After reading the book and enjoying the story in multiple releases and versions, I’ve come to think of Les Miserables as the iconic picture of grace. But recently I noticed something I never saw before: Victor Hugo’s classic actually presents three contrasting visions of the Kingdom of God.
First the vision of the law, represented by Inspector Javert. The Law, of course, is good. It maintains a semblance of order in a world of passion, crime, and greed. “Those who falter, and those who fall must pay the price!” The law is rigid and unbending in its demand for justice. It bears authority to punish and even to kill those who stray from its path. But in the end the law is powerless to change either man or society. It leaves prisoners and jailers alike hardhearted and callous, which is hardly a picture of Paradise.
Likewise the revolutionaries championed a vision of opportunity, equality, and brotherhood that lay on the far side of violence. “Red! The blood of angry men!” … of men “who would not be slaves again”. The thing that separated them from their dream was the power of government and wealth. And the solution, of course, was revolution. But a world established on revolution is no paradise, but a bloody wasteland of anger and death; “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me, what your sacrifice was for! Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends will drink no more…”
Two centuries later we still cling to the bankrupt hopes of building a paradise through law on one side and revolutionary action on the other. But neither law nor revolution addresses the real problem where it lives, in the human heart.
Bishop Bienvenu and Jean Valjean on the other hand, went about quietly transforming the world by the love of God. Apart from judgment, sword or law, these two men lived lives of grace that left behind a trail of beauty and change to everything they touched, from beggars and workers to revolutionaries, and even Javert himself. This is the Kingdom, the grace of Jesus poured out to men and women who in turn pour it out to others. America, friends, Church… we have a lesson to learn from this story.