I am currently in love with the Les Miserables movie, so expect me to be talking about it a lot here. Because, at its heart, Les Miserables isn’t just about how bad things are or a bunch people dying—it’s about God and faith.
Our two male leads, Jean Valjean and Javert, are two characters at the heart of a theological debate. The debate is not simple—it’s more a conflict between two different views of morality. This is a problem a lot of Christians, and a lot of religious people in general, have, and that’s the difference between “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.” This means the difference between obeying specifically what the law says or obeying the overall message.
“Thou Shall Not Steal” is one of the Ten Commandments. Should good Judeo-Christians obey the Ten Commandments? Of course we should—this is the law of God.
But wait, what if someone is poor and starving and steals bread to feed themselves and their family? Is stealing still wrong then?
Oh, my God, what an oddly appropriate example for Les Miserables.
Valjean stealing and being sent to prison characterizes everything about Javert and Valjean’s relationship. Everything about Valjean in Javert’s mind is defined by this one thing, regardless of any extenuating circumstances.
Now if we interpret this scenario from the understanding of “the spirit of the law”, things work differently. The main message or the spirit of the Bible is, at its core, to love one another. Yes, the Bible contradicts itself all over the place, but that is still the main message. Love others as God has loved you.
If you look at Valjean’s theft in this way, then he did nothing wrong. Yes, stealing is still a sin, but he did it for all the right reasons. You can’t blame him for it. If anything, he did the morally right thing by feeding not only himself, but his family. The best thing to give Valjean wasn’t prison, it’s mercy and compassion.
These two world views are played out throughout the movie. Javert still views the world in black and white, while Valjean’s life experiences and the mercy shown to him by the bishop leads him to a world view of mercy, compassion, and understanding.
Now the best way to test whether or not a world view/philosophy/theology has any merit is by testing that view with hard questions and/or experiences. In Les Miserables, Valjean’s and Javert’s different views on morality are tested, and how they deal with that test is reflected in two different songs. Valjean’s test comes early on in “Valjean’s Soliloquy (What Have I Done?)” and Javert’s comes in the end with the song “Javert’s Suicide.”
In each song the two discuss how their world view has been completely shaken by someone or something.
Valjean, when we first meet him, hates the world and has lost faith in everything. When the Bishop helps him he begins to question everything and his biggest moment comes when he asks the question about what he should do with his life now.
One word from him and I’d be back, beneath the lash upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul. How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?
I am reaching but I fall, and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!
Javert goes through the same exact questions in “Javert’s Suicide.”
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
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?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….
The key line here is “I am reaching, but I fall.” Each time, Valjean and Javert reach for something beyond themselves—God and faith—but ultimately Valjean find the strength to continue and his faith becomes his strength. Javert, who seemed so devoted in “Stars,” now can’t continue. Nothing in his world makes sense anymore.
And that’s what’s really important when talking about “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.” Simply following “the letter of the law” creates a black and white morality that just can’t hold up. The minute a black and white morality is tested, it falls apart because the world isn’t that simple, but people like Javert so crave simple answers and simple moralities by which to live their lives that they follow them at their cost. I know so many people who have lived their life by a black and white morality, and when they finally faced the tough questions, like Javert did, they lost all their faith.
“The spirit of the law” allows for something more. It allows us to look at people like the Bishop of Digne and Valjean did, with eyes of love and compassion.
God is not the divine accountant counting up all your sins and weighing them against your good deeds. God is just love. Valjean realizes that and is able to continue with his life and make the world a better place by using his faith in the love of God, to try to act as God would.