybrid approach is possible. Can we recognize our
    complicity through personal engagement (Valjean) as well as deconstructing
    powers of domination/oppression (Enjolras)?

  4. I love Les Mis, and the grace and mercy that ripples out from the bishop to Valjean, to Fantine and Cosette and others. Those candlesticks do change the world. (Incidentally, I loved that Colm Wilkinson - who played Valjean and is the voice of Valjean on the soundtrack I own - played the bishop in the film. Perfect.)

  5. Outstanding analysis.  I am sure you also have some thoughts on the eschatology of Les Miserables.  I was struck by the change in the revolutionary song at the song.  Instead of singing "Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men!"  it has become "Do you hear the people sing? Say, do you hear the distant drums?"

  6. Great point! The eschatology of the ending is wonderful:


    Come with me

    Where chains will never bind you

    All your grief

    At last, at last behind you

    Lord in heaven;

    Look down on him in mercy


    Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to your glory


    Take my hand

    And lead me to salvation

    Take my love

    For love is everlasting

    And remember

    The truth that once was spoken:

    To love another person is to see the face of god


    Do you hear the people sing?

    Lost in the valley of the night

    It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light

    For the wretched of the earth

    There is a flame that never dies

    Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

    They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord

    They will walk behind the ploughshare

    They will put away the sword

    The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

    Will you join in our crusade?

    Who will be strong and stand with me?

    Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?

    Do you hear the people sing?

    Say, do you hear the distant drums?

    It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

  7. I concluded a few years ago, rightly o rwrongly, that my own or others' christlikeness could most accurately be measured by the degree to which my energy, service, concern and focus was on the individual rather than the cause, the movement, or the group.

  8. Loved this! Sums up so much of what I've been thinking about and chewing on. I love the distinction between talking about something and actually living it as you've written here. Ironically, maybe in contrast to what you've written, what I've seen at Highland since moving here is very much more of the Valjean variety as opposed to the all talk variety. I've been at other churches that talked about the poor and truly had no connection to them. While We all still have a long way to go, I see specific people with relationships with those very people more at Highland than anywhere I've ever been. I see elders late for elder's meetings because of time spent ministering to neighbors at Freedom and Grace. I see Joe Almanza dedicating every day to being in the lives of people like Fantine. I see guys like Zach Snyder who grew weary of talk and stepped up to the plate. I would say, by in large, the leadership of this church is deeply invested and involved with the Fantines of Abilene...often in quiet ways that don't get blogged about.  

  9. Yes, I see all those people at Freedom and Grace...and not many more. Which, given the size of Highland, is a bit of a problem. As I see it. For example, during the summer when the Highland leadership decided that we wouldn't meet on Wednesday so members, staff, and elders could attend Grace or Freedom I think Freedom's attendance increased by about five.

  10. I agree on many fronts...that truly is a problem! The few can't and shouldn't do what the many are called to join together in doing. Perhaps you should invite some of your friends to join you at Freedom. I think it begins with personal and relational invitations and shoulder tapping. People of influence should carry their influence beyond the written page. I think people would join you.

  11. Again, I'd like to apologize to those who have commented on this post but, for some reason with Disqus, your comments are not appearing. As always, know that I've not removed or done anything on my end.

  12. Always good to see the dialogue and comments from thought provoking ( and hopefully personal involvement motivating) blogs such as this. Lord knows all of us need more of this instead of less.

  13. I love this as music and as pageantry but have to say that this is the moment where the musical stabs Hugo in the back and betrays everything he wrote the book for.  Hugo's religion was informed by the catholic environment which surrounded him and although he rejected the authoritarian structure of the church he fully embraced the idea that salvation was something earned through works.  Look at the Bishop of D-- and what we learn about him.  In describing a saint on earth Hugo says basically nothing about the content of his faith but everything about how he ordered his life, down to how many chairs he allowed himself.

    In general I really like the conversion of the book to the musical but I feel that there are just a couple places where they cut scenes for brevity which would really have helped the story.  Two in particular, firstly Valjean was saved by two separate actions, one by the bishop which is covered and one that he commits, a bestial act of theft against a small boy.  Before he can find redemption Valjean not only has to accept the act of goodness shown him but also the reality of what he will be without it.  Secondly (and I've got no clue how they would work this in) is Valjean's life while cosette is growing up.  For those who haven't read the book he doesn't move from comfort as the mayor of a small town to a comfortable house in Paris.  Instead for many years he lives as a gardener in an extremely austere convent (as in worse than the prison) where Cosette is being educated.  This is a relatively short but important passage and losing it the musical loses a lot of the overall message of the nonpolitical portion of the book

    Here is where I intended to cut and paste a long section from the book ... damn you kindle cloud reader ... anyway the basic point is that love is only half of what is necessary,  what Valjean learns in the convent is that the other half is humility and sacrafice, particularly sacrafice for others.  In the end by playing up the fundamentally pointless nature of the 1832 rebellion and delaying the future to one which won't come until after death the play rejects that half of the book's message.

  14. Doesn't Javert tell Valjean, "Men like you can never change." That is diametrically opposed to Christianity and it is a godless perspective. What on earth is "conservative" about that? He has no apparent notion of redemption and transformation. Javert does not qualify for a straw-man critique of Christian conservatism. 

  15. Actually, in my observation it is the left and liberalism that aligns political power with God. On October 7, 2007, Barack Obama addressed a church in South Carolina, saying: “Sometimes this is a difficult road being in politics…  Sometimes you can seek power just for power’s sake instead of because you want to do service to God.  I just want all of you to pray that I can be an instrument of God… I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on Earth.”

  16. Reading your blog encourages me to see the film again. I came away from the first viewing full and singing...and bought the soundtrack a week later. Now I want to take my dear old French friend. I know she will like it, too. Thank you for your insights.

  17. It seems that the two conversions of Valjean can provide a lot of insight into our Christian lives.  The first conversion is the receiving of grace, and the turning away from a life of sin to "become an honest man".  But this is not enough.  The second conversion is the recognition that grace is intended to not merely make us honest people, but also to make us agents of love and mercy in the world.  The first conversion is a turning away; the second is a turning toward something.  Most of us, perhaps, are stuck in the first conversion.  We have turned away from sin and made ourselves honest men.  But the second conversion -- a responsibility to work for the good of others and to be Christ in the world -- eludes us.  

  18. Thanks James, this is awesome. It really finishes the thought I'd started in the post.

    Preachers take note, there's a sermon in here.

  19. I, too, am a huge fan of Lez Miz (as we say here)! And I loved this post, Richard. The film's release date here in the UK is 11th Jan, this Friday, and some gal friends and I are going together to see it and WEEP. The Brits are Masters of Emotional Restraint but I don't think they will have to sit on me too hard this time -- they are all keen to sing along! 

    Abstract talk within faith communities about 'the poor' and 'the homeless' is and always be puzzling, especially when many within their community talk with such passion about it. There is always, too, a very fine line to draw between genuinely having friendships with 'the poor' and 'the homeless' without having to boast about those relationships to vet the passions. That we label our friends 'poor' and 'homeless' in trying to describe them to our other friends who might come to join us all at home for a meal and some fun seems extremely condescending and rude. Once folks are introduced to each other, someone in the group always has to ask the second question 'Great to meet you, Fred! Now, what do you do?' Why the heck does anyone need to know what any of us do? So we can 'relate'? Yeah, sure. That question has nothing to do about relating but everything to do about work and status. In many societies (especially as I have learned here) it is considered intrusive, rude and inappropriate to ask 'what do you do?' immediately after you meet someone. You must get to really know them first and trust that they will tell you when they are ready.

    In the UK as well as in the US we have our own 'untouchables'. They are best when we keep them corralled into their own group, too. We tend to go to them and leave their company at our convenience. There is usually a God-Like Agenda attached, charity or guilt in our Christian Quest to expand the Kingdom of God. More bums on seats, more vaunted in-depth Bible studies that have worked WONDERS for touching the untouchables from our recent past. It is not desirable to have them come into our midst and mingle with us and mess with our tidy social eco-system. Untouchables can take a meal in a church we build for them but not break bread with us on a regular basis in our own home. Too much trouble. 

    When can we ever learn to love our 'untouchables' without having an agenda -- whether it's getting them to God; getting them to church; getting them to what we deem a 'more respectable' life-style, etc. And WHEN did this EVER have anything to do about being LIBERAL or CONSERVATIVE?!? Has my home country gone to complete pot since I've been away? These Label Wars have been absolutely sickening to read about and witness from outside. Scary to the rest of the world...

    Political theology doesn't mean a damn thing until we can get over labels enough to love on others, WITHOUT feeling like we're doing God a favour and completing an assignment he has neatly handed us. Get to know and touch others and allow them to get to know and touch you. Bring Them Home with you, without feeling like you have to beat the drum to let everyone know what a stellar example you are to society. 

  20.  Hi Deb,
    Great comment. The point about refering to friends as poor or homeless is excellent. I think, in fact, it's a litmus test for whether or not you are, in fact, really friends. This a point that is powerfully made my Chris Heuertz in his book Friendship at the Margins. It's become something of a mantra for Jana and I.

  21. Thanks for the book tip, Richard! I went to our Amazon site and cannot wait to get this. I loved this from one of the reviewers:
          "Heuertz and Pohl speak clearly and poignantly about true reconciliation, diving deeply into living in tension, personal sacrifice, human dignity and what it means to befriend someone not as an evangelism opportunity but as an opportunity to know freedom in being authentic where authenticity is the last thing expected." ~Andrew Marin

    It took me PARAGRAPHS to try to say what Marin wrote, just brilliant! For those of us who grew up in strict evangelical communities we were so tightly bound to a warped gospel: making friends outside our circle proper was valuable only if that friendship got that friend to be baptised into the real church. If they did not get to know God and love Jesus enough to be baptised we had failed God in our mission and our friendship was null and void. Worthless.

    How lovely life has been to be freed from that bondage and just get to know people and meet them where they are and as they come in to my life without always thinking of them as an 'evangelism opportunity'. True blessings!

    We forget God's ultimate power is more than sufficient for building his Kingdom. And that the love of our Lord Jesus is mainly required for building up his Church. Here is my reading tip for the day for you!

    Love to Jana, we can all Mantra together!

  22. I like your thoughts on the matter. I'm also reminded of Jesus' words when he told his followers that "the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

  23. Thank you for your thoughts on Les Mis. I especially appreciated your insight on the Enjolras/Valjean dichotomy and how it applies to us today. Something I have struggled to wrap my head around is the role and significance of Gavroche. The youngster joyfully embodies the foolishness of God that tends to upset the crippling forces of fear and turns power on its head. At the same time, Gavroche's character (at least in the recent film) is one that perpetuates the systems of violence and conflict. He is simultaneously enacting the Kingdom of Heaven and preventing it from coming. Thoughts anyone?    

  24. I would even say there is a third conversion.  Valjean has opportunity to keep Cosette for himself--she resides in the softest place in his heart.  But instead of going to England like he planned, he recognizes that to love Cosette is to secure Marius.  And to secure Marius means he must go where Marius is--behind the barricades.  And then through the sewers.  Valjean gives away his prize.

    The second and third conversions really are an extension of the first conversion.  Valjean spends his whole life tested to see if the moment of grace was real.  "Who am I?" is the song he sings.  Is conversion escaping his past or does conversion redeem the past?  It is telling that the only one who is not a "miserable" is the bishop--he is the only one who is free.  And it is telling that when Valjean finally comes clean about the past to Cosette that then he is free and he dies.  And then the first person he sees at that moment is the bishop.  Valjean's whole life is redeemed.  No more secrets, no more shame.

  25. I think you are spot on with the third conversion. Great insight. It really goes to the issue of having an experience of grace vs. becoming an agent of that grace. We love the former but balk at the latter.

  26. Hugo lays this out explicitly in the novel. He speaks of Valjean's first conversion (involving the bishop and Petite Gervais), when virtue entered his life; the second (when he 'outed' himself to save Champmathieu and rescue Cosette), when love entered his life; and the third (submitting the demands of his conscience to reveal his identity to Marius, which he was convinced would mean he lost Cosette forever), when he submitted to complete obedience and willingness to relinquish everything.

    We are never done with conscience. Choose your course by it, Brutus. Choose your course by it, Cato. It is bottomless, being God. We cast intothis pit the labour of our whole life, we cast in our fortune, we cast in our riches, we cast in our success, we cast in our liberty or our country, we cast in our well-being, we cast in our repose, we cast in our happiness. More! more! more! Empty the vase! Take out the urn! We must at last cast in our heart.

    There is somewhere in the midst of the old hells a vessel like that.

    It is not pardonable to refuse at last? Can the inexhaustible have a claim? Are not endless chains above human strength? Who would then blame Sisyphus and Jean Valjean for saying: "It is enough!"

    The obedience of matter is limited by friction; is there no limit to the obedience of the soul? If perpetual motion is impossible, is perpetual devotion demandable?

    The first step is nothing; it is the last which is difficult. What was the Champmatheiu affair compared with Cosette's marriage and all that it involved? What is this: to return to the galleys, compared to this: to enter into nothingness?

  27.  One thing I liked about the movie which I mentioned in my review of it is that when Valjean is singing about God there is always a crucifix in the room whereas Javert only has crosses. It was a subtle but very relevant addition to the oppositions in their views of God.

  28. Thanks for the link!

    I'd not noticed that about the crosses. You're a pretty keen movie-watcher.

  29. Fun discussion, but let's add in Thenardier! Sometimes, it is good to think of Les Miserables as a story of conversions, but I like to think of it as a story of grace breaking in to people's lives. In the reformed tradition, I suppose those are two sides of the same coin:) The Bishop was not a saint in his early life and Thenardier was not a nihilist. Each was extended grace and one responded to it and then passed it along. The other just took. The important thing about Thenardier is that he was offered grace but never responded, nor passed any good along. Unlike Valjean after the Petite Gervais incident, Thenardier did not see himself as a *bad* scoundrel, just as a scoundrel:)  With Thenardier, we see evidence that Javert is right. A life lived outside the law leads to the sewer. I missed the "Dog Eat Dog" song in the movie because it is so important to show how Thenardier evolves as a character. Since Gavroche is his son, where would Gavroche go if he lived? Both he and Eponine rise above their circumstances to reach their deaths. It is not pretty for these miserables, the children of rejected grace.

    Valjean and many others in the book respond to grace, which makes Javert wrong. Which is it? Remember what happens to the town of Montreuil-sur-mer after Valjean is chased away. The town itself didn't even respond to grace but went back to miserableness. 

    Maybe Victor Hugo was trying to teach us about the deeper magic.

  30. Went to see the movie today having read the book but never seen the show. Wept through most of the film from the death of Fantine onwards. I agree with you that this is one of the most profoundly Christian films I have ever seen. My own experience tells me that I am most true to the gospel when I turn towards someone and not away from them. Jean Valjean's turning to Fantine is most truly such a moment of turning. Just one thought re Enjolras. At the end of the film after the soul of Valjean encounters first Fantine & then the Bishop of Digne it travels into the square in the heart of Paris where the revolution is triumphant and Valjean joins "Les Miserables" in a song of triumph. Victory at last? Is there a connection between the personalist political theology that you rightly associate with the story of Valjean in both book and film and the revolutionary theology that ends triumphant in the film.

  31. I was not truly familar with this story until the movie came out. Being a Police Chaplain I was amazed at the beautiful contrast of justice and mercy that played out before my eyes. This story was gut wrenchingly painful and powerfully stirring all at the same time. Only the eternal hope of the unconditional love of God can do that! The story is so layered and so deep I may watch a few dozen more times to learn all the rich lessons it holds.Thanks to my Holly for taking me to see it!

  32. My 13 year old daughter is 2/3 of the way through the novel (dad brag). She read your post. Her response:
    " Thanks for the info on the book dad, it makes me feel guilty that I haven't been reading it recently.

    I never thought of saying that Javert was like Enjolras- I always liked Enjolras much better than Javert, though I will admit that his plans are rather shallow. But still- if they're criticizing Enjolras, then what about Marius?

    Pretty cool stuff, dad."

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